Pundits and news outlets have portrayed these difficulties as a sign that the Women’s March — and perhaps 21st-century feminism — is doomed to fail.
Yet history shows us that this is not true. Since the early 19th century, the women’s movement in the United States has broken along the lines of race, class, age and religion. Yet strategic coalitions among these feminisms have generated important victories for women’s rights, showing us that the divisions within the Women’s March do not represent an existential threat to the feminist movement.
In the decades before the Civil War, only a very few, very radical Americans supported women’s rights, including their right to own property and to vote. In 1848, attendees at the first major women’s rights convention cleverly tweaked the language of the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that “all men and women are created equal.”
But in the years after the Civil War, the woman who wrote those words, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abandoned black women by opposing the 15th Amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. The amendment allowed freed slaves in the South to elect governments that protected black men and women from the horrors of Southern racism. Nevertheless, Stanton, who believed that activists should hold out for a universal suffrage amendment, could not put aside her humiliation at being beaten to the ballot box by black men — not even to support an amendment that would benefit black women.
Yet Stanton’s opposition to the 15th Amendment put her in the minority among suffragists. In 1866, black and white women and men founded the American Equal Rights Association, which demanded equal rights “irrespective of race, color, or sex.” In New York, AERA members collected thousands of signatures in support of both women’s suffrage and the removal of property requirements that disenfranchised black voters. These activists saw that the expansion of rights to one group did not harm the other, and combined forces to fight for both.
Divisions within the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s also evoke the conflict within the Women’s March today. White women demanded the vote because they wanted parity with their husbands and brothers. Black women championed the vote because they wanted to fight racial discrimination. Working-class women called for the vote to push for wage, hour and safety laws.
This coalition came up against a vocal contingent of wealthy women opposed to women’s suffrage. Unable to imagine the horror of lynching or poverty, anti-suffragists envisaged the vote itself as “a menace to the home.” Suffragists also faced threats from within. To secure support in the Jim Crow South, white activists marginalized their black sisters, demanding that they march at the back of parades and refusing to formalize alliances with black women’s suffrage groups. And after 1920, with their own rights secured by the passage of the 19th Amendment, white women abandoned African American, Native American and Asian American women to race-based disenfranchisement laws.
Fissures also appeared in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1966, “Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women and helped draft its founding statement, which called for “true equality for all women.”
But Friedan worried that cooperating with “mannish” lesbians would stigmatize the organization, so she severed the group’s ties with lesbians, even deleting from the program for the First Congress to Unite Women all references to lesbian organizations. To Friedan, “all women” did not include lesbians.
White feminists also alienated black women. In 1984, black feminist theorist bell hooks offered a blistering indictment of “The Feminine Mystique”: “[Friedan] did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor,” hooks wrote. Friedan did not understand black women’s specific needs.
Nonetheless, there remained room for coalition building. In 1974, Joan Little, a black woman, was tried for murder in the killing of a white prison guard; Little had killed him while defending herself against sexual assault. White anti-rape feminist Susan Brownmiller, black activist Angela Davis and a number of other civil and women’s rights activists — black and white, men and women — took up Little’s case, and when the jury acquitted Little, it was a victory for them all.
Over the past month, numerous women have articulated concerns about lack of representation, exclusion and transphobia within the Women’s March. This is their right. Their grievances are real.
But these women’s concerns do not mean that the Women’s March, or the current feminist moment, is imploding. Rather, they show us that the march, like the women’s rights movements of the 1840s, 1900s and 1960s, is contending with the fact that women are not all the same: They are black women, white women, lower- and upper-class women, non-binary women and so on. These diverse identities create diverse interests that often come into conflict, conflict that feminists have grappled with for more than 150 years.
And still, these diverse feminisms have secured real victories when they have recognized their shared interests. They campaigned against property restrictions on voting. They won an amendment that, for all the discrimination that persisted, encoded the ideal of women’s suffrage in the Constitution. They proved that rape was not an act of frenzied lust but an exercise of power intended to inspire fear.
The Women’s March will never represent all women, all at once. But in its divisions are the seeds for meaningful change: the seeds of cross-racial, cross-class alliances that work toward specific, shared goals. These alliances have garnered the women’s movement its greatest successes in the past; they are also the movement’s best hope for the future.