If the women’s movement is to make any kind of meaningful progress, it must first make Black lives matter.
On Jan. 21 2017, the Women’s March on Washington led what many now believe was the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history. Organized by experienced women of color activists and organizers (Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez), the march called on women of diverse backgrounds, including immigrant, queer/trans, and Muslim women, to demonstrate a show of force against the new regime of Donald Trump, which has so far been built almost exclusively on a platform of anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric.
Despite the impressive critical mass that turned out on January 20th, however, there were substantial and substantiated criticisms of the march: notwithstanding its leadership by women of color, the march was largely white, cisgender, and middle-class in representation.
Amidst white women’s calls that “women’s rights are humans rights,” there was little discussion of the way in which white women have historically colluded with white patriarchy in the oppression of Black people to obtain their rights, nor was there discussion of white women’s historical participation in the genocide and oppression of Indigenous people. Not to mention that it was white women who, more than any other single group of people, voted Donald Trump into the presidential office by an overwhelming majority.
In addition, calls for solidarity among “all women” through the donning of the now infamous “pink pussy hats” sparked rightful cynicism and criticism from trans and gender non-conforming women, many of whom did not appreciate an outdated and exclusionary version of womanhood rooted in biology rather than identity, experience, and structural oppression. Not all women have vaginas, and not all women’s parts are pink. For many trans women and/or women of color, the call to “unite” under a supposedly universal symbol of womanhood that was so blatantly rooted in a white, cisgender experience made it impossible to endorse.
Despite its many flaws and shortcomings, however, the Women’s March was not a one-time occurrence, and it did not simply disband after the march.
Since Jan. 21, the Women’s March has become a smaller but more focused contingent of activists that more pointedly centers issues affecting Black, immigrant, and Muslim women. Most recently, the WM contingent, under the leadership of Palestinian-American Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, centrally took up the concerns of the Black Lives Matter Movement in a way that it should continue to do if it is to be a lasting force for change during the Trump presidency and beyond.
After news broke last month that the court had failed to indict the police officer who murdered Philando Castile (a legal, licensed gun carrier in the state of Minnesota), co-chair of the Women’s Movement Tamika Mallory–a Black woman who has spent many years advocating for gun control–issued a letter to the NRA (National Rifle Association) asking why it had not stood up for the rights of Philando Castile. Given that Castile was a legal gun owner (as required by law, Castile informed the officer who pulled him over that he had a legal license to carry), she argued, the NRA logically should have rallied for his cause, since it allegedly supports the rights of citizens to arm themselves.
In typical hypocrite fashion, however, it soon became clear that by “citizens’ right to bear arms,” the NRA did not mean all citizens, but seemingly only white male citizens. Anyone else’s right to bear arms, apparently, was not worth defending. Rather than responding to Mallory’s letter directly, the NRA instead issued this offensive advertisement, and Mallory was deluged with death threats from NRA supporters. In response, Sarsour, Mallory, and the WM contingent led a march from the NRA headquarters to the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. to demand that the NRA be held accountable for its failure to address the infringement of Castile’s second amendment rights, and for endangering the safety of Tamika Mallory.
The kind of work that the Women’s March is now doing–work that directly and specifically addresses police violence against the Black community and the safety of Black women in particular–is exactly the kind of work it should continue to do. In other words, the Women’s March should take its cue from the Black Lives Matter movement by centering issues specific to Black women and their communities. If the women’s movement is to make any kind of meaningful progress, it must first make Black lives matter.
This is true especially because the Women’s March that took place on January 20th, 2017 had an important precedent, which has so far received little attention: the Women’s March of 1997, which was entirely conceived and led by Black women. On Oct. 25, 1997, an estimated 750,000 Black women gathered together to march down the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, in order to inspire Black women across the nation to work for their own improvement as well as that of their communities. The Women’s March should not only acknowledge its debt to this earlier iteration of the Women’s March, conceived and led twenty years previous by Black women, but should continue to center the voices and issues of Black women which remain by and large unaddressed.
Featured Image: Angela Peeples at Women’s March. CREDIT: Kevin Banatte via Twitter