The Women’s March on Washington needs to name the problem

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Getty Images

The Women’s March on Washington released its official policy platform on Thursday, and numerous liberal American media outlets deemed it an unequivocally progressive one. Fusion went so far as to call it a “radical feminist platform.” But do the politics live up to the hype?

Since the March was announced, many feminists have wanted to know more: What is the purpose of the March? Is there an agenda? It is called a “Women’s March,” but is it for women only? (No.) Is the March “anti-Trump? (No.) Or even a protest? (Also no.) For a short while, though enthusiastic, many wondered how and if organizers would even be able to pull it off. But a permit was issued and the event is not only going to happen this Saturday, but is expected to be one of America’s biggest demonstrations.

But claims that the March is a radical one don’t exactly mesh with the message put forth by organizers.

“It’s an affirmative message to the new administration that ‘women’s rights are human rights,'” Vox reported, adding that “the event is being promoted as a ‘march’ or a ‘rally,’ but emphatically not a ‘protest.'”

Organizers’ insistence that the March doesn’t protest anything in particular could be interpreted as an effort to bring together as many people as possible.

Indeed, one organizer, Bob Bland, told the Washington Post:

“We welcome our male allies. We want this to be as inclusive as possible while acknowledging that it’s okay to have a women-centered march.”

(Despite the fact men have been heartily encouraged to attend, some still managed to feel left out.)

It’s odd to call something a “Women’s March” when it’s not really just for women, but the problems with the event extend far beyond that. Saying a thing is “woman-centered” is one thing, but actually centering women is another. The Women’s March, in their efforts to be “as inclusive as possible” have avoided naming the problem, leaving feminists to wonder how exactly the problem will be addressed, if we can’t even speak it out loud.

In their official platform, organizers do mention “violence,” stating:

“Women deserve to live full and healthy lives, free of violence against our bodies. One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime; and one in five women have been raped.”

But the perpetrators of this violence are notably absent from the document. Not once do the authors of the Women’s March platform acknowledge that it is men who are responsible for the violence suffered by women and girls across the globe. It appears that “unapologetically progressive,” in America, translates to “ensures men are neither named nor held to account.”

Further down, the authors state:

“We believe in Gender Justice. We must have the power to control our bodies and be free from gender norms, expectations and stereotypes. We must free ourselves and our society from the institution of awarding power, agency and resources disproportionately to masculinity to the exclusion of others.”

If at any point you had hoped this march would be a feminist one, here is where those hopes are dashed. “Gender justice” means precisely nothing. There is no justice where there is “gender.” Gender is the thing that naturalizes women’s oppression and men’s domination under patriarchy. If we are to be “free from gender norms, expectations, and stereotypes,” we must get rid of gender itself — that is, the notions of “masculinity” and “femininity.” The document erases biological sex and the sex class hierarchy enforced through patriarchy, lightening and neutralizing the blow by pretending as though there isn’t a particular class of people who are born into a position of power in our society (i.e. males). Based on this mealy-mouthed interpretation of patriarchy, it perhaps won’t come as a surprise that not once in the entire document is patriarchy itself named.

This is unnecessary. We can (and indeed must) name the problem and need not cater to those who wish to feel “political,” somehow, without actually saying anything controversial or directly challenging the status quo.

Just last year, Latin American women took to the streets on what was named “Black Wednesday,” to protest femicide — a word Raquel Rosario Sanchez explains is “a legal and political term that exists precisely to highlight the fact women and girls are murdered because they are female.” Though American media tried to depoliticize this radical action by applying the term “gender justice” in their reporting on Black Wednesday, the protest itself was actually unapologetic in its feminism. American activists could perhaps learn a thing or two from these protestors…

We are (supposedly) responding to the election of a man who supports the sex trade, sexual assault, domestic violence, and who doesn’t see women as human, never mind his equal, yet we are unwilling to say the word “patriarchy” or even “men”?! What exactly are we afraid of? Women have so much to lose in America — it seems like a strange time to depoliticize.

To their credit, while the platform initially stated solidarity with “sex workers’ rights movements,” implicitly rejecting survivors and abolitionists who oppose the sex industry and advocate for the Nordic model (“the sex workers’ rights movement is, in fact, a lobby to decriminalize pimps and johns — not one to protect women from men’s violence), it appears as though the language was edited.

In a later version, the language reads, “we stand in solidarity with all those exploited for sex and labour.”

women's march platform Jan 16 2017

This is a positive response to complaints from feminists, but unfortunately, while issues with the platform upset numerous women, much of the damage was already done before the document was even published. Earlier in the month the Women’s March Twitter account caused a notable backlash after tweeting about “cis privilege”:

Countless women reminded organizers that, in fact, there was no such thing as “cis privilege” when it comes to women’s status in society. Indeed the mere fact that the march is taking place should be proof enough of that. Is Donald Trump’s comment about grabbing women “by the pussy” evidence of some kind of “privilege” females are born into? Our female bodies are precisely what are under attack in a patriarchal society and within Trump’s rhetoric, worldview, and politics. His repeated misogynist insults directed at any and every woman show that attaching a term like “cis privilege” to womanhood is entirely contradictory. The word “cis” is meaningless, to start, as women do not “identify” with femininity — rather, they are socialized into it — but the notion that there is “privilege” in being a woman in this world is disproved in glaring ways by other statements made by organizers:

If we can understand that ensuring bodily autonomy is central to women’s liberation, surely we can understand and acknowledge that patriarchy is about men’s control over women’s bodies.

But the organizers seem not even to understand the difference between sex and gender, never mind the fact that “sexism” has nothing to do with what they call “cis,” but is explicitly about discrimination based on sex.

Sadly, organizers appear fearful, rather than brave — either naive or afraid to admit that patriarchy is a system that explicitly targets those of us born female, often through violence.

Rather than confront the backlash head on, they’ve catered to it — altering their language and aims in a way that dances around the problem.

Women are not targeted by men walking alone at night, in their homes, at work, in bars, or in any of the other myriad of places women are attacked, harassed, and raped, because they are passive, wear high heels, have long hair, wear dresses, or behave in other “feminine” ways, but because they are female. Female children are not prostituted or abused by adult men because they identify with “femininity,” but because of the sex class they were born into. Girls are feminized, not “feminine” by choice or because of some kind of internal, unchangeable personality flaw that turns them into victims.

While the Women’s March on Washington has been disappointing in its cowardliness and aversion to putting out an unapologetically feminist message, when feminism is the one thing we desperately need to rally around in this political climate, my aim is not to discourage women from attending. Rather, women should get out on the street with their unapologetic feminism, and use this as an opportunity to seek out sisters and solidarity. The third wave may not be here for us, but we can still be here for one another — our movement is alive and growing. One of our jobs as feminists is to keep speaking out, keep rallying, and keep pushing our message forward in the face of backlash. Our bravery can inspire the fearful.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.