A century after suffragists marched on Washington, feminism faces the same hurdle — race

AP

On the eve of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, some 8,000 women descended upon Washington, D.C. In crowding Pennsylvania Avenue, they hoped to force the issue of a woman's right to vote onto the incoming president's to-do list. 

The Women's Suffrage Parade on March 3, 1913, was considerably smaller than Saturday's planned Women's March on Washington, which could bring as many as 400,000 women to the capitol on the first full day of Donald Trump's presidency. But despite the 104-year gap between the marches, striking parallels remain: Thousands of women assembled to remind a new president that they are part of his constituency and deserve a voice. 

Whose voice that should be, however, was a question that threatened to derail the movement.

At the Suffrage Parade, black women and white women from all over the country joined to march for their rights, but they did not march as equals. As the Washington Post reported, organizer and activist Alice Paul asked black women to march in their own procession, behind the white marchers as a means of avoiding racial tensions. Separate and unequal.

Suffragist Alice Paul in 1939Source: AP
Suffragist Alice Paul in 1939  AP

The most urgent goal of the women's suffrage movement was suffrage, specifically for white women. Black women, although active in the effort to secure a constitutional amendment that would allow women to vote, were a second-tier concern for their white counterparts. 

More than a century later, the feminist cause is still bridled by the suffrage movement's racist legacy, and even as the upcoming Women's March strives toward intersectionality — a feminism that presents social oppression, whether as a result of sex or race or ability or orientation or class or religion, as interwoven threads in the same web — it raises questions about the progress we've made in understanding unqualified equality. 

When it materialized after Trump's election in November, the Women's March presented parallels with the Suffrage Parade in the eyes of some critics. Once again, women would come together to advocate for their rights. And once again, the voice the world would hear would be the united voice of white women, while everyone else marched behind, relegated to a lesser rank.

The Women's March began with white women borrowing black history

Plans for Saturday's march grew from a seed planted by Hawaiian grandmother Theresa Shook, a white woman who asked a simple question of her Facebook followers one day after Trump's upset victory: Why don't we march? 

Support for her idea quickly snowballed, merging with a similar march separately conceptualized by New York fashion designer Bob Bland — also a white woman. As the march gained momentum, it did so under the leadership and largely with the support of white women, going so far as to borrow its original name — the Million Woman March — from a 1997 demonstration by black women in Philadelphia dedicated to their particular experience. 

Hundreds of thousands of black women gathered in Philadelphia for the Million Woman March in October 1997.Source: Chris Lane/AP
Hundreds of thousands of black women gathered in Philadelphia for the Million Woman March in October 1997.  Chris Lane/AP

"This is why so many black women and black people of various identities struggle with connecting to mainstream feminism," Baltimore-based women's rights activist Brittany T. Oliver wrote in a blog post critiquing the Women's March. "It has so often failed to give us a platform to discuss how racial inequality relates to gender inequality. This doesn't mean that we don't care about equal rights across the board; it just means we can't ignore the racism within the movement."

The march, Oliver said, was just another instance of white people co-opting and capitalizing on black culture, black achievements and black history. White women, she reminded readers, were the ones who enabled Trump's victory, and in its aftermath, the narrative should not shift "from #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter." 

"[Feminism] has so often failed to give us a platform to discuss how racial inequality relates to gender inequality."

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, associate professor of Africana studies and associate dean of the faculty at Williams College, voiced a similar sentiment in a New York Times op-ed in which she explained her reasons for skipping the Women's March. 

"There is a long history of black women being overlooked by, excluded from and co-opted into events that profess to be for the benefit of all women but that at their core almost exclusively benefit middle-class, straight, white women," Manigault-Bryant wrote.

"The sense of betrayal white women have expressed in the post-election season is at best disingenuous, since we cannot say enough about the ways they turned out at the polls," she added.

Women stand to lose a lot — but some much more than others 

While it's true the majority of white women voted for Trump, that percentage flips when you eliminate race from the equation. The majority of all women went with Hillary Clinton, 54% to the president-elect's 42%. Part of that 54% consisted of straight white women who were eager to march — like Jennifer Willis, a 50-year-old woman living in South Carolina who canceled her travel plans after reading a message from a march volunteer posted to the event's Facebook page. Willis told the New York Times she felt unduly alienated after the commenter, a black woman, effectively told "white allies" that if they were finally feeling fear, well, welcome to the world. 

"This is a women's march," 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'?"

But feminism, unfortunately, has long been tainted by, if not expressly about, that lack of understanding. 

Women at the 1913 march gather around a Red Cross truck.Source: Uncredited/AP
Women at the 1913 march gather around a Red Cross truck.  Uncredited/AP

Women — all women — stand to lose a lot in the next four years: free access to contraception; guaranteed access to health care, reproductive and otherwise; the right to end an unwanted pregnancy; the hope of equal pay and the promise of a higher wage; their right to justice in cases of rape and sexual violence ... in short, their standing as equals in Trump's America. 

All women get to be angry and all women have reason to be afraid. But the Trump administration won't affect all women equally; indeed, each of the above issues disproportionately affects women of color. Some women might see their families torn apart by the enactment of extreme immigration laws. Some women might lose the right to marry people they love. Some women might lose the right to go to the bathroom at their convenience. 

The question of representation at the march is not simply about black and white. 

"Racism and sexism are interlinked, and women experience many forms of discrimination that emerge from racism and poverty and immigration status and religious faith (or lack thereof) and 'cis' or 'trans' status and many other things," Rebecca Edwards, professor of history on the Eloise Ellery Chair at Vassar College, said in an email. Edwards stressed how necessary it is for participants to "keep all their privileges in mind" when participating in the march.

Marching forward, together

To ensure more voices are heard, three renowned activists and organizers — Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, all women of color — quickly joined the march as coordinators. They changed its name from the Million Women March to the Women's March on Washington, a deliberate nod to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. 

In 1963, roughly 200,000 people gathered in support of the Civil Rights Act. The organizers hope that in 2017, the 400,000 people who descend on Washington will do so in the spirit of advocacy.

Women gathering in the capitol in advance of Saturday's marchSource: John Minchillo/AP
Women gathering in the capitol in advance of Saturday's march  John Minchillo/AP

"We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us," reads the march's mission statement. This time, intersectionality is the goal. The Women's March on Washington is intended to be a demonstration in defense of human rights, not an anti-Trump protest. And defending human rights means acknowledging they haven't yet been granted equally. The acknowledgment of privilege is baked into the premise.

"This was an opportunity to take the conversation to the deep places," Sarsour told the New York Times. "Sometimes you are going to upset people."

And if we are not upset — if we are not angry, if we are not uncomfortable, if we are not challenged, if we do not confront the truth — what can we expect to change?