How Can We Make The Women’s March On Washington More Inclusive?

The need for an inclusive women’s rights agenda is as critical as ever.

Thousands of women are expected to come together for the Women’s March on Washington tomorrow. Participating women (and men) aim to send a message to the incoming administration that women’s rights are human rights. Yet, the goal of marching together in solidarity has been questioned. Women of color are voicing concerns about the inclusivity of the march.

Farah Stockman, a writer from The New York Times, referenced an exchange between two women which demonstrates the tension:

Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then 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 activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.

“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.”

“This is a women’s march,” she [Ms. Willis] said. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”

Historically, the fight for women’s rights has failed to acknowledge intersecting identities. When Betty Friedan released her most-celebrated work, The Feminine Mystique, she empathized with women who were white, middle class and viewed work outside the home as a form of liberation. “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home” said Friedan in 1963.

Yet, Friedan’s vision of feminism was not universal. As Farah Stockman explained in her New York Times article, “minority women have had different priorities.” Black women have always worked outside the home and yearned to be liberated from low-paying jobs with poor working conditions where they had little to no opportunity for advancement. As black feminist author and activist bell hooks challenged, “[Friedan] did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.” For the vast majority of black women in 1963, the work available to them was a source of oppression, not liberation; a necessity, not a luxury; a constraint on their fulfillment, not an avenue toward it.

Early black and white feminist leaders both sought equality. Yet, according to the authors of Ambition in Black and White: The Feminist Narrative Revised, what separated these women were their different starting gates.

Fast-forward to present-day and the need for an inclusive women’s rights agenda is as critical as ever. All women are fighting for equal pay but the pay gap for black women and Latinas surpasses that of their white female counterparts. The number of women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies is dismal but black women Fortune 500 CEOs do not exist.

In a nation struggling with the sharp divisions revealed by this election, is there a way to find common ground? I draw inspirations from the words of civil rights activist and write Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Once we understand our different struggles and truly come together to fight for the causes that impact us all, history will cease to haunt us. Any event that brings us closer to finding common ground should be celebrated.