By: Julia Malleck
On the morning of January 21, I boarded the uptown 4 train to attend the Women’s March in New York City where hundreds of thousands took to the streets, from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to the front doors of Trump Tower. According to organizers, attendance hit over one million in Washington, D.C. and over five million in similar rallies worldwide, held one day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
By this measure, the March was a success. But numbers alone will not advance the goals of the feminist movement. The March was a historic platform for women and allies to raise their voices, but these voices did not rise in unison. The dominant narrative of the March articulated only a specific kind of feminism—white, essentialist, and cisgendered—that was, by omission, trans-exclusive and colorblind. As a result, the March felt empowering for some and incredibly silencing for others.
The Problem With “We the Women”
The voice of the March spoke in terms of the monolithic voice of “women.” But the identity of womanhood is not a common denominator. Only through a white woman’s eyes can there exist an essential womanhood because their race is not a factor in their oppression. As a result, the identity as “women” throughout the history of feminism in America has only served white women, typically cisgendered and middle-class. Feminist women of color have been consistently required to choose between their womanhood or their race.
This juxtaposition of race and gender has existed throughout the history of feminism in America. The 19th century witnessed the birth of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. As abolitionists fought for black liberation, suffragettes, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fought for women’s rights. While Anthony and Stanton were also a part of anti-slavery movement, they were also openly racist. In an article published in the newspaper Revolution in 1869, they wrote:
“The old anti slavery school says women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”
Explicit in this quote is the separation of “womanhood” and “race,” a division which continues to this day. White women have consistently received rights before women of color. It is a myth that in 1920 all women got the right to vote. It was white women who got the right to vote in 1920. Native American women did not get the right to vote until 1924, Asian women until 1952, and Black women until 1964.
You can map these racialized differences onto the contemporary issues, such as the wage gap. If you look at the pay gap between women and white men, the difference is inconsistent across race. White women make 79 cents to a white man’s dollar, whereas Black women make 60 cents and Hispanic women only 55 cents.
In the most recent election, 53% of white women voted for Trump, compared to only 6% of black women and 32% of Latinx women. These statistics caused no small amount of bitterness among women of color, some of whom decided to boycott the Women’s March in anticipation of its overwhelming whiteness. In a viral photo from the March on D.C., Angela Peoples, a black activist, holds a sign that reads, “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Women of color will bear the brunt of suffering and hardship to come, as a result of white women’s decisions in the voting booth. Few white women within the mainstream feminist movement have demonstrated solidarity or alliance with women of color (where were all these Marchers during the Black Lives Matter protests?), or acknowledged their contribution in electing a racist and misogynist as our president.
Sex/Gender Division: Another Essentialist Trope
Womanhood in the March was largely rooted in biological terms. This was evident from the signs, shirts, and chants that pronounced “The Future is Female”, “Keep Your Hands Off My Uterus”, “No Vagina? No Opinion” and others in a similar vein. Here’s the problem with gender essentialism: sex and gender are separate concepts.
Sex refers to one’s biology, determined by chromosomal makeup (your genotype) or genitalia (phenotype). This information indicates that you are female, male, or intersex. Gender, on the other hand, refers to the socially constructed behaviors and norms one performs, coded on a sliding scale of masculinity and femininity. One’s identity as a woman, man, genderqueer/fluid, agender, or trans—all represent different performances of masculinity and femininity.
So long as womanhood is placed in reproductive biology and gender is equated with sex, the feminist movement will pose no challenge or threat to a system which propagates the superior social status of cisgendered men—what many call “the patriarchy.” Essentialist rhetoric not only accommodates the supremacy of the cisgender binary, but also erases the identities of transwomen and genderqueer individuals.
Why Intersectionality Matters
Intersectionality is a term first incorporated into the feminist discourse by civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It acknowledges that women’s experience of oppression intersects with their race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, and other factors.
Feminism that does not acknowledge these identities of all women only promotes cliquism. Feminism that fails to be intersectional will only serve a privileged few. So long as feminism operates within the paradigm of white supremacy, colorblind feminism will only speak for white women. So long as feminism fights within the pink and blue of the gender binary, it will only speak for cisgendered women. If feminism seeks to liberate all women, it must acknowledge and work against all systems that oppress women.
The reason why “intersectionality”makes many uncomfortable, including the Marchers, is it forces people, for perhaps the first time in their lives, to confront that not everyone is like them. Their experiences, histories and lives cannot be extrapolated to everyone else’s experiences. As a result, intersectionality is seen as a threat. Where one might see diversity, others see divisiveness.
It’s important to acknowledge that the national co-chairs of the March were a diverse group of women, of different races and faiths. This kind of representation, unfortunately, did not translate to the ground. There’s no such thing as trickle-down diversity.
There are several steps that must take place within the U.S. women’s resistance to make it more intersectional. We need a feminism that can accommodate “womanhood” in its complexity—one that does not ask you to leave parts of your identity at the door. White women must have deeper introspection on their own whiteness. We need to think about what it means to be white in a movement that includes women of color. There needs to be an acknowledgement of this country’s racialized history within the feminist movement. These conversations will be tough and uncomfortable. But a movement for liberation is not supposed to be a comfortable process—it is a process of unlearning and awakening.
Feminism needs to move beyond superficial displays of solidarity. One march is not enough. Donning a pink, knitted hat is not enough. Resistance must be claimed at a deeper level than consumerism, than white feminism, than a joke about patriarchy. It must be staked in radical compassion and empathy, in anger, in gumption, and in resilience.
Click here for Julia's photos from the NYC event.
Julia Malleck is a Strategic Trust-Building Initiative Intern at EastWest Institute. She is a recent graduate from Tufts University, where she received a BA in International Relations with a concentration in international security. She has also studied at SOAS, University of London, and was a recipient of the U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship to study Mandarin at Soochow University, China. Connect with Julia on Flickr.