Reflections on the Women’s March: White Feminism, Liberalism, and the Resistance

Taken at the Women’s March on Washington D.C. (Twitter)

The Women’s March in Phoenix, the local march that I attended, was nothing short of ethereal. For over 20,000 people to gather and march around the state capitol in our traditionally red state was, no doubt, awe-inspiring and filled me with hope for the future of our state’s political scene. Turnout for the March crushed expectations: over 3.5 million people showed up across the world to stand up for women’s rights and against the Trump presidency. Since November 8th, those on the left have been calling for a “Resistance” movement against Trump that can take on his pseudo-fascist agenda, and at first glance, it looks like the Women’s March will be the catalyst for the next 4 years of anti-Trump and anti-GOP activism. After the failure of the #NeverTrump movement led by Republicans in the primary, and Hillary Clinton and the Democrats’ loss on Election Day, is this what the first effective Resistance against Trump looks like?

I have my doubts. While the national movement was organized by powerful, capable women of color like Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, the vast majority of nationwide and worldwide Marches were taken up by a liberal, white feminist coalition. While unintentional, the white feminist contingent of the marches necessarily perpetuated the exclusion of non-white and non-cis bodies from their burgeoning “resistance” movement.

For example, one central theme for marchers was the call for “pussy” to “grab back”, referencing the vile statements made by Trump in 2005. Backed up by the #PussyHatProject, which created and distributed a pink beanie with cat ears for use by protesters, the vagina as a symbol for womanhood and femininity became central to the movement. But implicit in this is the idea that to be female, and thus to be included in this activist contingent, one must have genitalia that agrees with their gender. Thus, the trans woman is excluded. Transgender persons, who arguably face far greater dangers under a Trump presidency than the average white, cis woman, are yet again made to feel as if they do not belong, and thus cannot resist in solidarity with the rest of the protesting group.

The white feminist character espoused by the participants of the March not only excludes transgender people, but women of color as well. The first glaring example of this is the relationship between marchers and the police forces deployed to monitor the protest. Social media was flooded with images of white women hugging and posing with police officers, all parties donning their Pussy Hats as a show of support. “Peaceful protest above all” was the motto, and police presence was supported, respected, and even celebrated. The very same officers that show up in riot gear and shoot tear gas into crowds of black protesters were lauded for keeping the marchers “safe”. Maya Angelique explains this phenomenon far better than I can, so please check out her Twitter thread on the subject here. The rampant anti-blackness present in these marches was plain to see; while fellow marchers and I were chanting “Black Lives Matter” during the march in Phoenix, I was scolded and lectured by an older white woman, informing me that “well, white lives matter, too”.

For the white feminist contingent that made up most of this march, unity meant the universalization of white womanhood onto all, clearly brushing over and erasing the unique struggles faced by women of color. Unity, and feminism for that matter, should instead entail a recognition of difference, and a call to help women of all kinds overcome their unique struggles. There were indeed flashes of this type of intersectional feminism: in Phoenix, I saw the Latinx-led Brown Berets march as a bloc, as did many Indigenous and Black groups at marches across the country. While these groups were often rebuked for causing “disunity”, in other cases they were uplifted and supported by their fellow marchers, as they should have been.

With all of that in mind, the main question left to be answered is this: was the Women’s March a success? Well, yes and no. The image of bringing out 3.5 million people across the world in support of women’s rights and against Donald Trump is indeed a powerful one, and it represents that leftist organizing still has the capability to drum up mass support. However, the movement’s liberalism is difficult to overcome. For any protest movement to be successful, it must meet two criteria: it must be subversive to the power structures that created the oppression being protested, and it must be ideologically coherent and inclusive.

The Women’s March did not meet these two goals. First, the movement, while seemingly centered on women’s rights, had very little ideological consistency. As shown above, the majority of the protesters marched for a white feminist vision of “women’s rights”, centered around abortion rights and cis-oriented ideas of femininity. Besides these central themes, protesters were all over the map. In Phoenix, I spotted a sign that said “We Love You, Jeff Flake”, ostensibly due to the Republican Senator’s refusal to endorse Trump during the Election. However, Flake has clearly stated that he is anti-abortion, has pledged to support all of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees so far, and has received extremely low scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s equality scorecard. Is not supporting Trump the low bar the movement has set for acceptance? The movement did not have a clear set of demands, and this lead to a fractured ideology with nothing but a vague call to protect “women’s rights”. Furthermore, the movement was not subversive in any sense of the word. The maps for all marches were released to local officials before their scheduled times, all marches worked in tandem with police forces, and no measure of civil disobedience was conducted by any group.

With these concerns in mind, the Women’s March seems to amount to nothing more than a symbolic protest, a release of anger after the inauguration of Donald Trump. But the power of symbolism and anger should not be underestimated. While alone this movement cannot accomplish much, it provides a unique opportunity to develop a bonafide protest movement to challenge the next four years of GOP-controlled government. If only a small fraction of that 3.5 million-strong group can come out and engage in true civil disobedience against, for example, Trump’s reinstating of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline, we may be able to create a real resistance.

The power of the Women’s March is not in its ability to create change immediately, but to socialize a new, politically-active generation that can enact its goals at all levels. If we, as a movement against Trump, can move ourselves towards a more intersectional vision focused on concrete goals, the Women’s March will have been a success. If that will happen is to be seen.