The Women's March on Washington, staged January 21, 2017 as a symbolic gesture to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump one day earlier, drew mixed reviews. While the March was widely considered to be a great success in terms of participant turnout, media coverage, organization, and visibility, it also suffered from the same problems the women's movement has been plagued by for a century: centering cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied white women in its execution. Criticism surrounding the Women's March began with its inception.
First, the white women who organized the event originally called it the "Million Women March", a name lifted from a 1997 rally in Washington D.C., held by and for black women, in response to 1995's Million Man March, which was organized in protest of discrimination against black men. In response to getting called out for their appropriation of black women's work, organizers of the 2017 event eventually changed the name to the Women's March on Washington. Unfortunately, "March on Washington" is the name of yet another black-led march, which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall in 1963.
Women's March organizers claimed to appoint a more diverse organizing committee in an effort to be more inclusive, but reports persisted from women of color that their voices were being drowned out, shut out, and silenced in favor of making the event more palatable for a mainstream audience. Here are some of the other ways the Women's March on Washington, and some of its participants, failed their fellow marginalized protestors.
In addition to the appropriation of black women's work that marred the organizers' early efforts, white supremacy persisted on the actual day of the protest. Black women were called "divisive" for making their voices heard and their experiences visible. And perhaps no example was more egregious than participants who boasted that the protest was "peaceful" and resulted in no arrests.
The March was organized by and filled with white, cisgender women. These bodies are insulated by their race and gender presentation against police attack. Of course they didn't court the same violence that Black Lives Matter protests do, because white women's bodies are not policed in the same manner as black and brown bodies. To brag about non-violence at this protest implies that it's somehow better than protests where violence does break out — violence at the hands of police, which is the entire point of protests led by Black Lives Matter to begin with.
"When you say that your protests were nonviolent, I wonder, how do you define violence?...Is it the thought that you could march a million white women down the street without fear — and high five the same cops who wouldn’t hesitate to pepper spray black and brown faces begging for nothing less than their lives — and then call it progress?"
She later expounded on the piece in a radio interview, saying:
"When you look at how marches are described, this march was described completely differently than many other very peaceful marches for black lives. And when you look at how we are described as thugs when we take to the street, we are described as disruptors and lawbreakers when we take to the street. And people are pulled off the street not doing anything violent and arrested. To brag that no one was arrested in a march that was filled with white women as if that is an accomplishment that you really had a huge part of, what it does is that it says that marches that were branded as disruptive are lesser. And the truth is, is we are all fighting for very important things, but only certain people get to march down these streets and not have to worry about violence from police officers."
For white women to engage in respectability politics like this undermines organizers' alleged efforts to bring newfound intersectionality to the movement. A protest is not "more successful" if it uses the most powerful and privileged members of an oppressed group (in this case: white women) to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience at the expense of the efforts of its less powerful and privileged members.
Organized protest for black civil rights or for queer civil rights aren't violent because of the people protesting; they're violent because police respond to these marginalized populations with violence. White, cisnormative women have the privilege of not courting the same response from police. They are no more to credit for a peaceful, arrest-free march than peaceful black protestors are to blame for militarized police showing up to their events in outfits like this:
If it took attendance at this March for white women to understand that their presence helps deescalate police tension, then it's time for them to start showing up to protests centering people of color, too. That's what allyship really looks like.
To the Women's March organizers' credit, several women of color were slated to speak at the rally, including legendary civil rights activist Angela Davis. Unfortunately, as some of those women made their speeches, members of the majority white crowd reportedly became impatient and began to chant "March!" in an effort to speed the proceedings along. Literally silencing the voices of women of color (whereas, say, Madonna got to speak freely) to "get on with" the "more important" task of marching for their rights is not a good look.
2. Solidarity With Police
There were reports of marchers chanting "thank you, police," taking smiling photos with police officers, and even swapping their knitted pink pussy hats for photo ops. Unsurprisingly, this rubbed folks from communities with tense police relations the wrong way, and, indeed, felt like it reinforced those divides.
Police have a long and fundamental history of brutalizing marginalized bodies simply for existing. While there is a "just a few bad apples" sentiment that persists in the modern "Blue Lives Matter" movement, which defends systemic police violence against people of color, we cannot ignore that police have been brutalizing black and brown bodies since law enforcement was first instated in America for the explicit purpose of catching slaves, keeping indigenous populations away from white settlements, and otherwise policing minorities. They beat and raped queer and trans women during pre-Stonewall Era raids of queer spaces. They actively dismiss women's sexual assault claims today, enabling sexual predators to continue committing acts of violence without consequence.
The Black Lives Matter movement has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how police officers continue to be systematically deployed to protect and serve the fears of privileged white people. To ignore their complicity in the many unjust systems that perpetrate violence against women — in some cases, very directly — is a betrayal of the women whom police don't care about protecting. We cannot both claim to care about protecting the safety, rights, and agency of all women and stand in solidarity with a carceral system that endangers many of them.
3. Newcomers Not Listening
There was understandable frustration and resentment toward some attendees at the Women's March from communities who have been doing the work on the front lines of social justice movements for years, and under significantly more dangerous circumstances that the Women's March on Washington.
Black women, queer folks, disabled people, et al existing at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities have been setting up the framework for this kind of activism for a very long time, only to be discredited, silenced, excluded, and betrayed in the execution of this large-scale event. White women who had never been to a protest before were showing up to this one, performing resistance, and taking all the credit, while forgetting to listen to and take their cues from the people who have already been on the front lines, making this possible for them.
Civil rights movements of all kinds have often taken place on the backs of women of color, only for privileged white people to follow up years later, take, and receive the credit. It's about time we start giving credit where it's due.
4. Body Essentialism
The Women's March was filled with pink knit pussy hats, giant uteruses, and signs declaring the autonomy of both, along with that old feminist chestnut "No uterus, no opinion." It all had the effect of inextricably linking womanhood with body parts.
Reproductive rights are a huge issue. Women's healthcare is under attack. Cis women reclaiming their vulvas as a political act in protest of their bodies being the sites of violence is powerful. There is absolutely room to stand up for all these ideas in an intersectionally feminist movement. But when we center these narratives as the be-all-end-all of womanhood and what we're fighting for, we cut ourselves off from meaningfully including marginalized bodies and identities.
Firstly, cis women are not the only marginalized gender. Trans women are marginalized. Trans men are marginalized. Non-binary and nonconforming genders are marginalized. All marginalized genders deserve the kind of activism and representation cis women enjoyed at the Women's March. As most of us can agree at this point: not every woman has a pussy and not everyone with a pussy is a woman.
Many trans women expressed reluctance and discomfort going to the March, fearing that their experiences would be excluded, that they wouldn't be welcomed, and that their existence would be pushed even further into the margins in service of mainstream, cisgender women's issues.
Mic spoke with several trans community members about their decision to skip the march, including a 20-year-old non-binary student from Ohio named Sam Forrey:
"Forrey suggested that the saturation of vagina-related messages and imagery reinforced the same oppressive structures the march was meant to oppose, which was a loss for everyone.
'As a nonbinary person, the emphasis on genitals just bought into the rigid, Western concept of gender,' they said.
Women's March organizers, again, made an effort to be inclusive of trans women, giving Janet Mock a speaking slot (while Laverne Cox spoke across the country at the Los Angeles rally), as well as Transgender Law Center communications associate Raquel Willis. Unfortunately, these efforts didn't quite pan out as hoped. Part of Mock's contribution to the language of the official Women's March platform was cut (more on that later), and Willis claimed her mic was cut mid-speech after she mentioned Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of color who led the Stonewall Riots and were mothers of the gay rights movement.
There is room for both reclaiming "pussy power" as a cis woman and acknowledging the specific struggles of other marginalized gender identities. It's all feminism, and it's all important. But considering trans folks get so much less airtime, it is the responsibility of cis women to use their relative power and privilege to uplift them and amplify their voices.
5. The Sidelining Of Sex Workers
Unsurprisingly, when the white women who first began organizing the Women's March started planning, they neglected to acknowledge several identity groups in their platform. One by one, and with the help of a more diverse organizing committee, they took the time to carve out space for several causes under the umbrella of feminism: Black Lives Matter, the plight of undocumented immigrants, the queer and trans rights movement, reproductive justice, and more. But when author Janet Mock, a trans woman of color with a background in sex work, was tasked with amending the official platform to be as inclusive as possible, she was silenced.
Mock originally drafted a line in the platform's labor rights section that read, "...and we stand in solidarity with sex workers' rights movements." But when it was uploaded to the Women's March website, the line had been cut and replaced with language not written by Mock, aligning the March instead with "those exploited for labor and sex." Conflating sex work with sex trafficking is a decades-old mistake that feminist movements can't seem to stop making, and the Women's March was no exception.
Rather than making clear that inclusive, intersectional feminism sees sex work as work and supports the rights of women to have agency over their own bodies, the Women's March completely erased sex workers' existence from the platform, and instead only made space for the rights of sex trafficking victims.
For her part, Mock immediately reached out to organizers and got her original line put back in, but it was followed by the language, "We recognize that exploitation for sex and labor in all forms is a violation of human rights." Again, the mention of sex trafficking literally took up more space in the March's written vision than the mention of sex workers.
Sex workers are yet another marginalized identity group who are criminalized just for existing — just like black folks, and just like queer folks. To erase them from the movement is an act of violence just as egregious as the other critiques.
Ultimately, we can do better to serve all communities of women and woman-adjacent identities, and it starts with decentralizing white, cisnormative, able-bodied, married women in the movement. We have to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our power and privilege. We have to learn to listen to the folks we've been erasing for decades just to get ourselves ahead. It is the failure to take these steps that is divisive, not acknowledging and making space for different experiences inside the women's rights movement. If we fail at the basic starting point of educating ourselves on all marginalized identities and the specific struggles they face, then we'll never be able to create a movement that's truly inclusive. Yes, it demands a lot of effort. But half-assing it to settle solely for the advancement of white, cis women obviously isn't working for us either.