Last April, with the 2016 election results still stinging, I found myself in an auditorium in Los Angeles for Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions. The daylong event was like a self-helpier, more woman-centric TED conference, where more than 1,500 people, most of them white women like me, had gathered to hear eight Oprah-curated speakers.
Their well-honed messages about personal growth, which may have sounded bold and uplifting during the Obama years, had taken on a deflated quality in the face of the blatant injustices of the nascent Trump era. Oprah went so far as to say, “We’re living in a world of fear-based leadership.” Pastor John Gray extolled the virtues of “seeing the beauty and the divine nature of every human being that you encounter.” And, when Gabrielle Bernstein asked, “Are you ready to surrender?” I understood the context yet still wondered if she’d read a single news article in the past year.
So when Glennon Doyle took the stage that afternoon, my expectations were low. Doyle made her name blogging about the “brutiful” struggle of raising a family and went on to write two best-selling memoirs, the first (Carry On, Warrior) about getting sober and having kids, and the second (Love Warrior) about choosing to recommit to her husband after he cheated on her. My interest was piqued when I learned, in Oprah’s intro video, that Doyle had recently left said husband and was now partnered with soccer star Abby Wambach. But as she bopped out onto the SuperSoul stage, my bias returned. Even if the revolution were to be televised, it would not be sporting beach waves, a white ruffled halter top, and Louboutins.
Then, 20 minutes into her talk, Doyle said, “Okay, so I need to talk to the white women for a minute.”
I snapped to attention. There was a smattering of nervous laughter. The woman sitting next to me sucked in a breath through her teeth. Finally, someone on stage was acknowledging the white elephant in the room: Most of us were members of a demographic that had voted for Trump. But Doyle was not addressing the much-lamented 53 percent. Here, among Oprah fans in decidedly left-leaning Southern California, she was calling the 47 percent to task.
“We’re gonna talk, okay?” Doyle said. “I know that many of us are feeling alone and ignored and threatened and abused … And this is painful. But what we need to remember is that this is just a touch of the pain that so many marginalized people in this country have been feeling for ages.” She continued, “What sucks is that it took us being personally affected to finally show up. We cannot show up for the movement and say, ‘Here we are!’ until we say, ‘We are so damn sorry it took us so long.’ … And so when white women say to me, ‘How do I lead? Where do I begin?’ I say, ‘You do not lead! And you don’t begin anything!’ The fight for civil rights is not new, we’re just new to it.”
This pretty standard intersectional-feminist fare. But it’s a complicated message for brand-new activists and those who have been checked out of feminist politics for a few decades. To avoid replicating the very injustices the movement is hoping to correct, it can’t cater to the newly woke. Yet the resistance needs to reach a critical mass in order to really influence politics. When the newbie activists are white women who can afford to fly to Washington for a protest march or shell out $99 for tickets to an inspirational live event, this is an especially tricky line to walk: How do you encourage them to use their considerable power and embrace the idea of themselves as agents of change, while at the same time telling them to be humble and take their cues from women who have historically been pushed to the margins?
Because of Doyle’s telegenic appeal and her background in blogging about family and faith, she reaches a meaningful swath of the 47 percent: the type of woman who is eager to collect canned goods to send to hurricane-ravaged areas far away, but has avoided demonstrations against police violence or against ICE raids in her own city. “Mostly this community was built on moms,” she says of the women who follow her online and show up at her events. “It’s been an evolution that’s similar to mine.”
In 2015, when Doyle was already a best-selling author with a huge following, she sat down with her three children to help them process the news of the Charleston church shooting. They were looking at pictures of civil-rights protests of the 1960s when her youngest asked her, “Mom, if we had been alive back then, would we have been marching?” Her older daughter answered before Doyle could: “No.” They weren’t marching now, she pointed out. Doyle realized her daughter was right. She hadn’t been using her platform to address racialized violence and discrimination in America. She wasn’t taking her kids to Black Lives Matter events. “Before that, I hadn’t said a word. Nothing,” she says. It led her to ask, “As a white woman, what’s my job?”
Doyle still writes cheerfully about moms who are “out of fucks to give” and posts inspirational quotes. (“There is nothing in nature that blooms all year long. So don’t expect yourself to do so, either.”) But these days her work has mostly transitioned from her blog, Momastery, to live events and her social accounts where, at least once a week, she prompts her followers to examine their white privilege. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, she asked, “Are you marching and speaking out in THIS Civil Rights Era?… Let’s think about this: Are we the white moderates of our day?” The thread drew a few trolls who charged “reverse racism” and disparaged Colin Kaepernick, whom Doyle had cited as an inspiration. But several of her followers leapt in to challenge them — and to thank her for pushing them to do better. The women who follow her are, she has found, mostly eager to learn. Doyle posted a text message she sent to her sister about an event in Boca Raton, Florida: “I talked about dismantling white supremacy to 750 white people and only a couple left.”
For someone who has built a considerable following based on her ability to make moms in her demographic feel truly seen and understood, it’s risky to shift the conversation to people who don’t share their experiences. But Doyle has adapted her talking points about the struggles of parenthood to apply to the task of addressing racism. “I lean on the Christian tradition,” she says. “For me the whole suffering-and-fire thing is home. This is our jam. I am ready.” But some of the venues she speaks in are not. Right before she got onstage at one predominantly white church, the leaders warned her against speaking in support of Black Lives Matter. She did it anyway. “What happens at a lot of churches is, ‘Come, be funny, don’t bring up your politics,’” she says. “Which is so hilarious because Jesus was, like, the most political person on Earth.” Doyle makes that point repeatedly, and also ensures that white women feel seen in their own struggles by acknowledging how uncomfortable it can be to speak openly about race. One of her favorite hashtags, #wecandohardthings, serves as both reassurance and call to action.
Her approach goes deeper than talking points. In 2012, she founded Together Rising, an effort to gather small-dollar donations from her audience and from the followers of like-minded gurus such as Cheryl Strayed, Brené Brown, and Elizabeth Gilbert. The initial Together Rising campaigns addressed worthy but uncontroversial causes like families fighting stage-four cancer and children with special needs. But over the past two years, Doyle’s calls to action have become more politicized. In December she raised six-figure sums for organizations that work with recovering drug addicts in rural New Hampshire and inner-city Baltimore, as a way of addressing both the current opioid crisis and the lingering effects of the crack epidemic. “The Americans affected by the current wave of addiction are predominately white,” Doyle wrote. “The Americans affected by the previous wave of addiction are predominately black.” She tied these two problems together — without claiming they are equivalent or creating a hierarchy — and thus a charitable campaign about a white public-health crisis also became an educational opportunity about America’s history of ignoring or criminalizing health problems predominantly affecting black people. “Wow. I actually hadn’t thought about the parallels before,” wrote one donor on Facebook.
Doyle makes this type of education seem achievable on a broader scale. But the brief history of the Women’s March shows how difficult it can be to meaningfully engage the 47 percent without pushing other women to the margins. In its earliest days, before several veteran organizers who are women of color stepped in, the event was called the Million-Woman March, an unacknowledged ripoff of both a 1997 march by black women and a 1995 march by black men. After it was rebranded the Women’s March and released a mission statement that put intersectional concerns at the forefront, organizers called on white women “to be listening more, talking less” and to confront their racial privilege. Some found it alienating. “I’m starting to feel not very welcome in this endeavor,” wrote one New Jersey woman in response.
Like Doyle, the March’s organizers have worked hard to ensure that not only the talking points but the action items aren’t whitewashed. Last year, the Women’s March led actions on the Dakota Access Pipeline, missing young girls of color, and Syrian refugees. The first quote in Together We Rise, a book commemorating the 2017 marches, is from the black queer feminist writer Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Yet a perception persists that, although the March leadership is diverse, the base is mostly white women — and that base, while eager to turn out to march against Trump, is still reluctant to confront its privilege head-on. A sign at the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles that went viral read, “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next #BlackLivesMatter protest, right?”
“We don’t have delusions about who our base is,” says Sophie Ellman-Golan, the deputy head of social and outreach for the Women’s March. Ellman-Golan, who is white, co-facilitated a workshop on confronting white womanhood at the Women’s Convention last October alongside artist Heather Marie Scholl and organizer Rhiannon Childs. The workshop, billed as a way to “unpack the ways white women uphold and benefit from white supremacy,” was such a popular session that most people who wanted to attend couldn’t fit in the room, and they repeated it the following day. “We are learning to adjust our message to folks who are new to this work,” Ellman-Golan says. At the same time, “We are led by women of color, and you have to be okay with that. By far, our supporters are. People that aren’t okay with that are the ones we’re willing to lose.”
Part of their purpose, Ellman-Golan says, is to give white women the experience of listening to marginalized voices. A woman who attended the Confronting White Womanhood workshop admitted, “While I can’t say it was a totally complete confrontation (fear and comfort got in my way) — it was a heck of a first step. Being given all the historical examples of how culture frames white women to be diametrically opposed to black men — woah.” She continued, “I was shook, and still am after that convo.”
Doyle has also embraced this approach. She believes that she can turn a low-key anti-Trump Christian woman into an intersectional resistance warrior with the power of charismatic storytelling. Last year at Together Live, a ten-date tour that was sort of her own version of SuperSoul Sessions, half of the speakers were women of color. In onstage conversations with Doyle and Wambach and in TED-style talks, they simply told the truths of their own lives — mostly without using words like “privilege” or “supremacy” or “intersectional.” At the Chicago event I attended in October, Doyle’s guests included Olympics fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, wellness expert Latham Thomas, and author Luvvie Ajayi. Meanwhile the audience was easily 90 percent white: “Soccer-mom land,” Doyle says when I meet up with her backstage before the event.
In the year since Trump’s inauguration, this has become a familiar racial dynamic at some of the more mainstream feminist-resistance gatherings: a stage full of people of color; an audience dominated white women. Doyle is fine with this. “My job is not to fill the seats with women of color,” she says. “They’re out there doing their work. My job is to speak to my audience of white women and expose them to people who have been in this fight for a very long time. I think that changes consciousness.”
Ajayi, who has joined us in the greenroom backstage, says that the first time she met Doyle, she experienced the same confusion I did when I saw her at Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions. “You just seem like the one who would spew the Becky shit,” she says, addressing Doyle directly, “and then you’re, like, the most woke person in the room. And I’m like, ‘What happened? What? Damn!’ Complete Trojan horse. I think that’s your weapon. Because you get audiences who see you and are like, ‘She’s just like me.’ You’re like, ‘Ha! Let me give you some knowledge.’ ”
Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who co-founded Together Live with Doyle and serves as the events’ emcee, chimes in. “You’re like that little dinosaur in Jurassic Park that looks so cute and then it kills you.”
Some of Doyle’s fans from her early blogging days have met the dinosaur and fled. Others have stuck around and listened. Rebecca Winsor, a self-described “independent voter” and Doyle superfan who lives in Utah, says Doyle has spurred her to talk about her beliefs more openly. “I guess the real change after following her is I’m a lot more vocal about the things I disagree with, with my family and friends,” Winsor says, “even when I’m with my brothers, who have an arsenal in their basement.” She also cites the author and speaker Marianne Williamson, a kindred spirit of Doyle’s, for convincing her that spiritual people “need to open their mouths and say something. It’s not enough to sit and meditate.” Because Winsor interacts with almost exclusively white people in her small town, her racial privilege is not something she’s come to realize through first-person experiences. It’s something she’s mostly come to confront through the posts and teachings of public figures like Doyle.
The next step, Doyle admits, is not just getting white women to listen but to take action with their peers. To get out the vote instead of just thanking black women voters for delivering victories in Alabama and Virginia. To support great candidates at the local level instead of begging Michelle Obama and Oprah to run for office. To teach their kids the truth about race and American history without putting a pussy hat on Harriet Tubman. Ellman-Golan has high hopes for the nice white ladies who took her workshop, too. “I’m a queer Brooklynite lefty,” she says. “I’m not going to pretend I have a deep understanding of what it’s like for white women in Alabama. That’s why we’re having these conversations. We want women to go out and have them in their own communities.”
If an Oprah-endorsed Trojan horse with a 100-kilowatt smile and God on her side can’t convince them to do that, no one can.