Crenshaw was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1959. She received her bachelor’s degree in government and Africana studies in 1981 from Cornell University. She then obtained her JD in 1984 from Harvard Law School, and her LLM in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin Law School. After clerking for Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Shirley Abrahamson, she joined the faculty of the UCLA Law School. She is currently Professor of Law at UCLA Law School and also at Columbia Law School. Her fields of specialization are critical race theory and constitutional law.
Crenshaw became world-famous as the originator of the concept of intersectionality, first articulated in a paper she wrote for the University of Chicago Law Forum in 1989. In this paper, she lucidly described and defended the idea that persons belonging to two or more oppressed categories too often become invisible precisely because there is no accepted category within which to discuss their specific experience of oppression. That is because in the absence of a recognized category, a complex socially constructed identity and the sui generis experiences that may result from it have a very difficult time becoming visible to others. Crenshaw’s goal has been to change that dynamic — to raise, for example, the unique experience of black women to visibility in the eyes of both male anti-racist activists, on the one hand, and white feminists, on the other — by creating an appropriate category for thinking about that experience.
Crenshaw’s work has not only made her an academic superstar in the US; it has also won wide international acclaim — for example, it was specifically cited by the framers of the new constitution for South Africa. In addition to her teaching and writing, she has been active in a number of political endeavors. For instance, she was a member of the legal team representing Anita Hill during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and she co-founded and serves as Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum, a non-profit think tank with the mission of facilitating the greater influence of scholarly research on race and gender inequality and discrimination on public policy discourse in government and the media. Crenshaw has been awarded a number of visiting fellowships and lectureships, and is a regular commentator on NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show.