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Protesting for reproductive rights on International Women’s Day? Here are some lessons from the Women’s March.

Here’s what my research found

A crowd fills Independence Avenue in D.C. during the 2017 Women’s March. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Today, International Women’s Day, reproductive rights activists are holding rallies in a handful of cities across the United States. These activists will be drawing on a long history of feminist organizing that uses International Women’s Day, including annual protests by Mexican feminists against femicide and the 2017 Women’s Strike, which involved women across 50 countries.

In the United States, the 2017 Women’s Marches stood out as a feminist mass protest — and put on display the challenges feminist organizers face when attempting to develop inclusive movements.

My research finds that the Women’s Marches themselves were not monolithic. In addition to the march in Washington, D.C., which involved an estimated 725,000 people, local marches varied greatly in how well they integrated LGBTQ women, women of color and Indigenous women.

Learning from the Women’s March

The Women’s Marches that occurred across the United States faced many of the same difficulties with developing inclusion that have plagued the overall U.S. feminist movement for decades. For example, women of color were not always included as organizing began.

Within my dissertation, I developed comparative case studies of four Women’s Marches — Boston, San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Amarillo, Tex. — using news coverage, social media coverage on Facebook and Reddit, and archived protest signs at Art of the March and the University of Texas at San Antonio. I conducted ethnographic observation of the sites and cities where protests were held, engaged in participant observation as a member of the Boston activist community in 2018, and conducted semi-structured formal interviews with 15 protest organizers in Boston, San Antonio and Pittsburgh. Within these case studies, I focused on learning how these protests engaged with questions of diversity, inclusion and justice within their organizing process.

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Challenges and strategies for developing inclusion

These local marches differed significantly in how well they included women from many walks of life. In part, this was due to the differences in how the leadership teams were brought together. The Boston march began with a meeting held in a personal home in the majority-White northern suburb of Lexington; the leadership team was recruited through elite professional women’s networks. As a result, the Boston march organizers found it challenging to develop a leadership team that reflected the diversity of Boston women’s experiences and found they needed to take steps after their initial meeting to diversify their team. Further, even though Boston itself is a majority-minority city, much of the greater metropolitan area is predominantly White.

San Antonio is another majority-minority city, although its surroundings are more diverse than those in eastern Massachusetts. More important, however, its 2017 march was organized by an established feminist collective, Mujeres Marcharan. The collective drew on its experience of decades of Chicana feminist and Black feminist organizing and already had a set of strategies for ensuring that the event reflected the diverse experiences of San Antonio women, broadly defined. For the organizers, the march was a success in that it brought out a new group of women who had not attended the annual International Women’s Day protests. These new protesters were exposed to connections among local, national, and transnational issues facing women when the march route passed two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and removal rooms in downtown San Antonio.

Meanwhile, Boston march organizers struggled to develop productive connections with the city’s activist community — as many of the organizations they wanted to include were not at that first Lexington meeting. The Lexington group invited others to join the march at a meeting in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood with a history of activism and a large Latino and lesbian feminist population. Longtime activists let organizers know that they felt dictated to, not included in, the organizing. That early exclusive meeting created barriers that the organizers had to consciously work to overcome. But they did. When the Indigenous community threatened to organize a countermarch, one of the women of color in the leadership team reached out and worked to ensure that the concerns raised were addressed by march organizers. No countermarch was held.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the original all-White march organizing team initially rejected calls to add women of color and to connect the march with the city’s annual Summit Against Racism, now the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit. As a result, a group of women organized a countermarch, the “Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March.” In the lead-up to the Pittsburgh Women’s March, the group almost lost its national affiliation until a new leadership team could be found by Pennsylvania’s Women’s March organizers to get the event back on track. At the end of the day, two marches were held in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Women’s March downtown and the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in East Liberty.

Check out all TMC’s coverage of women’s issues in our Gender and Politics topic guide.

Lessons for future feminist protest organizers

As Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman wrote here at TMC, the Women’s March was up to then probably the largest one-day mass protest in U.S. history. For reproductive rights organizers, mass protest can be a powerful tool for grabbing policymakers’ attention. But they may wish to be aware of the challenges involved in developing an inclusive protest movement. For example, my research suggests that organizers would be more successful at developing an event that reflects the diverse experiences of people who can become pregnant if they engage with organizations that already work on these issues intersectionally, such as the reproductive justice group Sister Song.

When reaching into communities that do not have established social movement groups, organizers might wish to ensure that they hold meetings in places where those communities feel welcomed and that their leadership groups include members from beyond their own social networks. How organizers handle critiques from historically dispossessed communities matters, as well. Women of color in leadership positions within the organizing team can be key diplomats between and among communities, as in Boston.

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Kaitlin Kelly-Thompson (@kaitlindkt) is a lecturer at Tufts University.