The Complicated, Controversial, Historic, Inspiring Women’s March

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Protesters in New York before Trump’s inauguration. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Today, the United States gets a new president. Tomorrow, that president will get his first official taste of mass resistance, in the form of a women’s march expected to draw at least 200,000 to Washington, D.C., and hundreds of thousands more to the 600 sister marches planned elsewhere, including 40 international demonstrations.

If you’ve read much about the event, what you’ve likely gathered is that it has been beset by division and disorganization: from its impulsive beginnings on Election Night, when a horrified and furious Hawaii woman named Teresa Shook invited 40 of her horrified and furious friends to march on Washington the day after the inauguration and woke up to 10,000 RSVPs; to the unfortunate initial decision to call it the Million Woman March, appropriating the name of earlier, black-led marches (especially galling given the fact that the organizers were white and 53 percent of white women had just voted for Donald Trump); to the lack of formal organizing experience, the time it took to secure permits, the decision to hold the march on a logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive weekend, and some debate about whether making it a women’s march left men confused about whether to attend. More recently there has been coverage of the erroneous decision to permit anti-choice groups to partner with the march; the anti-abortion groups have since been disinvited, though organizers have said that anyone is welcome as a marcher. In the final 24 hours before the march, another conflagration broke out about the omission of Hillary Clinton’s name from a list of “leaders who paved the way for us to march,” a snub that led to a Twitter campaign to #addhername.

For all of that criticism, this is an event that has so far shown itself to be swift to self-correct. Within days of its spontaneous birth, three women of color with organizing experience — Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez — stepped in to join the Brooklyn fashion designer Bob Bland, who had suggested a similar event on Facebook, as national co-chairs. They renamed the event the Women’s March on Washington, and the demonstration began to take on its massive shape, which now includes a list of major partners and a very progressive set of platform positions. As of a week ago, there were 1,200 requests for bus permits for the Women’s March and only 200 for the inauguration itself.

Yet the media’s treatment of the march has been so fretful that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this grass-roots demonstration of hundreds of thousands on behalf of women’s rights is an example of feminism in crisis and disarray.

“From the beginning the only question the media wanted to ask us was whether we had a permit,” said Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American Muslim activist who is one of the four national co-chairs. It was almost funny, the fetishization of the question of whether thousands of angry women literally had permission to show up and protest. Sarsour felt it was indicative of a basic distrust of women as serious activists and organizers. “Logistics became the main focus,” she said. “As if women were not sophisticated enough to know how to obtain permits. I was like, ‘Can someone ask me about my principles and values?’”

The idea that this march is disorganized in some unique or particularly problematic way, Sarsour said, is particularly rich, given that there are about 30 women on the national steering committee, talking to around 400 organizers of marches around the country. “Many of us had never met before this march planning,” she said. “The idea that we were supposed to immediately and seamlessly bring strangers together in a kumbaya march team, when we’re from different backgrounds, have different experiences, religious backgrounds, are from inner cities and suburbs, is crazy. We’re organizing what is going to be the largest mass mobilization any administration has seen on its first day.”

After the permits were obtained, Sarsour noted, the coverage turned to how contentious the dialogue among organizers and participants was. “As if this contentious dialogue in the women’s movement is by accident,” she laughed. “Contentious dialogue is by design.” To the organizers, the point is pushing hundreds of thousands of marchers to think harder about the connectedness of gender to race, to immigration, to criminal-justice reform and climate policy, to create dialogue among people who could and should be allies on many of these issues, to try to push feminism toward a transformational step.

“As women of color who came into this effort,” said Sarsour, “we came in not only to mobilize and organize but also to educate, to argue that we can’t talk about women’s rights, about reproductive rights, about equal pay, without also talking about race and class.” This is the conversation that a mass women’s resistance needs to grow, Sarsour feels. “We’re actually okay with people being offended,” she said. “We are hoping that the conversation continues and that we can move into a different place and focus on the way that we’re coming together nonetheless.

At The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino observes that the Very Concerned coverage of the march’s challenges has meant that “all the questions that dogged Hillary Clinton’s candidacy are being relitigated — inevitably, if regrettably, through an event that has given so many women a glimmer of hope.” Tolentino is spot-on; questions about the power of symbolism, about intersectionality and appropriation, about what feminism should entail or what women’s progress even means, are ones that were central to the always-critical conversation around Clinton’s run for the presidency. The fact that every one of the protest’s organizational fault lines has been obsessed over, often with little context for how remarkable and historic it is that such an enormous demonstration exists to begin with, recalls not just attitudes about the Clinton campaign — throughout which even her supporters often felt they had to preface any positive statement about her with a ritualized catechism of her flaws — but the history of the women’s movement itself.

In the popular imagination, feminism has long been on the verge of collapse thanks to its internal conflicts: generational divides; rancor over the intersections of race, class, and other identities with gender; general discord and infighting and personal jealousies. Of course many of these reports of internal distress have been true. The women’s movement, since its inception, has been torn between the divergent visions, experience, and priorities of those it aims to represent, by the often oppositional and combative perspectives and views of those who’ve carried its banner. In this, it has been no different from any other social movement, including the civil rights and immigration and gay rights and environmental and New Left movements, all of which were also at times riven by generational tension, racial and gendered inequality, by homophobia and by competing interests, egos, and personal feuds. But few of these movements have their divisions regularly trumpeted so loudly in advance of — or in place of — acknowledgment of their achievements.

The way the women’s movement is different from other social movements is in its size and the unwieldy scope of its mission: to represent not an oppressed minority, but a subjugated majority. To campaign on behalf of just over half the population is by definition to build an enterprise on conflicting interests and perspectives and experiences, to try to bind together people who come from divergent backgrounds, who sometimes resent and disagree with each other. And its immensity and diversity is used against it by those who fear its potential power. As Gloria Steinem, who has signed on as an honorary co-chair of the march, told me, “Because it’s a majority movement, it’s subject to the same divide-and-conquer tactics that colonial powers used on countries — turning races, classes, and generations against each other, the myth that women can’t get along and are our own worst enemies.”

The fight over Hillary Clinton’s inclusion is a stark reminder of how quickly and angrily women can be divided from each other. The list of women who are “why we march,” published a week ago as part of the march’s declaration of principles, was a seemingly random assortment of names that included some feminist icons but left out so many of others. But not including Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated by a major party for the American presidency, the woman who had just led the fight against Trump and beat him by a factor of 2.8 million votes, the first presidential candidate to run on an explicit platform of paid leave, subsidized day care, a raised minimum wage, and the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, was no mere oversight. It was a petty and mean omission, a perfect example of the dynamics Tolentino described: the relitigation of primary disputes that divided progressive allies, rather than uniting them.

But the angry response to it — some women choosing not to march because of the bad feelings — is not any more useful. The hundreds of thousands of women who are traveling to Washington, and to marches around the country and the world, in part as a tribute to Clinton, might not want to spend their time or energy yelling at the other women who have worked hard to create the event at which they will gather. Perhaps instead they could work to ensure that Clinton knows they want her to join them, marching alongside them as they do what she asked them to do in her concession speech: to come out from behind their secret feminist Facebook groups and make their voices heard.

The women’s movement has survived not in spite of its cacophony, but because of it: Because those who have pushed the movement from inside to change and grow and be better — even when they don’t always agree on what better means — have helped us meet the shifting forms of inequity from era to era. The women’s movement has won women’s rights to self-determination, to economic and educational opportunity, to sexual freedom, to reproductive autonomy, to professional opportunity, to legal protection from violence, rape, assault, discrimination, and harassment. And on Saturday, today’s iteration of the women’s movement will give body and voice and form to those who resist this incoming president and his attempts to roll back the rights of women, people of color, and immigrants.

As Steinem said to me, one of the ironies of the doom-and-gloom coverage of the march is that it is perhaps the brightest spot in the midst of very dark days. Steinem called it one of “the biggest, most capacious outpourings of energy, resistance, hope, fuck-you anger I’ve ever seen.” That’s a good thing.

The Complicated, Controversial, Inspiring Women’s March