In 2019, we have much to lament, and also much to celebrate. I am a Black woman who marched in the Women’s March in Washington, DC this year to engage with other women who felt the same. The controversy surrounding the march this year only made me want to participate more.
Our government has been shut down for a month, and there appears to be no compromise in sight. There are children being detained at the border in cages and separated from their parents. Violence seems to be commonplace, by the police and random customers in McDonald’s.
On the upside, Democrats have taken control of the House and a record number of women and diverse Americans have been elected to public office. Our hope is that they will not only give a voice to those populations they represent that have otherwise been marginalized, but that they will also bring a new perspective in Congress and in communities around the nation as our government solves some of our most pressing issues.
I did not have the opportunity to march in 2017 and 2018, so I was curious and apprehensive about what it would be like. When I arrived, I walked up to three Black women and asked them why they decided to march. They noted that they were “in their feelings” with the unity they saw. They knew little about the controversy, and were happy to be there.
As I walked around Freedom Plaza, I worried that the negative media attention deterred marchers from attending. The mood was jovial but subdued. A diverse group of women bundled from the cold began arriving with signs, balloons and pussy hats. The attendees mainly kept to their groups with occasional nods, smiles and “can I take a picture of your sign?” moments. When the music started, everyone loosened up and swayed to the beats of Aretha, Cher and Madonna.
As the plaza filled and we approached the march kickoff, I spoke with a family from New Jersey who had attended all three marches. When I asked if they had been deterred in coming, the wife said that it was just one more way to divide us.
I have worked to encourage Blacks and women in political and community leadership for the last 20 years. I was content in my version of advocacy- encouraging others to run for office, serving on commissions and boards, working for elected officials, attending town hall meetings, and working on campaigns. My first Women’s March left me with a sense of excitement, camaraderie, and renewed energy to tackle new challenges in civic engagement.
Considering our history as a nation, and with women’s movements, it's hard not see this latest controversy as yet another attempt to divide us. With our recent gains in politics, we have even more reason to stay united. We have too much at stake to risk schisms in a strong movement which has clearly been successful.
In 2020 we celebrate the centennial of women earning the right to vote. Despite the fact that more than just white women advocated for the right to vote, it was primarily white women, and not women of color, who were able to vote in practice.
Black women have been making waves politically for centuries. The 1913 Women’s March was notoriously segregated. Ida B. Wells, a “badass” of the early 20th century, insisted that Black women be able to participate. Alice Paul, who organized the march on behalf of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, asked them to walk in the back. (Wells walked with the Illinois delegation.) At the time, Black women were seen as a liability in the struggle for the right to vote.
In the following decades, the women’s movement largely did not include Black women, and to this day “women” is often understood as “white women”. Recent acknowledgments of the power of Black women to vote for change and get things done in our communities by politicians, the news media, white women leaders, and certainly the Women’s March, has given hope to a more inclusive women’s movement.
The pain of the rifts in the feminist movement still exist today. We had a chance to get it right in 1913, and we failed. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again.