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The Future of the Left Is Female

Women’s rights are human rights, and women leaders are progressive leaders.

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Photograph by Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A crowd fills the streets near Capitol Hill during the Women’s March on Washington.

A lot of people predicted that women were going to change America’s political history in January of 2017. But pretty much no one anticipated that they’d be doing it as leaders of the resistance. On Saturday, millions of women and men — organized largely by young women of color — staged the largest one-day demonstration in political history, a show of international solidarity that let the world know that women will be heading up the opposition to Donald Trump and the white patriarchal order he represents. Women — and again, especially women of color, always progressivism’s most reliable and least recognized warriors, the women who did the most to stop the rise of Trump — were the ones taking progressive politics into the future.

The Women’s March, dreamed up by a couple of women with no organizing experience in the feverish, grief-addled hours after Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, and then organized by an expanded team in the span of about ten weeks, was an earth-shaking triumph.

According to early reports, it drew somewhere north of 680,000 to Washington, D.C., 750,000 to Los Angeles, 400,000 to New York City, 250,000 to Chicago, 100,000 each to Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, the Twin Cities, and Portland Oregon; and crowds of thousands to smaller cities, including 11,000 to Ann Arbor, 5,000 to Lexington, Kentucky, 8,000 to Honolulu, and 20,000 to Houston. There were 2,000 protesters in Anchorage, Alaska, and 1,000 in Jackson, Mississippi. Demonstrations took place on all seven continents, including Antarctica.

This mass turnout in support of liberty, sorority, and equality was conceived by women, led by women, and staged in the name of women. It also drew millions of men. It was a forceful pushback to the notion that because a woman just lost the American presidency, women should not be leading the politics of the left. Women, everyone saw on Saturday, are already leading the left, reframing what has historically been understood as the women’s movement as the face and body and energy of what is now the Resistance.

Plenty of factors made this effort so successful, but perhaps the biggest was the shock and horror that jolted portions of a long-complacent population awake after the election of Donald Trump. As it turns out, sometimes, It Takes a Villain. We’ve got one now; he lives in the White House, has the nuclear codes, and spent Saturday defending the size of his, er, inauguration crowds. In his first weeks in office, he might very well nominate an anti-choice Supreme Court nominee, begin deportations, repeal health-care reform, start the process of withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, and defund Planned Parenthood. He has already reinstated the Global Gag Rule.

Yes, Trump exposed himself as a villain long before the election, and for many on the day of the march, the question was: Where was this energy before November 8? Clearly, the vast majority of Saturday’s crowd had been Hillary Clinton supporters, at the very least in the general election if not in the primary. But it is also true that some of the apathy, some of the complacency, that many critics took as a reflection of Clinton’s “flawed” candidacy stemmed instead from the sense that Americans didn’t really need to panic or take to the streets on her behalf because she was going to win. She was going to win, the assumption went, because of course we are evolved enough that this guy could never get elected president and thus we were free to focus on the imperfections of the woman who was going to be the president.

Through this lens, those who had been out there before the election, wearing T-shirts, holding signs, and talking passionately about the sexism Clinton was facing or racist backlash toward Obama or the high stakes of this election for women and people of color were silly bed-wetters, Hill-bots, embarrassing in their fixations on “identity politics.” Those yelling about sexism were playing some dated “woman card”; those trying to explain how gender and race and class intersect were jargon-happy hysterics. There was a confidence that the country’s problems with women had been largely redressed, or at least were no longer so entrenched that we would have to put in extra work on behalf of the first one to be running for the White House. But that confidence was baseless, ahistorical. The country has a yuge problem with women, and Donald Trump is the cartoonish embodiment of that problem.

If a time traveler had been able to jump just 24 hours backward, from the night of November 8 to the night of November 7, to warn us what was about to happen, Election Day turnout would have looked a lot more like the march turnout, not just in numbers but in energy and purpose and passion. But since reverse time travel remains largely a right-wing goal, we got Donald Trump. Of course, we also got 4 million or more people to the streets on Saturday and a sense of the potential for the women’s movement to be both much larger and much broader than it’s ever been before.

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National co-chairs of the march Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, and Tamika D. Mallory at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Photo: Noam Galai/WireImage

It matters that the protests were organized and headlined by young women. When I covered the March for Women’s Lives that took place in Washington almost 13 years ago, I wrote about the hundreds of thousands of young women who flocked to Washington but found almost no representation, no voice, no reflection of their own diverse identities and experiences reflected onstage. In 2004, I wrote about Gloria Steinem’s earnest attempt to reach out to the young women gathered, but worried that while Steinem had been there for my mother and to some extent for me, it was unlikely that my future daughter’s generation would know who she was. “It’s been 12 years since the last march,” I wrote back then. “Twelve years from now, Steinem will be 82 years old. Who will take her place onstage?” On Saturday, Steinem, now 82, did take the stage, at the invitation of the young women who had created this extraordinary day. She was there alongside not just the organizing team of Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland, but the hundreds of other women — black, indigenous, Latina, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, trans, and queer women — who in making this event, have just remade the women’s movement as more inclusive and powerful than it has perhaps ever been.

Though initial worries that the demonstrators were going to be predominantly white had been exacerbated by social-media images of trains and planes full of white women arriving for the protest, the crowd in Washington was decidedly mixed. Signs and buttons and speeches and chants voiced support for Black Lives Matter, outrage at the water crisis in Flint, and opposition to the Dakota Pipeline, long-overdue recognition of the fact that these issues have direct and often disproportionate impact on women, and that the women who have been fighting these fights are the leaders here.

If there was an over-representation of “nice white ladies” marching, it’s important to note that those white women were showing up for a march led by nonwhite women, in support of a radical and intersectional set of policy principles laid out by nonwhite women, carrying signs and marching in solidarity with plenty of women’s issues that do not center on white women. No, we shouldn’t give them too much credit for showing up where they should have been for years. And yes, the next steps must include white women (and men) showing up for women of color in other ways, at other demonstrations and with other actions (including not voting with an eye to their own privilege).

But even if the necessary power realignment within feminism takes time, this historic event will have been a tremendous step toward the reimagining of a women’s movement as a web of varied but interconnected interests and missions. In the past, strategic tensions over intersectional aims have stemmed from an anxiety that diffusing the focus on gender inequity to also tackle racial injustice, environmental injustice, minimum wage, and LGBTQ issues would just serve as an example of women subjugating their uniquely gendered concerns to other kinds of needs, as they have been conditioned to do. The fear — and yes, it is often a fear of white feminists who do not experience as many additional biases or roadblocks to equality aside from their gender — has been that overlapping identities and injustices could somehow work to pull women who might otherwise be united apart from each other.

But there was a new metaphysical approach at work on Saturday, largely thanks to the organizing and leadership of nonwhite women: the revolutionary sense that the new women’s movement will be about pulling in issues of criminal justice, environmental activism, immigration reform, and systemic racism. Women, with women of color at front and center, can be the engines of new progressive activism in all arenas. It’s a rebuke to the theory floated by some on the left that there is a disjunction between “identity politics” and politics, a rebuke to those who suggested in the wake of Trump’s electoral win that the future lies in moving away from divisive “social issues” and identity-framed movements and back to economic policies.

What this event did, on the most massive scale we have seen in this country, is reaffirm what has always been true: The impact of identity bias has always been economic, and economic issues have always most powerfully disadvantaged those who experience identity bias. Or to put it another way: Women’s rights are human rights.

Perhaps most surprising of all, men showed up alongside the women to fight for those rights. Many reports had the New York march at about half men, though some of that could perhaps be explained by the number of New York women who went to Washington alone, leaving kids behind with male partners. But those men — including my husband, including my male friends — brought those kids, girls and boys, to the march for women’s rights in New York. Men were at all the demonstrations in great numbers. They held signs like “I’m with her” with arrows pointing every which way; they chanted “her body, her choice”; one image shows a white guy holding a sign reading, “‘Screw it. I’ll do it.’ — Black Women *Thank You*” — a rare acknowledgment of black women as the most reliable progressives and left activists in this country. On the train returning to New York from D.C., I was wondering aloud to my editor whether people would continue to wear the pussy hats after the march. A bearded, gray-haired man piped up. “I think they’ll turn out to be a symbol of the new movement,” he said. “I’ll wear mine.”

While it’s important not to pat guys on the head too appreciatively for showing up where they, too, should have been for years, it’s impossible to overstate how important it is to have men enthusiastically signing up for a movement led by women. Historically, men have offered support for women’s causes here and there, but largely from the sidelines, as if women’s concerns were a ghettoized subset within the larger progressive project. Saturday was different: They showed up, wore the pink hats, listened (if they could hear) to Angela Davis and Melissa Harris-Perry and to Janelle Monáe, who reminded them that “it was woman who gave you Martin Luther King Jr.; it was woman who gave you Malcolm X.” Men paid tribute to the women leading them, and didn’t try to take over. The day after the march a video circulated showing Ur-progressive white man Bruce Springsteen speaking at a concert in Perth on Saturday, saying that his band’s “hearts and spirits are with the hundreds of thousands of women and men” protesting “in support of tolerance and inclusion, reproductive rights, civil rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, the environment, wage inequality, gender equality, health care, and immigrant rights.” There it was, a progressive agenda that could not possibly sideline women’s concerns, because it was women who drew it up and laid it out and summoned millions to shout their message.

It’s a new world. Get a load of who’s running it after all.

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Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    The mass protests organised by women against white patriarchy and discrimination of people along race and gender is welcome sign of resistance against fascist policies of Trump. Such struggles are very essential to thwart undemocratic policies.

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