True Feminism Means Holding Our Women Leaders Accountable

We shouldn't always celebrate women in power just because they are women.

Former first lady Barbara Bush died on Tuesday of this week. Living presidents remembered her for her grace and wisdom. They described her as candid and strong. It’s customary to recognize a former political leader for their contributions to the country. But when the Women’s March, who had organized the largest feminist protest in our country’s history, tweeted “Rest in peace and power, Barbara Bush,” I just about dropped my cup of coffee.

It felt beyond tone deaf for the Women’s March to be talking about her like this, using a saying normally reserved to memorialize victims of injustice. They were flattening her impact and raising her up like a hero despite her problematic track record. Where was the critical lens of feminist thought here?

Mainstream feminism often looks like this, like “Yas Queen!” tote bags and pussy hats and glossing over of the experiences of women who aren’t wealthy, privileged and white. But true feminist movements must be well-researched, intersectional and leave room for difficult critique of other women to truly move us toward empowerment and equality.

Posting this tweet for Barbara Bush is the latest of recent events that leads me to believe that the Women’s March is not only oblivious to the former first lady’s history, but they’re also unaware of how to properly stand in the gap for all women.

“If the Women’s March or any feminist movement can’t be a forum for complicated critiques, they serve no real purpose.”

Barbara Bush was not an ally, not for all of us. When Anita Hill accused Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Barbara Bush dismissed her along with women’s groups saying in her memoir they were “setting a picture that anyone can testify if he or she wants and cause doubts.” She sounded like the Me Too movement naysayers of today.

In 2003, just before the beginning of the war in Iraq, she was interviewed by GMA about her habit of not watching news coverage, Barbara Bush responded: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?” Incoming casualties were not worth thinking about. When she visited the nearly 25,000 New Orleans evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston in 2005, she implied that living like a refugee in a sports stadium was better than living in their own homes. “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,” she said at the time. “So this is working very well for them.”

Still, the Women’s March used a phrase usually reserved for activists and victims of brutality to memorialize her. “Rest in power” was used when Trayvon Martin was killed and Yuri Kochiyama died. It comes from a place of deep grief over losing someone who did not deserve to die or who gave their lives to raising communities up.

The Women’s March seems to have moved far away from what they promised back in 2016–a place to agitate and mobilize against oppression from a radically bigoted government. This week they’re propping up a racist as if she were a shining light for us all. Though a few of the founders are women of color, the politics of the organization are not intersectional. For a women’s group to praise Barbara Bush would be like an Indian newspaper lauding Winston Churchill for his leadership–it’s a whitewashing of history.

In their very first Facebook post where they outlined their vision for the movement they were mobilizing, the Women’s March founders said “It is important to all of us that the white women engaged this effort understand the privileges we have, and acknowledge the struggle that women of color face...Challenging our new community to show up in support of the efforts of other activists and fighters for justice.”

They promised care when considering the experiences of women of color. Not just sensitivity, but understanding and empathy. We would not be relegated to simply filling the streets, we’d be critical as leaders and as champions in our own right.

“Everyone deserves respect in death, but they should also be held accountable for the life they lived.”

The Women’s March appears to have lost sight of whatever goals they had and it feels like they’ve moved into an easier, more comfortable position of advocacy. One that does not require rigor or even thought. True intersectional feminism does not erase the oppression of millions, especially not to make a pithy statement on social media. It would not have been hard to look up the former first lady’s comments–they were only from a few years ago. But they didn’t do that. Or worse, they knew about these comments and chose to lionize her anyway. It is easy to praise a political giant like Barbara Bush, it is much harder to critique her.

Feminism cannot be about supporting women just because they’re women. There needs to be nuance and difficult conversations. For all Barbara Bush did in encouraging former President George H.W. Bush to acknowledge the suffering of AIDS patients in the 1980s and to increase literacy in the U.S., she cruelly attacked victims of sexual harassment, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. If the Women’s March or any feminist movement can’t be a forum for these kinds of complicated critiques, it serves no real purpose. They’re simply another platform for white women to receive unquestioned accolades. We need something like the response former first lady Nancy Reagan received upon her death: a hard look at the ways she influenced terrible policy, like the racist War on Drugs and the AIDS epidemic, and how she allowed thousands to die because of her biases.

There are many who say we should not speak ill of the dead. Everyone deserves respect in death, but they should also be held accountable for the life they lived. Barbara Bush needs to be held up to the light. Her intentions must be considered, but so must her impact. Political figures must be criticized for the health of our democracy, and it’s the role of organizations like the Women’s March to do so. If not, that does Barbara Bush’s legacy and the feminist movement a disservice.

Nadya Agrawal is a New York-based writer focusing on global news and culture.

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