I did not attend the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday. And not because I am not persistently subject to ridiculous sexism. Just last month a male superior at my office instructed me to “hold this paper like a good little girl.”
Not because I don’t care about equal rights either—as much as a buzz term as it has become. I have listened to women in the West Bank, Kenya and Amsterdam’s Red Light District talk about severe violence inflicted upon them because of a severe lack of equal rights.
Neither am I a stranger to the deep struggle of single motherhood (one of the surest difficulties for low-income women in America today). I was born when my own mother was seventeen and unemployed; she has, for most of my life, been the sole breadwinner for our family.
Plus I certainly have plenty of my own reasons why I did not vote for Donald Trump. To name one, there are peaceful, productive Muslim immigrant women and men in my family (my father and grandmother for starters).
My reason for abstaining was rooted mostly in the reality that I could not figure out what, exactly, the march was for. Even among discussion between the march’s potential participants about their purpose, I saw only an echo-chamber for a certain kind of woman: a kind that less than half of American women identify with.
The idea for the march started when a grandmother in Hawaii, Teresa Shook, made a Facebook event (following Trump’s election) for a protest called the “Million Women March,” went to bed, and woke up with more than 10,000 RSVP’s. From there, other events started popping up and leaders eventually combined to organize. What started as a pro-women’s-rights, anti-Trump march soon received accusations of appropriation, exclusivity, and vulgarity from it’s own potential allies. Not to mention the backlash from women who are both pro-women’s-rights and pro-Trump.
As I followed this seesaw of dialogue, I couldn’t help but call to mind (because I read it recently in a discussion group) Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. King, though always marching under a broader fight against injustice, had a specific motive in Birmingham: the removal of racist signs. Additionally, his actions were calculated and full of direction.
E.g.: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. […] On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation. […] We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action […] Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence […] Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. […] Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.”
King also provides a detailed account of how they negotiated with economic leaders in Birmingham to have the racist signs removed from merchant stores. After a few signs were taken down and then replaced, “direct action,” in the form of non-violent protest, was the only possible next step. While I understand that not every protest needs to be organized in the same way, I respect King’s rooted and directional purpose. And I respect even more that the same sense of purpose could be found in all his followers: he was fighting for equal rights for African Americans and I’m sure 51 percent of African Americans did not disagree about what that meant.
To its detriment, there was nothing similar in the organization and direction of the Women’s March. Under the vast, undefined umbrella of “Women’s Rights,” the goal of the march varied from person to person. And the dialogue around the march showed that women in America are too divided, even among their own silos, to execute a direct action protest.
What’s more powerful—something I will gladly march for—is a women’s rights movement with space for all kinds of women, centered on a clear, unifying goal (the release of Trump’s tax returns, for one example). But this can’t happen without woman-to-woman dialogue across different social and economic divides, something that the Women’s March seems only to have made less likely.
My friend Bryce put it well when he said: “It’s great that they’re marching. I support it. But as soon as they’re done it’s time to start talking to the 51 percent of women that voted for Trump. There’s a lot of work to do.”
Bryce and I operate like something of a yin and yang in this sentiment. While he thinks white pro-Trump women need to be told about the lives of minorities in our country (and I agree), I also think anti-Trump women need to see the lives of rural conservative women. Just as immigrants and victims of police brutality may have seen political refuge in Hillary Clinton, unemployed meth addicts and single mothers in trailer parks saw Donald Trump in the same light. (Though I am skeptical that either viewpoint was aimed at a worthy candidate.)
No doubt it is amazing that so many women mobilized for something they support—and across the globe, too. It’s wonderful also that people who do not have a progressive agenda showed up in support of what little unifying principles they could find (Bikers for Trump and the Sisters of Mercy, for example).
But marching is easy. Especially in 2017 for a mostly white group. What’s much more difficult? Leaving our echo chambers and listening to people we disagree with. Working together towards a feminist agenda with clear goals that improve life for every kind of woman. This difficulty, though, in the spirit of King himself is “a more excellent way.”
Photo: Liz Lemon