America, as characterized by some of the first words Donald Trump spoke as president of the US, is a dark place of misery, ridden by poverty, crime, and lack of opportunity—a theater of “American carnage.”
Yet Saturday (Jan. 21), in Washington, DC, and all around the country, America was quite the opposite: colorful, energetic, and determined. Women of all ages and ethnicities took to the streets to march, chant, and laugh. They came out by the thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions, by bus, by train, and by plane; some even ran to the march. And they made it clear that they’re not going to quietly tolerate the new administration’s threats.
A large part of Saturday’s massive turnout was, surely, motivated by the election of Trump, a man who bragged about assaulting women, and ran a presidential campaign rife with sexism and general intolerance. But it also seemed to represent a new wave of feminism that’s been building for the past few years but has yet to find a suitable outlet.
The last large women’s protest in DC took place in 2004, when over a million people showed up to contest the curtailing of abortion rights. Despite the prominent role gender equality has claimed in the public discourse over the past few years, there has been little public celebration of it.
This disconnect could be because feminism in recent years has been largely preoccupied with helping (mostly white) women leaning in, claiming their place as C-suite business leaders, and running for president of the most powerful democracy in the world.
That stuff is important—for women, and for everyone—but focusing on it can be alienating for those women who don’t see themselves in Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton. Not nearly enough has been done to address the need of these other women—particularly women of color.
The Women’s March, finally, proved that the women’s rights movement in the US can be non-elitist and inclusive. CEOs and housewives, gay women and straight ones, women of color and white women all took to the streets, a unit of one made up of a population of millions, to collectively express what they will fight to protect: fundamental equality.
To be sure, the process wasn’t perfect. Initially, the march was called the Million Women March, and Black Lives Matter and other minority leadership groups were not involved in its organization. But the organizers responded well when criticized for the oversight. For example, when it was pointed out that the original name was an appropriation of the 1995 Million Man March, a rally lead by the black community in DC, the name was changed. Leaders from Black Lives Matter and other groups were also brought in to help organize the DC march, and although not all sister marches were as inclusive as the DC event, hopefully the model will translate into more diverse participation for the women’s rights movement in the months to come.
It’s hard not to wonder if the outcome of the presidential election would have been different had these marches happened a few months ago. It was white women who helped tip the scale in favor of Trump, after all. But while Clinton’s defeat may have set back efforts to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling, the larger movement may be slowly becoming more inclusive, and as a result, much stronger. That’s perhaps why Saturday’s marches felt so enormous.
At the same time, it remains unclear whether the sea of “pussy hats” that marched all over the world can be channeled into a sustained movement with clearly articulated objectives and demands.
Moving forward, it will be essential to include those who understand the specific struggles and experiences of non-white women. Hopefully, the March on Washington will increase awareness of feminism’s important racial components. As many on the streets on Jan. 21 demanded, to succeed, the new wave of feminism must become truly intersectional; it needs to be mindful of all the issues connected with feminism, such as race, sexual orientation, disability, and class.
There is too much strength and too much beauty in the pictures still pouring in from all over the world to let this moment pass and this energy die. The next generation of feminist leaders must harness this energy, but it is the task of every woman (and every feminist ally) to make sure we march forward with an inclusive program. Demanding that the fundamental right to be treated as equal applies to all women is what will give the movement the power to continue its global ascension, and in the process shatter all the remaining ceilings, too.