Feminist scholars reaping what they’ve sown in Women’s March

"Intersectionality" has created a bullying culture in which only the most oppressed women are allowed the mantle of the truly oppressed. The others need to “check” their privilege and be quiet.

Symbolizing much of what is wrong with Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, the Washington Post mistakenly used a male gender symbol instead of a female one in a WaPoExpress cover story.  And, although the WaPo editors apologized for mixing up their gender symbols, the far bigger mistake seems to be the way in which feminist infighting over white privilege now threatens to destroy the original intent of the March.

Launched in the days following the election of President-elect Donald Trump, the Women’s March has been plagued by divisiveness from the start. While Reuters has credited retired lawyer Teresa Shook—sometimes described in the media as a “grandma from Hawaii”—for creating the women’s protest against Trump, the truth is that while she may have provided the inspiration, the March has moved far from her original idea. According to Reuters, Shook first floated the idea of a women’s march in Pantsuit Nation, a private pro-Hillary Facebook group.  But, once 300,000 people “liked” the Facebook event, the race baiting began—leaving the white “grandma from Hawaii” in the wake what has become an ugly protest over white privilege, open borders, gun control, and Black Lives Matter.

Shook, in the interview with a Reuters’ reporter, said, “I didn’t have a plan or a thought about what would happen, I just kept saying, I think we should March.” It is likely Shook never anticipated the racial backlash. While she was focused on what she described as the threats to abortion rights and sexual violence against women from a Trump presidency, Shook began to be criticized for her “white privilege.” The fact that all of the early organizers—many of them from Pantsuit Nation—were white was a problem for the race baiters. Then, there was the problem with the name used by the early organizers: the “Million Woman March.” That name could never be allowed because it appropriated the title of the “Million Man March” for black men in Philadelphia two decades ago.   

Intersectionality come to D.C.

Feminist scholars have long promoted the concept of “intersectionality” on campus. First identified by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the executive director of the African American Policy Forum and a professor of law at Columbia University and the UCLA law schools, intersectionality posits that people who occupy multiple oppressed identities can be understood only in terms of their sum, rather than as a set of independent experiences. In a September 24, 2015 essay in The Washington Post, Crenshaw explained:

Racial and gender discrimination overlapped not only in the workplace but in other other arenas of life; equally significant, these burdens were almost completely absent from feminist and anti-racist advocacy. Intersectionality, then, was my attempt to make feminism, anti-racist activism, and anti-discrimination law do what I thought they should — highlight the multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression were experienced so that the problems would be easier to discuss and understand.

She further describes “intersectionality” as “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power” that was once focused on black women, but now includes  “[p]eople of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse…”

While Crenshaw’s intentions may have been noble, the concept of intersectionality has led to a culture of privilege checking that forces white women—even poor white women and oppressed white women—to acknowledge their privilege and defer to those who have not experienced such privileged whiteness. Intersectionality has created a bullying culture in which only the most oppressed women are allowed the mantle of the truly oppressed. The others need to “check” their privilege and be quiet.  

Responding to allegations of her own white privilege, Shook seems to have disappeared from the website on the March.  In November, the name of the March was changed from the “Million Women March” to the “Women’s March on Washington” and three of the national co-chairs of the March are now “diverse” women. Co-chair Tamika D. Mallory is described on the website as having “worked closely with the Obama administration as an advocate for civil rights, equal rights for women, health care, gun violence and police misconduct.  Publicly applauded as a “leader of tomorrow” by Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior advisor, Mallory has served as national organizer for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington which drew 300,000, as well as Justice or Else!

Mallory is joined by Carmen Perez, the co-founder of Justice League NYC and founder of Justice League, CA, two state-based task forces for advancing criminal justice reform.  Invited to testify before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Perez joins Mallory in focusing on crime and justice.  They are joined as national co-chairs of the March by Linda Sarsour, who describes herself as “a Brooklyn-born Palestinian American-Muslim-racial justice and civil rights activist community organizer, social media maverick, and mother of three.”  Perez led the progressive coalition to close New York City public schools for the observance of two of Islam’s most important holy days, and was one of the co-chairs of the March2Justice, an effort advised and chaired by Harry Belafonte.  Like Perez, Sarsour is a member of Justice League NYC.

Harry Belafonte is an “Honorary Co-Chair” of the event which is sponsored by the usual abortion proponents such as NOW, Planned Parenthood, and #Voteprochoice, as well as immigration rights groups including the New York Immigration Coalition.  There is the expected labor union support from 1199SEIU, as well as the AFL-CIO,  and a long list of GLBTQ  groups, and of course, MoveOn.org.  Pro-life feminists, however, will not be allowed to help partner  the march.  Earlier this week, organizers of the women’s march removed New Wave Feminists as “partners” for the march because they are a pro-life group.   The New York Times reported that “the feminist writer Roxane Gay … wrote on Twitter that intersectional feminism does not include a pro-life agenda … the right to choose is a fundamental part of feminism.” 

White women and pro-life women need not march

While several colleges and universities are sending busloads of students to the march—including the Jesuit Fairfield University—some of the original organizers of the Women’s March have stepped away from it all. Rosie Campos, formerly the co-organizer of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Women’s March on Washington published an article with the headline: “Dear White Women: This is Not About Us.” Acknowledging her own privilege, Campos resigned and urged women to “get active, donate time and money” to Black Lives Matter and a list of other racial justice groups.  Jennifer Willis, a 50 year old minister from South Carolina, told a reporter for The New York Times that although she had looked forward to taking her daughters to the Women’s March, she read a post on the Facebook page for the March that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.  The post, written by a black volunteer for the Women’s March from Brooklyn advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less: “You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared too. I was born scared” 

This is not to suggest that white feminists have left the March.  Many of these women will be wearing the handmade pink knit hats that organizers have distributed to protest what they have described as the “misogyny of the new President.” To represent them, the 82-year-old Gloria Steinem has joined Harry Belafonte as Honorary Co-Chair.  Checking her own white privilege, Steinem claims that the “internal strife plaguing the March is by design” and told the Times it will only strengthen the aim of bringing those on both sides of the divide closer together: “Sexism is always made worse by racism—and vice versa … It’s about knowing each other.”  

It is unlikely that the internal strife was “by design” but it is likely that the March will be well-attended because it provides a platform for a number of grievances—except, of course, those of the pro-life women of the New Wave Feminists who had wanted to participate in the March but were disinvited.  In this case—as is the case on many college campuses—intersectionality is used to bully and exclude.  And, that is exactly what it was designed to do. 

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)