The concept of intersectionality is intended to illuminate dynamics that have often been overlooked by feminist theory and movements. As articulated by author bell hooks, the emergence of intersectionality "challenged the notion that 'gender' was the primary factor determining a woman's fate". The historical exclusion of black women from the feminist movement in the United States resulted in many black 19th and 20th century feminists, such as Anna Julia Cooper, challenging their historical exclusion. This movement disputed the ideas of earlier feminist movements – which were primarily led by white middle-class women – such as the idea that women were a homogeneous category who shared the same life experiences. Recognizing that the forms of oppression experienced by white middle-class women were different from those experienced by black, poor, or disabled women, feminists began seeking ways to understand how gender, race, and class combine to "determine the female destiny".
Racial inequality was a factor that was largely ignored by first-wave feminism, which was primarily concerned with gaining political equality between men and women. Early women's rights movements often exclusively pertained to the membership, concerns, and struggles of white women. Second-wave feminism stemmed from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and worked to dismantle sexism relating to the perceived domestic purpose of women. While feminists during this time achieved success through the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title IX, and Roe v. Wade, they largely alienated black women from platforms in the mainstream movement. However, third-wave feminism – which emerged shortly after the term "intersectionality" was coined in the late 1980s – noted the lack of attention to race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity in early feminist movements, and tried to provide a channel to address political and social disparities. Intersectionality recognizes these issues which were ignored by early social justice movements. Many recent academics such as Leslie McCall have argued that the introduction of the intersectionality theory was vital to sociology, and that before the development of the theory there was little research that specifically addressed the experiences of people who are subjected to multiple forms of oppression within society. An example of this idea was championed by Iris Marion Young, arguing that differences must be acknowledged in order to find unifying social justice issues that create coalitions that aid in changing society for the better. More specifically, this relates to the ideals of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).
The term also has historical and theoretical links to the concept of "simultaneity", which was advanced during the 1970s by members of the Combahee River Collective in Boston, Massachusetts. Simultaneity is explained as the simultaneous influences of race, class, gender, and sexuality, which informed the member's lives and their resistance to oppression. Thus, the women of the Combahee River Collective advanced an understanding of African-American experiences that challenged analyses emerging from Black and male-centered social movements, as well as those from mainstream cisgender, white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists.
Since the term was coined, many feminist scholars have emerged with historical support for the intersectional theory. These women include Beverly Guy-Sheftall and her fellow contributors to Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, a collection of articles describing the multiple oppressions black women in America have experienced from the 1830s to contemporary times. Guy-Sheftall speaks about the constant premises that influence the lives of African-American women, saying “black women experience a special kind of oppression and suffering in this country which is racist, sexist, and classist because of their dual race and gender identity and their limited access to economic resources.” Other writers and theorists were using intersectional analysis in their work before the term was coined. For example, Deborah K. King published the article “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology” in 1988, just before Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. In the article she addresses what soon became the foundation for intersectionality, saying, “Black women have long recognized the special circumstances of our lives in the United States: the commonalities that we share with all women, as well as the bonds that connect us to the men of our race.” Additionally, Gloria Wekker describes how Gloria Anzaldúa's work as a Chicana feminist theorist exemplifies how "existent categories for identity are strikingly not dealt with in separate or mutually exclusive terms, but are always referred to in relation to one another". Wekker also points to the words and activism of Sojourner Truth as an example of an intersectional approach to social justice. In her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” Truth identifies the difference between the oppression of white and black women. She says that white women are often treated as emotional and delicate while black women are subjected to racist abuse. However, this was largely dismissed by white feminists who worried that this would distract from their goal of women's suffrage and instead focused their attention on emancipation.