Young feminists reflect on their experiences, critiques, and future hopes stemming from the Women’s March

Samantha Grey at Vancouver’s Women’s March, January 21, 2016.

The election of Donald Trump inspired the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Three million people in more than 500 American cities took to the streets, and we saw sister marches across the globe —  673 in total! The Women’s March on Washington sent a powerful message: women are angry and they aren’t going to take it sitting down. We brought together several women who attended marches in various North American cities to talk about their experiences, responses to critiques, and ideas about what can and should come next.

Our roundtable participants are: Jocelyn Macdonald, a 29-year-old poet and lesbian activist; Sarah Mah, a 28-year-old member of Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP) and graduate student; Jess Martin, a 29-year-old independent feminist, disability advocate, and media strategist; and Samantha Grey, a 28-year-old Aboriginal feminist and front-line worker.

Meghan: All of you attended a Women’s March on January 21st — can you tell me where you attended and what the experience was like?

Jocelyn: I attended the national march in D.C. The energy was electric on the subways, in the streets, and in the march — the resistance was gleeful, sassy, and family-friendly, despite all of the signs with variations on the theme of pussy-grabbing. Attendees spanned all age groups, and were predominantly white and female. There were many women of colour, but not many of those women were black. Many black women told the world through media and social channels that the march organization was not addressing their needs, and that they didn’t trust the execution to be intersectional, so their absence was not surprising, although to the white women who are not new to feminist organizing and who are tired of anti-black mainstream feminism, it was noticeable and sad.

This did not feel like a protest so much as a parade of the new left — an amalgam of diverse people who are not united in liberalism or leftism so much as in being anti-Trump. I marched with about 50 radical and lesbian feminists, and I was surprised that we were one of the few groups that had organized together. It felt like the march was predominantly individuals and families who were inspired to demonstrate, but groups that often form blocs — such as unions and collectives — were not present. I saw a nurse’s union and Moms Demand Action, but no other unions or collectives.

To me, this shows the fragmentation of our movement. Neoliberalism has influenced our activism to the point that individuals — not groups –are moved to participate. Were groups and collectives missing because they are dissolving? Considering the attacks on organized labour and organizing in general, this would not surprise me. However, a culture of individualism is what I see in the viral photo of three white women taking selfies while Angela Peoples holds a sign saying “white women voted for Trump.”

Nevertheless, it was truly amazing to be in a crowd of people so large that cell service and internet were unavailable. Even those of us from D.C. could not find the march route or space to see or hear the rally. Every single street — including the march route — was packed so full of women in tacky pink hats that there was nowhere for our Bunch of Dykes to go, and nothing to do but dance, makeout, chant, and cheer.

Jess: I attended the march in Vancouver, B.C. I arrived 10 minutes late so there was a considerable crowd around Jack Poole Plaza by the time I got there. There was a palpable difference between the protest march and the more-common parade-like events in Vancouver, many of which are hyper-sexualized and light-hearted. At this march, women were there to get shit done. I was encouraged, first, by the multigenerational nature of the crowd — seniors, women with infants and toddlers, millennial-aged women, pre-teens. I think my favourite experience was listening to protest chants from women (“Hey-hey, ho-ho, patriarchy has got to go”). It was hard not to become overwhelmed with emotion as the crowd started to make it’s way down the street. I’m not a huge crier but I had some seriously sweaty eyeballs that day.

Samantha: I also attended the march in Vancouver, B.C. I coordinated with a few women I work with to go to the march together. At first, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who were gathering at Jack Poole Plaza. The energy of the group seemed celebratory — not because we were celebrating a joyous moment but because we were all so relieved that we weren’t alone in (whichever) struggle we were there representing. I agree with Jess that the crowd included a vast age range of women. It was encouraging to see women younger than myself participating in the march but also encouraging to see women older than myself still willing to put up a fierce fight.

Sarah: I live in Montreal, and attended the Ottawa march because I considered the Canadian capital might be of some importance, relative to Washington. Other members of the AWCEP attended the marches in Vancouver and Toronto, but I can personally offer some of my impressions of the Ottawa march.

I was in the wonderful company of several other feminists I knew. Having come equipped with hand-drawn placards, handbills from the groups I am organized with, and my friend with her high-quality audio recorder, we made our way from Montreal to Ottawa on the 7 a.m. bus. Most encouraging was the presence of women of all ages — many with children, many who I judged did not usually go to protests. Composed mostly of women, those who held signs had clear demands for sexual, racial, and economic rights. The messages were genuine, cheeky, furious, provocative, though of course a couple missed the mark a bit. While I thought that it was unfortunate that we never made it to Parliament Hill, the march was enthusiastic and so large that we could not see the end. Much to our satisfaction, we heard the crowd reached between 6000-8000 people.

Women’s March on Washington (D.C.), January 21, 2016. (Image: Jocelyn Macdonald)

Meghan: What are some things you learned through participating in the march?

Jocelyn: It’s not enough to have women of colour and transwomen on the organizing committee and writing the guiding principles of a march if the media dialogue leading up to it positions the march as not intersectional.

The other thing I learned is that women still organize around their personal experience, not theory. Catharine MacKinnon writes about this in “From Practice to Theory, or What Is a White Woman Anyway?” Regardless of how much you tell women that pink pussy hats are stupid/transphobic, or that signs with vagina dentata or an oviduct serving you the middle finger is “reducing women to their genitalia,” women don’t care. Women start with practice, based on their personal experience, and then may or may not develop or engage in theory.

Although men and “all genders” were offered a golden invitation, they did not show up. I was delighted of course, because I prefer my feminism to be light on men. But I think what is actually behind this is that men don’t think rape culture, abortion rights, income inequality, the destruction of welfare programs, etc. involve them, so they don’t participate. I didn’t see any Now This pieces on how male feminist allies were marching in the back to show solidarity without centering themselves.

Jess: I think I underestimated — or perhaps hadn’t thought about — how powerful it is for women to demonstrate globally on the same day in different locations.

I have been thinking about whether location is important to meaningful practice of intersectionality. Of course, it would be difficult for all oppressed demographics to have been represented on the speaker’s list of the Vancouver-based event, which has caused some hurt amongst oppressed communities. It would have been meaningful for me, personally, to see women with visible disabilities at the mic. Chinese and Japanese women were absent from the speaker’s platform (which would have been a powerful gesture given B.C.’s history interning the Japanese and using Chinese people for slave labour). However, the fact that Vancouver’s march was led by Indigenous women was key. In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of anti-discrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics,” she discusses the fact that when we uplift those who are most oppressed, we relieve many others who are similarly oppressed. I think we would be hard-pressed to find a more openly and consistently oppressed group in Vancouver than Indigenous women. Indeed, they were “Canada’s” first oppressed group.

Sarah: There is a lot of thinking to do here, and we are still in discussion about the insights revealed and lessons learned. Among the women I am organized with, we are still processing the significance of the event, but here are some of my own preliminary thoughts that are, in part, conditioned by the wisdom and politics stemming from my group:

After seeing the range of women, children, and men attend the march, I was encouraged, and recognized that the time is ripe to be organizing to the Women’s Movement. These are people that, again, I judged might not otherwise attend a public protest, and did so declaring their support for women, bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, racial equality, and anti-violence. Of course, the focus on pink and some attempts to degender the event indicate there is still much work to be done in the organizing and politicization among my peers, but I consider it a great start to see so many pro-woman, pro-feminist messages of solidarity.

Samantha: I certainly underestimated the magnitude of women’s rage and their willingness to take to the streets. I attended an anti-Trump march shortly after he was elected, which was directionless and small in comparison. This march was about more than just Trump. Trump’s election as President definitely was the initial motivation for organizing the march, but in the end and in the streets, it became an accumulation of women’s rage and anguish towards sexism, violence against women, racism, poverty, and imperialism. I underestimated the unity — however seemingly limited it may be — we can have as feminists, both liberal and radical. The Women’s March brought all our collective desires for each other together in an unified action — something I did not expect.

Women’s March, Vancouver, B.C. (Image: Jess Martin)

Meghan: What does this march tell us about the state of the feminist movement and of women’s rights, more broadly, today?

Jocelyn: We are still asking the questions: “What is a woman?” “What is a woman’s issue?” “Feminism,” as it is written about in think pieces and criticized by the left, is becoming synonymous with “white feminism,” a phrase which would more accurately be “white supremacist neoliberalism for females,” although that’s not very catchy. This is harmful, because white supremacy, imperialism, and capitalism, have no place in feminism. Expressions of hierarchy should be critiqued when they arise in activism, but should be distanced from feminism as an ideology.

The feminist movement is embarrassed by what few women we have to look up to. “Women’s rights are human rights” a phrase popularized by and accredited to Hillary Clinton, was the slogan of the march, and yet HRC was not included on the list of inspirational women who paved the way. She was summarily trounced by misogyny in this election, and if more people had turned out for her — including young urban white women — we wouldn’t be staring down four years of neofascist hell.

Similarly, many of the speakers at the rally are being held to purity tests for their personal lives much less their political voices, and criticized broadly in the media. No one is above criticism, in fact we are strengthened by critique, but who will lead us if the critique ends in denouncement? While Ashley Judd and Gloria Steinem are being called white feminists, and the diverse group of organizers is on trial for not being intersectional enough, everyone turns a blind eye to the fact that a self-admitted rapist, Cherno Biko, was given a platform.

Jess: It tells us that now is the time for feminists with more tenure in the movement to put extra effort into mentoring those of us who have lots of learning to do. It also tells us that we need to understand both the media’s role and tactics for engaging with the media (or start organizing our own media), so that feminist stories and histories get shared — the kind of rich stories that don’t fit well onto protest placards. I’ve recently been studying the feminist movement as a community with a much more oral culture than mainstream or patriarchal groups. Stories are very important to us. As a media strategist, I would love to do a workshop one day on the best way to use the existing media, in all its toxic glory, to get our resistance stories out there.

Samantha: The march signified that, despite some of our ideological differences, feminists can still find a unifying reason to mobilize and march the streets together. Being a radical feminist can be isolating when relating to the masses. However, at the Women’s March, I felt inspired by the sheer number of women who showed up for similar reasons, in spite of our varying views on contentious issues like prostitution and women-only space. Of course, there are areas for improvement. Some still hesitated to name the problem. Some of the chants were degendered. Some expressed liberal views that made me shudder. However, these discrepancies are minor compared to the force the marches around the world symbolized.

Sarah: This is a pretty big question. I don’t think I have really had enough time to think about the answer and the women I am organized with have not finished processing it either.

What I observe, however, are three main things. First, there is new and spectacular energy among younger women. I saw my friends and colleagues who are not organized go to their local march or to Washington. Second, the dedication and generosity of older women and feminists, many of whom I looked to for leadership, was very apparent and reinforcing to me. Third, that the online presence of women marching around the world had, for the most part, stood up against a barrage of criticism (from mostly men) meant to divide us says to me that we have a real opportunity here to use this momentum to renew and advance a global feminist movement. As someone who is already organized, I definitely have a sense of renewed energy to continue my own equality-seeking work.

Women’s March, Vancouver, B.C. (Image: Jess Martin)

Meghan: There have been critiques made of the march, arguing that it was white-centered or, at least, not diverse. Some argued transwomen should have led or been more centered in the marches. Others asked, “Where have you been,” implying people were only speaking up now, but should have sooner, critical of the fact that the protest was filled with so many “first-timers.” How do you respond to those critiques?

Jocelyn: This was entry-level activism. Why would that be a bad thing? It’s undeniable that more white people need to care and get involved in the issues that Black Lives Matters (BLM) and others raise. But it’s also not surprising that people are driven to action when they feel personally threatened. Another 60 abortion restrictions were passed in 2016. Over the last few years we’ve seen horrific stories about campus and school rapes. I haven’t seen any significant organizing around these issues from any men. We don’t publicly chastise BLM or the immigrant rights movement for not addressing these issues, in spite of the fact that they affect black women and undocumented women. A movement isn’t responsible for taking on all injustice, and there should be space for women to speak to the oppression they face as well. Violence, rape, poverty, health care barriers, wage issues, reproductive justice — these are not trivial. Instead of berating women for coming late to the party, let’s help connect the dots. We need to get liberal white women AND lefty men to see the interconnectedness of our struggles. Let this be a launchpad into a more cohesive coalition that addresses injustice across the spectrum.

Many have argued that transwomen should have led, and the implication (and sometimes explicit statement) is that they are the “most oppressed women.” But are they? Female biology is not incidental to our oppression. Because we are acutely vulnerable to both rape and the consequence of it — pregnancy — our physical female bodies are exploited by men. Our bodies are the site of indoctrination into rape culture from birth, lack of access to abortion, epidemic levels of breast cancer, autoimmune disease, and more — all while the female body is virtually absent from medical studies and literature for the last couple centuries. If the “most oppressed woman” is not female, then these issues are indeed marginal: they decenter those we are told are the most oppressed — who should always be centered — especially in massive public demonstrations that are supposed to speak to ALL women. So even though these issues affect 100 per cent of females and zero per cent of transwomen, they are called divisive. The vast majority of feminists, who don’t even understand this logic, are now being branded TERFs.

Liberal feminist transwomen of colour were given important roles in the organization and platform of the march. Janet Mock, for instance, who advocates for the global sex industry, which is coercive, exploitative, and centers male needs. This system is inherently racist, which is obvious from the millions of women of colour, Indigenous women, and women of the global south who are purchased by men with white, male, and class privilege over them. Calls for intersectionality that ignore this racism and imperialism are hollow and callous, and this is one of the big ironies of liberal criticisms of the march.

Jess: Men have asked me this question several times in the four days since the march: “Where were you when it mattered?” They mean, of course, “Where were you when it mattered to me?” Or, more specifically, “Then why wasn’t this represented at the ballot box?” The reality is that this protest wasn’t birthed out of nowhere, as if the women’s movement has been sitting on her duff watching Sex in the City reruns while a serial predator groped his way into the White House. We’ve been organizing events, running campaigns, staffing front-line rape crisis shelters, writing articles and press releases, speaking out in classrooms and workplaces, demonstrating in the streets, writing politicians, public speaking, forming unions and coalitions, filing lawsuits that we have little chance of winning, and surviving — we were doing these things before the march and we’ll be doing them afterward. Why didn’t you notice it before? Because it’s easy to ignore and dismiss what women are doing unless they’re clogging up infrastructure, making it inconvenient for men to go about their daily lives without paying heed. If you think this march came out of nowhere, it’s time to take the blinders off. The march may have been full of first-timers. I sure as hell hope so, because movements don’t grow without adding new people to them. But it was definitely also full of old-timers. At least in Vancouver, you couldn’t swing a cat without breaking the hip of a woman over 80.

I think the critique that there should have been more public information on the history of the name of the march, and how it was inspired by a march organized by Black leaders, is very valid. However, I think we need to be holding our media to account for this rather than the event organizers. If there’s one thing I’ve picked up from being a PR professional, it is that slogans are for two-hour events, while stories and histories should be publicized through the media or shared through communities. The event organizers are easy targets right now, but no one is asking why journalists are jumping to write about conflict, when they could have been preparing interviews about the march’s history.

Sarah:

On race: With so much protest against the racism in Trump’s campaign at the various Women’s Marches around the world, I see this as is an opportunity to resist division, build on those alliances, and take the leadership of women of colour and Aboriginal women. It seems to me that leadership is there, it is growing, has strengthened our movement, and will benefit from the continued support of feminists.

On gender identity: I saw a comic recently that complained of women holding signs containing the words “vagina,” “ovaries”, and “uterus”, which was equated to biological essentialism, and was therefore supposedly inherently ignorant of transgendered individuals. The comic is not only misleading, but completely dismisses women defending our reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. Moreover, patriarchy is just that — a brand of oppression-based essentialism that creates an environment allowing men to sexualize, control, and rape females. Women are protesting that oppression, based on the biological and social conditions imposed on us from birth. That’s a consciousness that needs to be nurtured and defended, in my view.

On new women: I don’t believe there is much sense in berating women for being “late to the movement,” and perhaps those who are making that criticism should first look to themselves. Why have they failed, until now, to organize these women? We ought to remain welcoming and committed to the growth of the women’s movement, here and globally. Better late than never. In a quick conversation with my group member, Suzanne Jay, she told me that she believed feminists have not failed. The new women are there because of us. Sustained, visible, feminist organizing over time produced a sense of entitlement to equality that women are willing to go into the street to defend. Overwhelmingly, the signs and discussion reflect feminist aspirations. That is a credit to us.

Samantha: I was a newcomer to the movement once — we all were at some point. Momentum in the women’s movement cannot be sustained without engaging with new women. And certainly the Women’s March was a great way to mobilize new women to the movement. Surely the humourous signs, the sea of pussy hats, and masses of women who showed up could convince any woman to join the movement!

The idea that transwomen should have been more centred in the march is not something I can agree with. However, these critiques should not motivate a division amongst us. Our demands as women should not be pitted against those of transwomen. This is a moment of globalized unity amongst women and their allies (trans-identified or otherwise).

The march was certainly not perfect but it cannot be seen as a stand alone occurrence. We need to continue mobilizing and marching through the streets. There is room for improvement. There is room to ensure the voices of women of colour and Indigenous women are prioritized and heard.

Meghan: What’s next? The marches brought together so many women from around the world — where do you hope that energy goes? What are you yourself planning to do to extend this action into long term organizing and to effect real change? What advice can you offer to women who are interested in putting this energy into action?

Jocelyn: Women must organize in community. Mass movement scares the shit out of President Rape Culture and his minions because it is the only thing that has ever brought an empire to its knees. Women must revive the consciousness raising group. Identity is important to you and your community, but it needs to be contextualized. You weaponize the personal by understanding it in relation to what’s personal for your sister, and then doing something about it IRL. We need community and fellowship with other women, not only for political strategizing, but as an act of self-care, affirmation, and sisterhood. Patriarchy loves to isolate women; and when we party together, learn together, art together, we find the path forward.

For my part, I’m planning on wombanifesting my vagenda of manocide through creating woman-only space. I will continue organizing and training in empowerment-based self-defense. I will be offering citizen lobbyist training, and my home in D.C. is base of operations for radicalizing and deploying women in the world’s capital of hegemonic bullshit.

My advice to other women is to organize even with those whose views you don’t share. I disagreed with much of the organization and execution of the march, but I went because you can’t change the conversation if you’re not at the table.

Jess: One thing the march was missing were some tangible call-to-actions. Here are some: Donate money to your local rape crisis centre or battered women’s services. Vote out the B.C. Liberals in the upcoming provincial election, as they’ve demonstrated repeated contempt for all women. Write Justin Trudeau and ask him not to expand the Missing and Murdered Women’s Inquiry to include men.

Sarah: I want to sustain this energy and use it to mobilize women to join the women already doing the work towards our liberation — whether that involves ending sexist violence, advancing racial equality, fighting capitalism, etc. For my part, I am continuing to organize with Asian women to address the sexist racism of prostitution and trafficking, in addition to organizing a new group at my school called the Independent Women for Equality McGill.

Join a group, start a group, be accountable, lead and take the leadership of women. Let’s keep strengthening global feminist solidarity.

Samantha: Ah, yes… What’s next, indeed. I found myself asking this as the dust settled from the march. The Women’s March was a bold representation of women’s resistance to the various forces that contribute to our oppression as women. It’s important that we sustain our willingness to resist. The best way is to not remain isolated. Group with other women in your life and talk about strategies, actions and so on. Once you start talking with other women, the ideas will surely come. Continue to educate yourself by attending panels, marches and rallies that reflect the changes you want to see for women in the world. Don’t be idle in the women’s movement, it’s better to keep moving forward and bring other women with you! As for myself, I will continue the front-line work against male violence against women. But most importantly, I can no longer feel isolated in my resistance — the Women’s March proved to me that I am not alone.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Meghan Murphy

    But that would be MEAN!

  • shy virago

    The March on D.C. sounds a lot more feminist than the one in San Francisco – but these days I guess that makes sense. There were many men at the SF rally – maybe 45% – and while some had obvious pro-feminist signs, an awful lot were there to stand for queer/trans rights or against Trump. I wish I could have been in just one all woman train car! That would have been worth a lot.

  • FierceMild

    This issue has plagued and saddened me for a long time. I regard black and brown women as my sisters, I recognize that they suffer from racism as well as sexism and misogyny and I do not. But I don’t think that should be allowed to keep us apart.

    Women are oppressed immediately and even in the womb on the basis of our sex first and anything else afterward. That should unite us.

  • Cassandra

    Ready for a teal dear?

    I find this comment interesting, and the subject not easy to talk about. I’m white and I had an incident with a black man in a store last night. He was the employee and I was the customer and he did something to me that he would have NEVER done to any man—black, white or otherwise.

    There was a physical component to his behavior and a verbal one. I right quick gave him a piece of my mind but of course now today I’m feeling bad because I have the whole “intersectional” mindset on all the time, whether in the back or foreground. This is not to say it’s a bad thing to be aware of how social hierarchies intersect in terms of race, sex, economic status/classism and age and how context affects the way things unfold; quite the opposite—we have to be aware of these things if anything is to ever change, no matter how often the term “intersectional” is abused. I’m sure he thought I was an uppity white b*tch while I thought he was a sexist asshole. I had the white and economic privilege; he had the male privilege.

    He had no qualms about using his privilege and male entitlement (to speak to women a certain way) on me and I had no qualms about ripping him a new one because in that setting (“safe”) and with his position as employee and me as customer, I could. It’s not always that way. Had I been with a man he wouldn’t have done it either. It was just a chance for him to feel some power in a culture that treats him poorly, and he most likely didn’t consciously process it in that light before he did it. But I’m female and I get treated poorly, or like I’m an idiot, or leered at, or conversely more and more these days, dismissed, and on and on. So it’s a struggle between oppressions, and I don’t doubt for a second that the vast majority of people would side with him.

    But he was wrong *first* and didn’t expect me to react the way I did, that’s for sure.

    So long story short I do agree with you about people sticking together along racial lines as opposed to sex class lines. The presidential election was a good example of this, to say the least. But I think a good majority of black women know perfectly well how shitty black men often are to them, so they look in that direction and see them, and then they turn the other direction and see white women stabbing them in the back, and they feel like “fuck it all.” I think deep down, as much as we all don’t want to admit it sometimes, we all scratch and claw for a higher rung or to hold on to the one in our hand.

    And that’s exactly how White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchies thrive.

  • Atheist

    I question the idea that feminists need to meet the needs of others. That sounds a whole lot like socialization where women are expected to do for everyone else and put her own needs last. That’s exactly what the Patriarchy wants. We are also conditioned from birth to be all things to all people or else we’re deemed worthless, and I see this sentiment frequently in the feminist community. If you understand women as people, then you understand that women have flaws and limits. No human being is capable of being all for everyone. You don’t have to like or agree with other women 100% to collaborate for common interests like birth control and abortion. If you’re of the mindset that women are programmable robots that exist to serve your personal needs, then you’re not a feminist. You’re just another misogynist trying to undermine the efforts of other women.