It was one of the largest mass demonstrations in American history. Ahead of International Women’s Day, Amanda Hess reflects on the Women’s March and what it means for feminism.

Hours before the start of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, every Metro car leading to the National Mall was packed so tight that it could take on no more riders. 

At station after station, the train doors would open, and the passengers would look out on throngs of fellow protesters waiting on the platform. 

By the time these demonstrators were meant to march, the crowd was so large that it already stretched across the entire route, from the rally site near the Capitol to the Ellipse near the White House.

The signs they carried spoke to any number of issues: immigration, race, the environment, the new president. Refugees Welcome, Black Lives Matter, Science Is Real, Nobody Likes You. 

The handmade pink “pussyhats” that many marchers wore — a reference to Donald Trump’s caught-on-tape boasts about grabbing unsuspecting women by the genitals — had been sneered at in the days before the march. 

Seen from above, though, on thousands of marchers, their wave of colour created a powerful image.

It was one of the largest mass demonstrations in American history. 

Millions of protesters — estimates range from 3 million to 5 million — took to the streets of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, Boise, Idaho, even Fargo, North Dakota. 

Sister demonstrations were held in Thailand, in Malawi, in Antarctica. 

That it happened on the day after Trump’s inauguration was not surprising. 

What was striking was that all these people had come together under the auspices of a march for women.

Just two months earlier, the left did not appear to be a unified front. The polls had barely closed before the infighting began. 

Some blamed Hillary Clinton for ignoring Wisconsin, or the Democratic National Committee for boxing other candidates out of the primary field. Some blamed identity politics for alienating the white working class. 

Others blamed white people, particularly the coastal ones who couldn’t get their heartland relatives on their side.

But a crew of angry women was still aiming its ire at Trump. 

In the hours after his victory on November 8, Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, posted to Facebook, suggesting a march on Washington. 

Some women on the East Coast had the same idea. Within days, tens of thousands of women had pledged to join in. 

Eventually, an entire organising team would have permits, fleets of buses and celebrity sponsors. 

By the middle of January, with the event shaping up to be the anti-Trump demonstration, the New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait worried that “Women’s March” was actually too niche an organising principle.

The opposite turned out to be true: Women led the resistance, and everyone followed. In the weeks since the march, that energy has only spread, with the march’s striking proof of concept — hit the streets, and a surprising number of others will join you — fueling more spontaneous actions everywhere from courthouses to airports. 

In this moment, it happened that “women” was the one tent large enough to contain almost every major strain of protest against Trump.

The women’s movement has not always been a site for unity. But more than a century of internal turmoil has also forced the movement to reckon with its divisions. Now, the question is whether it can bring even more Americans into the fold.

Clinton’s loss on November 8 was a pivotal moment in the course of the American women’s movement. The would-be first female president was shoved to the side by what a sizable chunk of the nation saw as that classic historical figure: the male chauvinist pig.

But Clinton has always been a wary avatar of feminism. 

In 2008, she didn’t run for president as a “women’s candidate”; if anything, she campaigned with her sex in the closet. 

In the eight years between her first and second presidential campaigns, though, something shifted: Feminism became fashionable. 

By the start of the Obama era, women’s blogs like Jezebel and Feministing had started throwing popcorn at the big screen of American culture, covering the same topics that women’s magazines did — fashion, movies, sex — but taking on the women’s magazines too. 

By Obama’s second term, this model had multiplied so many times over that even a co-founder of the sports website Bleacher Report started his own women’s site, Bustle.

Soon enough, no corner of culture was safe from a feminist critique, from Christmas songs to “manspreading”. 

Feminism became increasingly popular, but in a very specific way — one attuned to the concerns of people with office jobs and time to spend online. 

The feminist priorities of this new media landscape tended to involve topics that middle-class women would experience firsthand: reproductive rights, catcalling, campus rape, professional opportunity, pop culture representation. 

It’s not that women’s activist groups vanished or political organizing stalled. 

But it did become possible for an American woman to cultivate a relationship to feminism that was primarily consumerist:

There were feminist TV shows to watch, feminist celebrities to follow, feminist clothes to buy. 

Feminism was being defined down to its most benign interpretation. It was less a political platform than a brand identity.

By the time the 2016 campaign rolled around, Clinton wasn’t just permitted to run as a feminist — she was practically obligated to. Her messaging shifted accordingly. 

Years of women’s debating the right way to be a feminist had the side effect of forcing the first female major-party candidate to the left. 

Meanwhile, her campaign mimicked the aesthetics of the pop-cultural feminist mode. 

The candidate affirmed her feminism in a video interview with Lena Dunham, posed in a Kim Kardashian selfie and sold embroidered pillows that said “A Woman’s Place Is in the White House.” 

Pop feminism, having been washed of its political urgency, was now being integrated back into politics at the highest level.

When Clinton lost, pop feminism suffered a crisis. 

Some of the long-simmering fractures between different groups of women exploded into view. Ninety-four percent of black women voted for Clinton, but 53% of white women voted for Trump. 

His win suggested that Americans were more comfortable with misogyny than many had thought, but it also burst the bubble of cheery pop feminism, which had achieved its huge popularity at the expense of class consciousness and racial solidarity.

In those same November weeks, the nascent march-on-Washington project was navigating its own identity crisis. Some of the early organisers had romantic-comedy-type jobs — pastry chef, yoga instructor. 

One of the women, Bob Bland, a fashion designer, had amassed a small online following by designing “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombre” T-shirts and selling them online. 

“I had this whole network of ‘nasty women’ and ‘bad hombres’,” she told me. 

“After the election, they were looking to me like, ‘What are we going to do next?’” 

Disparate organisers convened around a Facebook event announcing a Million Women March. 

US president Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the US Capitol on January 20 in Washington, DC. Picture: Alex Wong/Getty Images

There was one major problem with this: In 1997, activists organized a Million Woman March in Philadelphia to address the particular concerns of black women. 

When this new march on Washington unwittingly chose a very similar name, it crystallised the idea that the nascent movement was being run by a handful of white women with no organising history.

Of all the tensions that have coursed through the women’s movement, none has ever been quite so pronounced as the one between white and black women. 

Consider what happened when Sojourner Truth showed up at a women’s rights convention in Ohio in 1851. White women in attendance complained that a black woman’s testimony would distract from the convention’s focus. 

Throughout the convention, men arrived to speak out against women’s suffrage. Women, they said, were too weak and helpless to be trusted with the power of the vote.

As Frances Gage, the woman running the show, recalled the scene 12 years later, their points went unchallenged until Truth stepped forward. 

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” Truth said. 

“Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm!” 

She rolled up her sleeve to the shoulder. 

“I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?”

Gage wrote that Truth’s testimony compelled the white women in attendance to embrace her “with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude.” 

But two years later, Truth still drew jeers from white crowds when she attended women’s meetings. A vision of whiteness was ingrained in the leaders of the mainstream movement.

Even the suffragists’ signature white clothes were deliberately chosen to signal purity. This ideal of feminine virtue was not extended to black women, or working-class ones. 

In 1894, a white woman at a meeting of the Brooklyn Woman Suffrage Association argued that women’s suffrage ought to be restricted. 

“Think what it means to give it to all women,” she said. 

“Our criminal and pauper men have wives; there are thousands of female operatives in tobacco factories and similar fields of labour; there are probably 2 million Negro women in this country who are but little uplifted above the plane of animals.”

In the thick of feminism’s second wave, women were often still divided along lines of identity. 

In 1967, as the best-selling author Betty Friedan called the first meeting of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, she found herself at odds with a black activist and lawyer named Flo Kennedy, who pushed the women around her to make common cause with the anti-war and Black Power movements.

Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, had been an awakening for a class of white, married, middle-class women, and she pictured herself as the leader of what she called a “mainstream” feminist movement. 

When women at one 1970 march offered her a lavender armband to wear in solidarity with a NOW member recently attacked for her bisexuality, Friedan dropped it on the ground, furious at the attempt to add gay rights to her programme. 

Kennedy continually pushed in the opposite direction, trying to build bridges between feminist groups and other movements. 

As the second wave matured, black women found themselves continually calling on it to consider a new approach, one that acknowledged the different needs of different women. 

As the black feminist and leftist Barbara Smith told the National Women’s Studies Association in 1979, any feminism that didn’t account for the specific concerns of black women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians and others was not really feminism — it was “merely female self-aggrandizement.”

THE HISTORY OF the women’s movement is one of warring factions and sharp self-criticism. But its 150 years of navigating internal disputes put it in a position to lead what seemed, at the end of last year, like a highly divided left.

“It’s embarrassing to me now to say it, but I didn’t know the term ‘intersectionality’ when we started,” Bob Bland, the Women’s March co-chairwoman, told me. 

Now she deployed it often to emphasise the growing diversity of the march. 

That magic word comes from a 1989 paper by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw that was published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum. 

Crenshaw had studied cases in which black women sued their employers for what appeared to be “compound discrimination” — both racial and gender biases. 

But they were often told they lacked legal standing: Laws protected them from discrimination as African-Americans or as women, but not specifically as black women.

Crenshaw used a traffic metaphor to describe the interlocking forms of oppression a person might face. Cars flowed through an intersection in all directions; when an accident happened, it could be caused by cars from any number of sides. 

That metaphor would grow in resonance over the next two decades, until “intersectionality” became a rallying cry — the main point of rhetorical resistance against the tide of single-issue feminist conversation. 

The concept became a useful tool for the march on Washington, which set about the task of uniting feminism’s mainstream arm and its dissenting factions.

Soon after the suggestion to march raced across the web, Vanessa Wruble — a white producer and co-founder of the media company OkayAfrica — made a pivotal intervention in its planning. 

“I thought the stakes were so high,” she told me. 

“It needed to be an inclusive movement, or it was going to be a total disaster. I felt that it could damage the country.” 

With the march quickly ballooning into something bigger than the initial organisers could handle on their own, Wruble reached out and urged them to drop the name Million Women March. 

Then she linked them up with her network, and soon three seasoned activists — Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory — got on board.

The three women — one Chicana Latina, one Palestinian-American, one black — met through their involvement in Justice League NYC, a juvenile-justice initiative. 

Now hundreds of thousands of women whose previous interest in justice may have been abstract at best were turning to them for leadership. 

The question, Perez told me, was “How do we get them to understand that their liberation is bound with ours?” 

When I called Crenshaw in January, she had just returned home to Los Angeles from the march on Washington. 

Wading through the crowd, she said, “I saw all the different issues and people that had found their way under the banner of the Women’s March. It was the embodiment of the intersectional sensibilities that a lot of us have been working on for a very long time.”

For the moment, Trump appears to be the great uniter. In the days and weeks since the march, its energy spilled into spontaneous actions across the country, with protesters coming together on behalf of Muslims and immigrants.

But liberals are not the only ones drawing inspiration from the protests. Flip to Fox News or click around conservative blogs, and you can watch the demonstrations fuel a different kind of opposition narrative. After the march, Fox News set clips of rally speeches to foreboding music. 

Breitbart published photos with the headline “See what a massive, Hillary shaped bullet America just dodged?” 

In the first weeks of the Trump administration, the factions that split over his election are deepening along the same lines. 

Trump supporters call themselves “the silent majority” while his critics identify as the “popular vote”.

When I called Eleanor Smeal, a co-founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and asked her whether the organization had any plans to reach out to the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, her response was to question the margin of error in the polls.

“We don’t really know if we lost the majority or not, and I believe that we did not,” she told me. 

“I think they’re with us.” 

For now, the factions of the left seem to have found an accord. But to regain any power in Washington, they will need to sway the centre too — including some of those women who voted for Trump. 

The white women of the left have been eager to dissociate from that group. But of all the people who marched on Washington last month, they may be among the best positioned to reach across that aisle. 

“I know of no other time when it would be more important,” Barbara Smith, the black feminist and leftist, told me. 

“That’s not my work to do, but somebody ought to do it.”

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times


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