Purpose, Intersectionality, and History

This paper posits that primary sources meant for public consumption best allow the historian to understand how intersections between race and gender were used, consciously or not, to advocate for social attitudes and public policy in the United States and the English colonies before it. This is not to say utilization can never be gleaned from sources meant to remain largely unseen, nor that public ones will always prove helpful; the nature of sources simply creates a general rule. Public sources like narratives and films typically offer arguments.[1] Diaries and letters to friends tend to lack them. A public creation had a unique purpose and audience, unlikely to exist in the first place without an intention to persuade, and with that intention came more attention to intersectionality, whether in a positive (liberatory) or negative (oppressive) manner.

An intersection between race and gender traditionally refers to an overlap in challenges: a woman of color, for instance, will face oppressive norms targeting both women and people of color, whereas a white woman will only face one of these. Here the meaning will include this but is expanded slightly to reflect how the term has grown beyond academic circles. In cultural and justice movement parlance, it has become near-synonymous with solidarity, in recognition of overlapping oppressions (“True feminism is intersectional,” “If we fight sexism we must fight racism too, as these work together against women of color,” and so on). Therefore “intersectionality” has a negative and positive connotation: multiple identities plagued by multiple societal assaults, but also the coming together of those who wish to address this, who declare the struggle of others to be their own. We will therefore consider intersectionality as oppressive and liberatory developments, intimately intertwined, relating to women of color.

Salt of the Earth, the 1954 film in which the wives of striking Mexican American workers ensure a victory over a zinc mining company by taking over the picket line, is intersectional at its core.[2] Meant for a public audience, it uses overlapping categorical challenges to argue for gender and racial (as well as class) liberation. The film was created by blacklisted Hollywood professionals alongside the strikers and picketers on which the story is based (those of the 1950-1951 labor struggle at Empire Zinc in Hanover, New Mexico) to push back against American dogma of the era: normalized sexism, racism, exploitation of workers, and the equation of any efforts to address such problems with communism.[3] Many scenes highlight the brutality or absurdity of these injustices, with workers dying in unsafe conditions, police beating Ramon Quintero for talking back “to a white man,” and women being laughed at when they declare they will cover the picket line, only to amaze when they ferociously battle police.[4]

Intersectionality is sometimes shown not told, with the protagonist Esperanza Quintero facing the full brunt of both womanhood and miserable class conditions in the company-owned town (exploitation of workers includes that of their families). She does not receive racist abuse herself, but, as a Mexican American woman whose husband does, the implication is clear enough. She shares the burdens of racism with men, and those of exploitation — with women’s oppression a unique, additional yoke. In the most explicit expositional instance of intersectionality, Esperanza castigates Ramon for wanting to keep her in her place, arguing that is precisely like the “Anglos” wanting to put “dirty Mexicans” in theirs.[5] Sexism is as despicable as racism, the audience is told, and therefore if you fight the latter you must also fight the former. The creators of Salt of the Earth use intersectionality to argue for equality for women by strategically tapping into preexisting anti-racist sentiment: the men of the movie understand that bigotry against Mexican Americans is wrong from the start, and this is gradually extended to women. The audience — Americans in general, unions, the labor movement — must do the same.

A similar public source to consider is Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved. Like Salt of the Earth, Beloved is historical fiction. Characters and events are invented, but it is based on a historical happening: in 1850s Ohio, a formerly enslaved woman named Margaret Garner killed one of her children and attempted to kill the rest to prevent their enslavement.[6] One could perhaps argue Salt of the Earth, though fiction, is a primary source for the 1950-1951 Hanover strike, given its Hanover co-creators; it is clearly a primary source for 1954 and its hegemonic American values and activist counterculture — historians can examine a source as an event and what the source says about an earlier event.[7] Beloved cannot be considered a primary source of the Garner case, being written about 130 years later, but is a primary source of the late 1980s. Therefore, any overall argument or comments on intersectionality reflect and reveal the thinking of Morrison’s time.

In her later foreword, Morrison writes of another inspiration for her novel, her feeling of intense freedom after leaving her job to pursue her writing passions.[8] She explains:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. In the eighties, the debate was still roiling: equal pay, equal treatment, access to professions, schools…and choice without stigma. To marry or not. To have children or not. Inevitably these thoughts led me to the different history of black women in this country—a history in which marriage was discouraged, impossible, or illegal; in which birthing children was required, but “having” them, being responsible for them—being, in other words, their parent—was as out of the question as freedom.[9]

This illuminates both Morrison’s purpose and how intersectionality forms its foundation. “Free” meant something different to women in 1987, she suggests, than to men. Men may have understood women’s true freedom as equal rights and access, but did they understand it also to mean, as women did, freedom from judgment, freedom not only to make choices but to live by them without shame? Morrison then turns to intersectionality: black women were forced to live by a different, harsher set of rules. This was a comment on slavery, but it is implied on the same page that the multiple challenges of multiple identities marked the 1980s as well: a black woman’s story, Garner’s case, must “relate…to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s ‘place.’”[10] In Beloved, Sethe (representing Garner) consistently saw the world differently than her lover Paul D, from what was on her back to whether killing Beloved was justified, love, resistance.[11] To a formerly enslaved black woman and mother, the act set Beloved free; to a formerly enslaved man, it was a horrific crime.[12] Sethe saw choice as freedom, and if Paul D saw the act as a choice that could not be made, if he offered only stigma, then freedom could not exist either. Recognizing the unique challenges and perspectives of black women and mothers, Morrison urges readers of the 1980s to do the same, to graft a conception of true freedom onto personal attitudes and public policy.

Moving beyond historical fiction, let us examine a nonfiction text from the era of the Salem witch trials to observe how Native American women were even more vulnerable to accusation than white women. Whereas Beloved and Salt of the Earth make conscious moves against intersectional oppression, the following work, wittingly or not, solidified it. Boston clergyman Cotton Mather’s A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning (1693) begins by recounting how Mercy Short, an allegedly possessed servant girl, was once captured by “cruel and Bloody Indians.”[13] This seemingly out of place opening establishes a tacit connection between indigenous people and the witchcraft plaguing Salem. This link is made more explicit later in the work, when Mather writes that someone executed at Salem testified “Indian sagamores” had been present at witch meetings to organize “the methods of ruining New England,” and that Mercy Short, in a possessed state, revealed the same, adding Native Americans at such meetings held a book of “Idolatrous Devotions.”[14] Mather, and others, believed indigenous peoples were involved in the Devil’s work. Further, several other afflicted women and girls had survived Native American attacks, further connecting the terrors.[15]

This placed women like Tituba, a Native American slave, in peril. Women were the primary victims of the witch hunts.[16] Tituba’s race was an added vulnerability (as was, admittedly, a pre-hysteria association, deserved or not, of Tituba with magic).[17] She was accused and pressured into naming other women as witches, then imprisoned (she later recanted).[18] A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning was intended to describe Short’s tribulation, as well as offer some remedies,[19] but also to explain its cause. Native Americans, it told its Puritan readers, were heavily involved in the Devil’s work, likely helping create other cross-categorical consequences for native women who came after Tituba. The text both described and maintained a troubling intersection in the New England colonies.

A captivity narrative from the previous decade, Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, likewise encouraged intersectional oppression. This source is a bit different than A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning because it is a first-hand account of one’s own experience; Mather’s work is largely a second-hand account of Short’s experience (compare “…shee still imagined herself in a desolate cellar” to the first-person language of Rowlandson[20]). Rowlandson was an Englishwoman from Massachusetts held captive for three months by the Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wompanoag during King Philip’s War (1675-1676).[21] Her 1682 account of this event both characterized Native Americans as animals and carefully defined a woman’s proper place — encouraging racism against some, patriarchy against others, and the full weight of both for Native American women. To Rowlandson, native peoples were “dogs,” “beasts,” “merciless and cruel,” creatures of great “savageness and brutishness.”[22] They were “Heathens” of “foul looks,” whose land was unadulterated “wilderness.”[23] Native society was animalistic, a contrast to white Puritan civilization.[24]

Rowlandson reinforced ideas of true womanhood by downplaying the power of Weetamoo, the female Pocassett Wompanoag chief, whose community leadership, possession of vast land and servants, and engagement in diplomacy and war violated Rowlandson’s understanding of a woman’s proper role in society.[25] Weetamoo’s authority was well-known by the English.[26] Yet Rowlandson put her in a box, suggesting her authority was an act, never acknowledging her as a chief (unlike Native American men), and emphasizing her daily tasks to implicitly question her status.[27] Rowaldson ignored the fact that Weetamoo’s “work” was a key part of tribal diplomacy, attempted to portray her own servitude as unto a male chief rather than Weetamoo (giving possessions first to him), and later labeled Weetamoo an arrogant, “proud gossip” — meaning, historian Lisa Brooks notes, “in English colonial idiom, a woman who does not adhere to her position as a wife.”[28] The signals to her English readers were clear: indigenous people were savages and a woman’s place was in the domestic, not the public, sphere. If Weetamoo’s power was common knowledge, the audience would be led to an inevitable conclusion: a Native American woman was inferior twofold, an animal divorced from true womanhood.

As we have seen, public documents make a case for or against norms of domination that impact women of color in unique, conjoining ways. But sources meant to remain private are often less useful for historians seeking to understand intersectionality — as mentioned in the introduction, with less intention to persuade comes less bold or rarer pronouncements, whether oppressive or liberatory. Consider the diary of Martha Ballard, written 1785-1812. Ballard, a midwife who delivered over eight hundred infants in Hallowell, Maine, left a daily record of her work, home, and social life.[29] The diary does have some liberatory implications for women, subverting ideas of men being the exclusive important actors in the medical and economic spheres.[30] But its purpose was solely for Ballard — keeping track of payments, weather patterns, and so on.[31] There was little need to comment on a woman’s place, and even less was said about race. Though there do exist some laments over the burdens of her work, mentions of delivering black babies, and notice of a black female doctor, intersectionality is beyond Ballard’s gaze, or at least beyond the purpose of her text.[32]

Similarly, private letters often lack argument. True, an audience of one is more likely to involve persuasion than an audience of none, but still less likely than a mass audience. And without much of an audience, ideas need not be fully fleshed out nor, at times, addressed at all. Intersectional knowledge can be assumed, ignored as inappropriate given the context, and so on. For instance, take a letter abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sarah Grimké wrote to Sarah Douglass of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society on February 22, 1837.[33] Grimké expressed sympathy for Douglass, a black activist, on account of race: “I feel deeply for thee in thy sufferings on account of the cruel and unchristian prejudice…”[34] But while patriarchal norms and restrictions lay near the surface, with Grimké describing the explicitly “female prayer meetings” and gatherings of “the ladies” where her early work was often contained, she made no comment on Douglass’ dual challenge of black womanhood.[35] The letter was a report of Grimké’s meetings, with no intention to persuade. Perhaps she felt it off-topic to broach womanhood and intersectionality. Perhaps she believed it too obvious to mention — or that it would undercut or distract from her extension of sympathy toward Douglass and the unique challenges of racism (“Yes, you alone face racial prejudice, but do we not both face gender oppression?”). On the one hand, the letter could seem surprising: how could Grimké, who along with her sister Angelina were pushing for both women’s equality and abolition for blacks at this time, not have discussed womanhood, race, and their interplays with a black female organizer like Douglass?[36] On the other, this is not surprising at all: this was a private letter with a limited purpose. It likely would have looked quite different had it been a public letter meant for a mass audience.

In sum, this paper offered a general view of how the historian can find and explore intersectionality, whether women of color facing overlapping challenges or the emancipatory mindsets and methods needed to address them. Purpose and audience categorized the most and least useful sources for such an endeavor. Public-intended sources like films, novels, secondary narratives, first-person narratives, and more (autobiographies, memoirs, public photographs and art, articles, public letters) show how intersectionality was utilized, advancing regressive or progressive attitudes and causes. Types of sources meant to remain private like diaries, personal letters, and so on (private photographs and art, some legal and government documents) often have no argument and are less helpful. From here, a future writing could explore the exceptions that of course exist. More ambitiously, another might attempt to examine the effectiveness of each type of source in producing oppressive or liberatory change: does the visual-auditory stimulation of film or the inner thoughts in memoirs evoke emotions and reactions that best facilitate attitudes and action? Is seeing the intimate perspectives of multiple characters in a novel of historical fiction most powerful, or that of one thinker in an autobiography, who was at least a real person? Or is a straightforward narrative, the writer detached, lurking in the background as far away as possible, just as effective as more personal sources in pushing readers to hold back or stand with women of color? The historian would require extensive knowledge of the historical reactions to the (many) sources considered (D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation famously sparked riots — can such incidents be quantified? Was this more likely to occur due to films than photographs?) and perhaps a co-author from the field of psychology to test (admittedly present-day) human reactions to various types of sources scientifically to bolster the case.

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[1] Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 10th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 14.

[2] Salt of the Earth, directed by Herbert Biberman (1954; Independent Productions Corporation).

[3] Carl R. Weinberg, “‘Salt of the Earth’: Labor, Film, and the Cold War,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 24, no. 4 (October 2010): 41-45.

  Benjamin Balthaser, “Cold War Re-Visions: Representation and Resistance in the Unseen Salt of the Earth,” American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (June 2008): 347-371.

[4] Salt of the Earth, Biberman.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), xvii.

[7] Kathleen Kennedy (lecture, Missouri State University, April 26, 2022).

[8] Morrison, Beloved, xvi.

[9] Ibid, xvi-xvii.

[10] Ibid., xvii.

[11] Ibid., 20, 25; 181, 193-195. To Sethe, her back was adorned with “her chokecherry tree”; Paul D noted “a revolting clump of scars.” This should be interpreted as Sethe distancing herself from the trauma of the whip, reframing and disempowering horrific mutilation through positive language. Paul D simply saw the terrors of slavery engraved on the body. Here Morrison subtly considers a former slave’s psychological self-preservation. When Sethe admitted to killing Beloved, she was unapologetic to Paul D — “I stopped him [the slavemaster]… I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” — but he was horrified, first denying the truth, then feeling a “roaring” in his head, then telling Sethe she loved her children too much. Then, like her sons and the townspeople at large, Paul D rejected Sethe, leaving her.

[12] Ibid., 193-195.

[13] Cotton Mather, A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning, in George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the New England Witch Trials (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012), 259.

[14] Ibid, 281-282.

[15] Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 83.

[16] Michael J. Salevouris and Conal Furay, The Methods and Skills of History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 211.

[17] Godbeer, Salem, 83.

[18] Ibid., 83-84.

[19] Burr, Narratives, 255-258.

[20] Ibid., 262.

[21] Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God by Mary Rowlandson with Related Documents, ed. Neal Salisbury (Boston: Bedford Books, 2018).

[22] Ibid., 76-77, 113-114.

[23] Ibid., 100, 76.

[24] This was the typical imperialist view. See Kirsten Fischer, “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 3-11.

[25] Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), chapter one.

[26] Ibid., 264.

[27] Ibid.

   Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 81, 103.

[28] Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, 264, 270.

[29] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

[30] Ibid., 28-30.

[31] Ibid., 168, 262-263.

[32] Ibid., 225-226, 97, 53.

[33] Sarah Grimké, “Letter to Sarah Douglass,” in Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 94-95.

[34] Ibid., 95.

[35] Ibid., 94.

[36] Ibid., 84-148.