Advertisement
News by VICE

Not really a progressive? The Women's March doesn't need you

by Carter Sherman
Nov 9 2017, 9:38am

DETROIT — One year ago Thursday, the day after Donald Trump won the presidency, a Hawaii grandmother named Teresa Shook went to Facebook with an idea: Let’s march. That small post ultimately led hundreds of thousands of people to gather three months later, on Jan. 21, in cities across the United States (and all seven continents) to protest in the Women’s March on Washington. It was the biggest single-day protest in U.S. history.

But once all the signs and pussy hats were put away, liberals were left to confront practical questions: Namely, could they transform the unity and energy of that one day into a lasting political movement, or were there too many agendas packed onto the National Mall to get things done?

Now, 10 months later, the organizers behind the Women’s March movement think they have an answer: Rather than trying to a build a tent big enough to include everybody who hates Trump, they’re organizing around progressive ideals, such as fighting for Medicare for All and a “clean” DREAM Act to protect young immigrants at risk for deportation.

The Women’s March sought to get everybody on board with that plan in October, during a three-day conference in Detroit called the Women’s Convention. Some 4,000 women attended, a core constituency of supporters whom organizers hoped to energize to “vote like your life depends on it,” as one speaker put it.

“Let us be the progressives”

“We have a chance, as progressives, to really move the needle toward progressive policies, progressive candidates, a progressive agenda, at a time when there’s two extremes now,” Linda Sarsour, assistant treasurer and the most prominent figure behind the Women’s March, told VICE News. “Let us be the progressives.”

Doubling down on these ideals is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. It might trigger more criticism that the Women’s March fails to represent all women, a charge both liberals and conservatives have levied against its organizers. And it may raise questions about if and when the Women’s March is willing to compromise, both within the movement and with establishment groups like the Democratic Party.

READ: The best signs of the Women’s March

“People presume we need to have everybody on board to make change,” Sarsour continued. “I just need a very committed few — 4,500 is pretty good — to go back into those communities and be those organizers that we need them to be in 2018.”

Attendee Andella White raises her hands during the three-day Women's Convention at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Political movements often end up narrowing their focus and their supporters as they fight to survive, said Seth Masket, who heads the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics and has written extensively on partisan polarization.

“The more people you have in a coalition, the more difficult it is to reach agreements and come up with decisions moving forward.”

“You’ll start with kind of a catalyzing event, like the election of Trump, that gets a lot of people out marching and saying, ‘We’re not going to take this,’” Masket said. But the more people you have in a coalition, he said, the more difficult it is to reach agreements and come up with decisions moving forward. “So inevitably, when that movement starts making political decisions and deciding what candidates they’re going to back, some people will be less excited.”

The Women’s March organizers’ progressive leanings may seem like a move away from the enormous coalition they gathered on that day after Inauguration Day, but they’ve never been a secret. In a three-page document published before the March on Washington, they outlined a comprehensive, decidedly progressive policy platform entitled #WHYWEMARCH. It called for the end of mass incarceration, the arming of police with military-grade weapons, and roadblocks to reproductive rights, and demanded the establishment of healthcare for all, incarceration alternatives, and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, among other things.

All women welcome?

Still, Sarsour stressed that people of any political persuasion are welcome at Women’s March events.

“The idea is to share values and share principles, and not necessarily share candidates or policies,” she said. However, she acknowledged that certain beliefs are non-negotiable, like support for abortion rights. (Anti-abortion groups were not permitted to be a part of the official programming at the Women’s March on Washington.)

And for many of the Women’s Convention attendees interviewed by VICE News, compromise might not be an option in the age of President Donald Trump.

“If your position is taking rights away from people, we can’t have you at the table,” said Amanda Cavazos Weems, who traveled to the convention from Austin, Texas. “Because there are some things, when it comes to people’s fundamental rights, that we can’t compromise on.”

READ: Trump started a culture war. Democrats don’t know how to fight back.

People at the Women’s Convention also seemed uninterested in trying to win over the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, who Sarsour once told VICE News “are not the people I’m trying to convince.” His administration was regularly denounced as white supremacist, and the president earned nicknames like “the orange man” and “Cheeto-in-chief.”

That indifference to wooing a broader swath of women may sound counterintuitive for a group with the word “Women” in the title, but Karissa Haugeberg contends that such a position is normal for feminist organizations. When conservative women accuse feminists of failing to represent them, feminists have often replied, “That’s fine.”

“I think the strategy has long been not to necessarily get people to identify [with] or consciously support the feminist project, but to get women to achieve equality,” said Haugeberg, an assistant history professor at Tulane University who’s studied past feminist movements. That approach allows feminists to co-exist alongside women like Megyn Kelly, who said the term “feminist” was “exclusionary and alienating” in her recent memoir but calls out workplace harassment, a cause feminists have championed for decades.

Haugeberg described feminists’ attitude toward people like her this way: “We know that you’re never going to identify as a feminist, but do know that it’s our 40-year project that’s enabling you to tell this story.”

Policy over pussy hats

Plus, veering hard to one side of the aisle isn’t a for-liberals-only tactic, said Chuck Rocha, founder of the political consulting firm Solidarity Strategies. It’s worked before.

“It’s the exact strategy that Donald Trump used to win the White House,” Rocha said. “You had Republicans who hadn’t turned out in years.”

“This is about dismantling white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism in general, cisheteronormativity, ableism, Islamophobia, all of these different things.”

So why does the Women’s March not stick to what worked on Jan. 21: opposition to Trump? Despite #WHYWEMARCH, the hundreds of thousands of protesters who gathered that day seemed less united by their support of progressive platforms than by their hatred of Trump. After all, the unofficial emblem of the marches, the pink “pussy hats,” didn’t symbolize any political policy; it referenced Trump’s lewd boast in the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that he was free to “grab” women “by the pussy” because he’s famous.

READ: “We don’t want to go backwards”: the voices of the Women’s March

But just fighting against Trump, instead of fighting for something, could ultimately undermine the ability of the Women’s March to make change beyond his presidency.

“This isn’t really about Trump as an individual. Yes, it’s about what he represents, but the deeper question is, what does he represent?” Raquel Willis, a national organizer for the Transgender Law Center, told VICE News. “This is about dismantling white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism in general, cisheteronormativity, ableism, Islamophobia, all of these different things.”

Willis, a black trans woman who says her microphone was cut off at the Women’s March on Washington even as several cis white celebrities were abruptly scheduled to speak, is one of the many liberal women who’ve publicly rebuked the Women’s March. Such criticism from the left also arose after many pointed out that the pussy hats excluded women who don’t have vaginas.

READ: 9 ways Tuesday’s election was historic

The Women’s Convention, attempting to confront that backlash, hosted a panel called “Not All Pussies Are Pink and Not All Women Have Pussies,” which Willis spoke on. However, as fellow panelist Katelyn Burns later wrote, this was just one of two panels — out of more than 100 — that directly focused on LGBTQ issues. In a closing panel, the Women’s March treasurer Carmen Perez acknowledged both this critique and the criticism that the conference had largely excluded indigenous women, vowing to improve next time.

Whatever lies ahead for the Women’s March, the elections Tuesday made it clear that women are ready to change the U.S. political landscape. Virginia elected its first openly transgender state legislator, its first two Latino women to its General Assembly, and its first Asian-American woman to its House of Delegates. Joyce Craig became Manchester, New Hampshire’s first female mayor, while Vi Lyles was elected the first female African-American mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. Andrea Jenkins also became the first transgender black woman to serve in elected office, in Minnesota.

Ashley Bennett also won her election for Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The New Jersey Democrat was initially motivated after a local male politician shared a Facebook meme asking, “Will the women’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?” the day of the Women’s March on Washington.

That politician’s job now belongs to Bennett.

Tagged:
feminism
VICE News
News
activism
Trump
Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders
intersectionality
Linda Sarsour
progressivism
women's march
Tamika Mallory
Women's Convention