March leaders attempted to unify women around a broad feminist agenda that includes opposition to racism, anti-Semitism, sexual harassment, environmental degradation and state-based violence, and support for an expanded social safety net, reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, Palestinian rights and workplace equity. That expansive political platform exposed some of the differences among women who identify as feminists, and perhaps some who don’t. It is also the culmination of decades of feminist organizing that is more inclusive and committed to transformational change than the traditional definition of feminism favored by white middle-class women.
Despite the accomplishments, coverage of the march was dominated by a story of division. The intense media scrutiny of individual leaders and their moral and political convictions shifted attention from the march’s grass-roots power. That power, more than anything else, is why the march is significant: It suggests that social change comes not from the top down but from the bottom up.
The women’s movement has a long history of organizing and resistance, a history marked by division and attempts at unity. During the first suffrage march in 1913, veteran black organizers such as Ida B. Wells were asked to march at the back of the line to avoid offending Southern white suffragists who opposed extending the vote to black women. National white leaders were more concerned about gaining the support of Southern white women than embracing black activists.
Class and race divisions pervaded the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality. Spearheaded by Betty Friedan, the nationwide protest had an agenda rooted in the needs of white middle-class women: abortion rights, equal employment opportunity and free child care. Although women of color would have benefited from these demands, their day-to-day struggles often revolved around the right to bear children (not just the right to terminate pregnancies) and upgrading low-wage occupations rather than accessing top-tier jobs.
Given the differences that have plagued the movement across time, it is remarkable how feminists of different political persuasions, then and now, have managed to coalesce under a banner of feminism. Why? Because feminism has no single definition and organizing efforts are rooted in years of painstaking community mobilization — with feminists on the ground questioning, protesting, planning and meeting about issues they have deemed important.
Wells was researching, speaking and writing about racial violence and women’s suffrage long before it became a priority for national leaders. She challenged segregation in Memphis in the 1880s, brought international attention to the problem of lynching in the 1890s and went on to form the black women’s Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago.
And there were people like Georgia Gilmore whom few have heard of. Gilmore was a community activist in Montgomery, Ala., whose “Club From Nowhere,” comprising black female domestic workers, was critical for the success of the famous 1955 bus boycott. The club made baked goods and dinners and sold them door-to-door, raising hundreds of dollars every week to help fund the boycott.
Historical memory often centers on dramatic moments. Although ordinary people have been the primary agents of change, we remember women’s suffrage through stories of women such as Alice Paul and Lucy Stone rather than lesser-known African American activists such as Gertrude Bustill Mossell, whom historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn wrote about, or the civil rights movement through the lens of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rather than another Atlanta-based community organizer, Dorothy Bolden, who worked to desegregate Atlanta schools before starting one of the most successful domestic-worker rights organizations in the country.
Every pinnacle in progressive social change is marked by interludes of small-scale efforts: People who engage in the day-to-day work of community organizing that sets the foundation and creates momentum for the spectacular protests that capture the public imagination.
The differences among women cannot be swept under the rug. We will struggle, debate and argue about what it means to be a feminist. Building a movement is never easy. And we always have to ask whose voice is amplified and who holds more power. But the debate is part of the democratic process that resides not with our appointed leaders but among ordinary people.
When we widen our lens to the people often excluded from the dominant stories of feminist activism, we get a different historical narrative and a different sense of how social change happens.
We are living in a moment when there is a multi-pronged attack on women and gender-nonconforming people — from police violence directed at African American women; to the criminalization of refugees and immigrants; to the dismantling of labor rights; to the silencing of boycott, divestment and sanctions activists; to the questioning of transgender people’s legal status; to the defunding of women’s and gender studies programs; to the demonization of recipients of food stamps and welfare. These are the issues that prompted feminists to heed the call for a national protest opposing not only President Trump, but Trumpism.
Our best hope rests with the transformative power of feminist mobilization. As abolitionist and feminist Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Over the past 20 years, the feminist community has been at the forefront of organizing to stem the tide of defunding of public education, opposing mass incarceration, pushing for climate justice and mobilizing contingent workers. Feminist organizing has had a real-world impact — from advocating for workplace equity to expanding child-care assistance to learning how to embrace gender-nonconforming young people. Most of these successes have resulted, however, not from high-profile marches but from grass-roots day-to-day organizing — organizing that began long before the 2016 election and will continue well after Jan. 19.