I think about the Women’s March so often, not because it immediately upended American politics, or even because it turned into a coherent movement. Rather, that day kicked off what, for me, has been the best part of Trump’s first year as president: the way women and the long-running conversations between them have become vital to the political landscape.
The stunning progress of gay rights has been the defining social movement of my era, followed closely by the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the growing public reckoning with the ways African Americans have lost ground since the Civil Rights era. Americans have also been preoccupied with foreign policy for much of my adult life: The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks during my senior year of high school plunged us into a period of mourning, revenge and doubt that still casts a shadow over our national identity. Even during the [President Bill] Clinton years, questions of gender seemed to only slink around the periphery — darting toward the center in the uncomfortable “bimbo eruptions,” debates about the first lady staying at home to bake cookies and have teas, and a suddenly iconic blue Gap dress.
Not anymore. Women and our issues are suddenly the vital, roiling center of American political and cultural life, even when we’ve been up to the same things we’ve been doing all along. As of last week, 390 women are either running or planning to run for the House of Representatives, with 82 percent of them non-incumbents. Women are taking whisper networks public by speaking up about Harvey Weinstein, making spreadsheets and pooling formidable financial resources on behalf of women who have none. Black women — who were already founding movements against police violence and creating the language that Hollywood diversity and anti-harassment campaigns would later embrace — continued their long traditions of civic involvement. In Alabama, they helped elect Doug Jones to the Senate, while in Virginia, they bolstered Gov. Ralph Northam’s margin of victory.
And, of course, we’re talking to — and arguing with — each other. These conversations are sometimes painful or awkward. There are a lot of us. We disagree on policy; we sense hypocrisy in each other’s logic; we worry about who gets credit and how to balance our gender with other facets of our identity. It is difficult to hear how much pain other women are in, as it is also to revisit our own toughest memories and decisions. These debates sometimes flare into open rancor, such as with younger women’s furious criticisms of either “second-wave feminism” (not always with an accurate sense of what that term actually means) or of older feminists.
I guess I could worry about the risks of these rising movements fragmenting before their important work advances, or about the possibility that women will be driven away by acrimony aimed at them by other women. As exciting as these moments are, they have come with real costs in the past, and they will likely do so again.
But there’s something genuinely thrilling about the sense that, for once, these internal debates aren’t a matter of purifying the margins. Instead, how we decide these fights will have tremendous consequences for the entire country. The trajectory of the #MeToo movement, the districts where women run for office, and how powerful women with access to the media use their megaphones are questions that will matter immensely for everyone.
And for all the waves of feminism that have receded in earlier decades, or sometimes even pushed into retreat by violent backlash, others continue crashing into shore. The one that made landfall in early 2017 feels like it just might be the most ferocious and consequential of all.