The controversy surrounding the exclusionary identity politics unsettling what should be a unifying event — Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington — shows that the fractures underpinning Hillary Clinton’s devastating election loss have not healed.
Unfortunately, the activist wing of the Democratic Party and many leading progressives are clinging to a profound disconnect with the broader mass of Americans, both women and men.
I live in Washington and plan to attend the protest because Donald Trump’s presidency, and what it portends for America and the democratic world, demands such action. A commander-in-chief who revels in grabbing women “by the pussy,” myriad insults to women, cozies up to a Russian dictator who hacked the U.S. election, spews contempt for our allies including Angela Merkel, wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, or target people because they are of the Muslim faith, merits a strong collective response.
But the attempted hijacking of the march’s agenda and all the nasty tit-for-tat between white versus black/queer/Muslim/trans and other identities tells a very disturbing story about the divided state of feminism today. The separatist, inward-looking politics that helped drive Trump to power and Clinton into oblivion is not going away — in fact it is becoming more entrenched, and all for the better, say organizers bent on highlighting women’s differences rather than their commonality as American and international citizens.
Just go to the official Facebook page of the march and associated events, read the online discussions, and there amid the enthusiasm and excitement you will witness the unfiltered and unedifying spectacle of women going at each other not because of the content of their character but because of the color of their skin, their gender, ethnicity, or religion.
The New York Times reported on a white wedding minister from South Carolina, who is persecuted at home for marrying gays, but said she wasn’t attending the march. She was made to feel highly unwelcome and ridiculed for only allegedly waking up, since Trump’s win, to the racism that black women have always experienced. Others were also riled by constant suggestions they “check their privilege” or more offensive versions of the censorious catchphrase. Then in a story titled “The Activist divide over the Women’s March on Washington,” Northeast Public Radio profiled a Black Lives Matter activist from Minnesota who said she was skeptical about going because “a lot of the stuff I was seeing on social media was really centered around white women being upset that they didn’t get their way.”
“And to me, you know, as a black queer woman navigating the world, it was really clear to me post-election that black folks, immigrants, LGBTQ folks like myself included, are at a higher risk of violence of targeted policies that are meant to take away our rights,” Lena Gardner said. “And I really wasn’t hearing those sorts of things from a lot of white women. Some were articulating that. And some were just like — it was almost like a temper tantrum.” On Twitter, a dissenter fumed, “So this should be called ‘White Womens March on Washington?” In a subsequent post, she added, “My solidarity detectors read ‘nah bruh.’ I’m not with a movement whose poster children are WW [White Women] who have directly shitted on BW [Black Women & WOC [Women of Color]. Bye.”
My solidarity detectors read "nah bruh". I'm not with a movement who's poster children are WW who have directly shitted on BW & WOC. Bye.
— lil stallion, “pony” if you will (@jo___deci) January 10, 2017
It saddens me to see the inclusive liberal feminism I grew up with reduced to a grab-bag of competing victimhood narratives and rival community-based but essentially individualist identities jostling for most-oppressed status. We need a better reaction to the election of a man who cynically responded to the center-left’s fragmentation by celebrating his own angry populist’s definition of white identity. Can’t we rise above the sniping about “privilege,” “white feminism,” “intersectionality,” and hierarchies of grievance in the face of Trump and the dangers he poses to the American and international liberal world order and women everywhere?
Such an approach doesn’t mean ignoring the differing experiences of women, or the history of racism between women, but confronting them empirically and resisting blaming each other for systemic disadvantage. Despite rampant inequality in the U.S., the word “class” doesn’t get a mention in the ‘Guiding vision and definition of principles’ of the march. Yet trans women/youth/migrants receive six references.
Cursory attention is given to the structural inequalities that limit all American women, regardless of their race, religion, sexual or other identities. American women across the board face huge barriers to labor force participation and achieving work-family balance compared to their sisters in Europe and other comparable developed countries. The vision document doesn’t even call expressly for nationally mandated paid maternity leave of at least three months — it describes “family leave” vaguely as a “benefit” rather than a right, in contrast to LGBTQIA human rights.
There is no detail about the urgent need for the creation of a universal public system of quality, affordable child care, pre-school and after-school care, coverage and access to decent, paid pre-natal and post-natal care and the universal coverage of deliveries so no woman is crippled by exorbitant costs when she has a baby. Did all of these goals of feminism just get sidelined? Women are dying in childbirth at increasing rates in the U.S., the world’s richest country, at triple the rate of Canada, going against global trends, and particularly hurting black women.
Strangely there is no reference to Latino women either in the march’s vision document, yet alongside poor African-American women they suffer greatly from soaring economic disparities, poverty and discrimination. Have they been “replaced” by transgender and Muslim women? But Muslim is not a “race” or class, it is a religion; American Muslim women are of diverse national, racial and ethnic backgrounds and, in the U.S., the Muslim population compared to Europe’s, for example, is more middle-class and educated. And if we are going to talk about religiously-based disadvantage why not name Jewish women? The latest figures show American Jews are by far the most targeted group for hate attacks based on religion, well ahead of Christians and Muslims. Meanwhile, poor white women in the U.S. are experiencing declining life expectancy, in contrast to all other groups, however their plight isn’t referred to.
The emphasis on a particular perspective regarding religion appears to have something to do with one of the march’s lead organizers. Linda Sarsour is a religiously conservative veiled Muslim woman, embracing a fundamentalist worldview requiring women to “modestly” cover themselves, a view which has little to do with female equality and much more of a connection with the ideology of political Islam than feminism. Could we imagine a wig-wearing Orthodox woman emerging from a similar “purity”-focused culture predicated on sexual segregation and covering women, headlining such an event? No, because she is rightly assumed to be intensely conservative, not progressive on issues surrounding women’s roles and their bodies. Bizarrely, however, it is Sarsour, who has taken a high-profile role speaking about ordering pro-life women out of the march, after a bitter dispute over the initial participation of a Texas anti-abortion group. In justifying the decision, the co-organizer invoked the liberal language of choice, despite her association with an illiberal ideology that many Muslim women say is all about men controlling their bodies, and taking away that choice on a range of issues including reproductive health.
And why is a woman seen wearing a heavy veil pulled up tight to cover her neck — not even a headscarf — emerging as the symbol of the rally? Yes, Trump is singling out Muslims but must we play his reductionist game? Muslim women are a diverse group. Such a vision purposefully excludes non-veiled Muslim women, who make up the majority of American Muslims, and all feminists who champion a woman’s right to be free from the degrading virgin-whore dichotomy that has afflicted them since most of the world’s great religions blamed women for tempting men. Beyond the domestic context, what about all the persecuted and murdered women activists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere fighting the politico-religious ideology behind the veiling of women? Encouragingly the official march mission statement names Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai who fought the Taliban’s hatred of young girls and women and their own attempts to assassinate her for going to school.
Then there is the growing body of secular activists, ex-Muslim women or “apostates” who didn’t vote Trump but have no representation among the organizing group. The Women’s March on Washington could also take care to call out the shaming of those women who have voted for Trump, including minority women labeled “traitors.” Muslim reformer Asra Nomani has been abjectly harassed and vilified for admitting she voted for Trump, mainly due to her concerns over the Obama administration’s response to radical Islamic terrorism and healthcare. I don’t share her views on the president-elect and Nomani’s decision may be a rarity among Muslim voters, but her defense of the secular public space is not an outlier, and no one deserves to be told they are “betraying” their race or religion for exercising their democratic rights.
If one lesson is to be learned from Trump’s election, which was helped along enormously by ultra-traditionalist evangelicals, the opposition movement needs less religion — not more. Or as Barack Obama said in his farewell speech in Chicago, we need to recall the origins of America, “that spirit born of the enlightenment,” with its faith in reason and science.
Feminism in the Trump era needs to reclaim its universalist core, realizing that conservative religious modesty culture, like the binary hyper-sexualized image of women, seemingly favored by the incoming president, is doing us no favors.
Here’s hoping the Women’s March on Washington will stick to one of the core principles it has wisely outlined and that hundreds of thousands and even millions around the world will remember the forward-looking message of unity, liberty and justice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Emma-Kate Symons is a Washington-based journalist and editor, and former Paris correspondent. A regular contributor to Women in the World, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Quartz, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Australian. Follow her on Twitter here.