The #MeToo moment and accusations of sexual misconduct made against members of Congress (and those running for Congress) have brought renewed attention to the disproportionately low number of women who hold seats in the U.S. Congress. At the Women’s March on Washington last year, speakers urged women to do more than speak up as concerned citizens; they needed to run for office themselves. This year, Women’s March organizers are launching a voter-registration drive in the hopes of electing more women to office.
This strategy marks a distinct shift in feminist priorities, from supporting sympathetic political leaders regardless of their gender to pressing women to enter political races. At the same time, some have pushed for a more expansive feminist agenda, as represented by the speakers and signs at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.
But these changes are not the product of only this moment. They stem from decades of debates within women’s activist circles about how best to effect change and which issues to tackle. As the history of those debates shows, far from being a sign of the fractiousness and fragility of the movement as feared by some feminists and as routinely portrayed by media outlets, disagreement and conflict is evidence of the feminist movement’s strength.
Fifty years ago, on Jan. 15, 1968, 5,000 women marched in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. Known as the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, named after and led by the only member of Congress who voted against U.S. entry into both world wars, participants believed that as women, they had a special duty to oppose war.
Women staked their claim as legitimate political actors by citing their roles as mothers who raised and cared for the next generation. Appealing to officials and to public opinion as respectable mothers whose viewpoints had a particular moral underpinning, they were relying on a strategy developed well before women got the vote. Linking women’s activism to their motherhood was a way into politics at a time when women were denied full political citizenship, a strategy that persisted well after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
But on that day in 1968, about 500 participants broke off from the crowd to attend a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood” in Arlington Cemetery at the invitation of New York Radical Women, a newly formed women’s liberation group. There, feminist Kathie Sarachild gave a eulogy calling for women to stop pleading with their political representatives as maternal subjects. Such appeals, she argued, reinforced the popular perception of women as weak and politically powerless. Instead, women needed to assert their right as citizens to voice their concerns regardless of their status as wives or mothers.
Sarachild’s rejection of a particular kind of political action on the part of women sparked debate within women’s circles. Rather than maternal appeals, Sarachild and her allies put forward an alternative, but no less gendered, perspective on what women needed to do to have their voices heard — embrace the power of “sisterhood.”
But the disagreements within the Jeannette Rankin Brigade were not the only ones dividing the movement.
As white women’s liberation groups took root throughout the country in the late 1960s, women of color — Asian American, Chicana and African American — advanced their own feminisms and social movements. While at times women of color fought for similar rights as white women did, they also reflected on their needs and experiences living primarily in communities of color. They strove to create a more holistic view of women’s rights that took into account all of the social injustices that members of their respective communities faced.
Movements for sexuality and transgender rights likewise challenged and collaborated with the mainstream women’s rights movement between the 1970s and 1990s. Some feminists were key players in calls for sexuality and transgender rights, but others, most famously Betty Friedan, saw lesbians as a “lavender menace” who could disrupt progress toward women’s equality. Friedan eventually came around to the idea of including lesbian rights on a women’s rights agenda, but the movement still struggled to challenge heterosexual and cisgender privileges.
Issues raised over the years by women of color, members of the LGBTQ community and others have by no means disappeared. But the diverse array of women’s issues, highlighted in the past year, indicates the modern movement’s more inclusive feminist and anti-racist agenda.
Since the 1990s, there has been a push by feminist activists and in women’s and gender studies programs on university campuses throughout the country to recognize “intersectionality” — the way that race, class, age, gender, sexuality and other identities intersect to shape people’s lived experiences — as key to understanding what needs to be done to create true equality.
Women’s issues can no longer be defined as solely those that relate directly to middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, white women’s lives. Women’s March organizers quickly learned this lesson between November 2016 and January 2017 as observers and potential participants called for more inclusivity in the leadership, purpose and representation of the march.
The acceptance of the interconnectedness of issues stems from this history of conflict and negotiation. Although some argued that the platform of the Women’s March was too broad, that breadth reflects the contentious history of feminist movements in the United States in the past half-century (and, realistically, since the 1840s). A narrow vision of women’s issues has all but gone by the wayside.
Nevertheless, challenges remain, not least of which is the spotlight on “infighting” that social media accentuates and that detractors may wish to exploit.
Even sympathetic observers can be quick to label any conflict as evidence of failure. But the history of feminist movements in the United States shows this to be a false narrative. Indeed, room for debate has been one of the strengths of women’s rights movements, especially in the past 50 years. Without conflict, there would be no push for inclusivity; without debate, there would be no questioning of the status quo.
With the impending midterm elections, who will represent women’s issues and what women’s issues encompass remain open questions. But shouldn’t they be?