A march for intersectional history

I went to the Women’s March on Ithaca. There are ~30,000 people in my town (not counting the influx of students arriving over the next 3 days that will double that number). The Ithaca police estimated attendance at 10,000. A full 1/3 of my town showed up to march.

As I suspected, folks were marching for a range of reasons that may or may not have matched the official (if contentious) platform. There were signs explicitly protesting the orange toad and signs protesting the tools of his campaign including misogyny, sexism, Putin, and the various *-phobias that populate current demagoguery. A kindergarten aged child carried a sign that said “Be kind to everyone.” There was my new favorite image of Leia saying “A woman’s place is in the resistance.” There were signs about reproductive rights and rape culture. Slogans and imagery reminding us that Black Lives Matter were clearly visible. The demand for human rights, LGBTQ* rights, religious rights, immigrant rights existed in words and images. One sign proclaimed rights for all women with images of various animals that are common food items. Some signs listed all the reasons why the participant was marching. One women had a genealogy tree pinned to her back that identified only her matrilineal ancestors. Science, climate change, freedom of the press, truth, and education were represented throughout the crowd. And there were folks without signs, whose reasons for being there were not on display on a poster. 10,000 people present, and each of them there because of issues that are most important to them.

In the year I’ve lived here, I’ve begun to grasp why Ithaca is a special place. It’s a bubble of progressives in a town whose identity was partially forged from the 70s hippy spirit and anti-capitalist-patriarchy. It is also a town with its own demons that mirror America’s demons elsewhere in the country. Gentrification is increasingly limiting town center residents to white folks with money. That whiteness was on display in our march. Which is to say we were a majority of white people marching for rights and issues that disproportionately affect non-white lives. Signs existed to try and explicitly call out this whiteness by emphasizing Black Lives Matter and immigrants rights. Perhaps this means we were 10,000 people trying to be good allies. But we were also 10,000 humans with blind spots, not saints or infallible heroes.

From the march, I eventually ended up at the rally on the commons. My place in the crowd had zero sightline to the stage, but I could hear the speakers without problems. So as I listened to the women on stage – for they were all women! – I watched the crowd and thought about the place of this event, and the other simultaneous events, in history. A history which archivists like myself across the country are actively documenting.

I wondered about the teens and pre-teens who were wandering about as hordes of friends, usually comprised of all girls except for the one boy who was tagging along. What were they seeing? What were they learning? Would this event inspire them in some way? Did they understand the true uniqueness of this event in the face of such abnormal behavior? How many of them will be shaped by the next several years (and the past 15) to become community activists and leaders in their future? Maybe they are already, and that’s why they were there in the first place.

I marveled at how unusual it was to stand in a public space where women were speaking to women about issues that disproportionately affect us without worrying about apologizing or acknowledging the experiences of the men** in the audience who may or may not have understood. (**A word. The trans experience complicates this apparent stark division between male and female experience. And I realize intersectionality means that men have a place in this march and this experience. But for this post I choose to explicitly ignore the latter. This was the Women’s March and I privilege women today of all days.) I may even call it an experience unprecedented in my life. I felt no need to apologize for taking up space when I stood in front of some dude. The speakers felt no need to apologize for talking about cramps and labor and birth control and poverty and motherhood in a public space. And even more incredible was the range of female identities that were on stage. Women with complex racial backgrounds, young and old women, women with political experience and women without, and a muslim woman who spoke so eloquently she moved many of us to tears. (I am the worst with names, so sadly I cannot share them.)

I thought about the place of this march and this rally in history.

When writing my masters thesis on the so-called Soapbox Suffragists I delved a fair amount into the reports and reflections and theories of how seeing women in the streets marching contributed to gaining the right for white women to vote. In particular, I spent a few days sucked into reading about the 1913 suffragist parade in advance of Wilson’s inauguration. Their effort to acquire the necessary march permit was monumental. They were passed from federal to district officials trying to gain appropriate security all while being mocked for their effort. During the march they were spit on, had objects hurled at them, were threatened, and by most accounts the official security refused to protect them and so local boy scouts stepped up to the task. If you want to read the official report of the Senate Committee Hearing of this event, it’s available on Google Books.

Yesterday’s march and our physical presence in the street follows in these suffragists’ footsteps. We weren’t spit on, and except for the sole sad soul who yelled at us for being baby killers no one threatened us. We marched in peace and a determined spirit with friends while occasionally picking up chants about human rights and the nature of democracy. When we stopped traffic it was with officers of the law – often female – negotiating our march with the cars who needed to get through. Unlike the suffragists of 104 years ago, I marched in pants, an independent highly educated woman with the right to vote, own property, have my own bank account and credit card, to divorce or marry who I choose. And although I still get harassed on the street by sad men with small lives, yesterday I was surrounded by a community of generally like-minded individuals. It was powerful.

But.

Here’s where the history of the fight for women’s rights and its legacy of whiteness casts doubt and mistrust on the legacy of yesterday’s march. This march also has historical roots in the Million Woman March in 1997 – a march for African American women’s self determination – and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 – the historic march and place of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But neither of these marches were my first association when contemplating the historical place of yesterday’s march. That disconnect is a product of my particular academic historical interest for which I do not apologize. It is also a product of the historical whiteness of the fight for women’s rights, an education system that never gave me a chance to learn about these other marches, and my own whiteness that connects more firmly to the suffragists of the early 20th century than the battles of the mid-late 20th century by people that look less like me. The disconnect created by these structural problems is mine to challenge and my personal failure to rectify. When black activists, who have been protesting the violence that directly affects their lives the past five years, cry out at the sight of 3-4 million women marching yesterday and ask “Where were you when WE needed you?” I have to acknowledge my lack of prior visible in-the-streets engagement. And I have to do better.

This brings me to the last half of my day. I went home and through the magic of the internet (Hello Living in the Future!) I watched the rally in Washington DC. I was blown away watching the extension of Ithaca’s rally. Women on stage speaking. Women back stage running the show. A fantastically successful march organized by women for women. A man here and there, but almost always in the supportive role, listening and watching. In a world where women are often portrayed as the sole representative for a gender among a sea of men, it was incredible to see women running the show and not apologizing that men weren’t front, center, or even left stage. Such moments are important even if they are not the entirety of the story.

Even better, most of those women were not white and not the benefactors of the legacy of the suffragists. They were women speaking their truths, their platform, their hurts and anger and fears with an urgency that until the outcome of this election did not usually affect my life on a daily basis. These were women drawing on a history stemming from their racial identity, their religious identity, their sexual and gender identities, their class backgrounds and their age. The march organizers wanted a march and a rally that demonstrated the strength of intersectionality and inclusivity that ought to be the bedrock of the progressive platform and political party I wish existed (which is NOT the one being touted by Bernie supporters). They fucking nailed it.

Not every speech spoke to me. Not every woman up there was supposed to represent my voice. There were statements I disagreed with or hadn’t thought about or weren’t my priority just as there were women whose words resonated with me and my passions.

That was the point.

No single speaker was supposed to represent everyone at the march. But I sure as hell hope that every single person in the crowd found at least one woman on that stage who spoke to them and who represented a piece of their history and their reason for marching. And that is why I’m glad I went. For me, the rally demonstrated the reason that representation matters. No single woman, no single person, no president, can represent the diversity of our country because that is impossible.

3.5-4 million Americans – 1% of the total population – largely women, were marching yesterday for a host of complicated reasons. At the heart, we were marching for local, state, and federal governments that represent us and our diverse histories. In order to make that happen, it means that our representatives have to represent us. They cannot look like the millionaire white dudes with no knowledge, no experience, and no wish to listen outside their privileged experience who were paraded through confirmation hearings last week.

As was emphasized over and over yesterday, the march is just a beginning. “Marching is a tool, not a goal.”

It is unclear, standing on this precipice, if a unified movement will spawn from the action of yesterday. If it does, I will do my best to document and preserve the history of the movements and organizations that may or may not be welcomed and incorporated into a more national or global movement. The history of the 19th and 20th century suffragists is a complicated history of separate national, state, and local organizations that often disagreed on purpose and tactics and priorities. I expect no less here. The suffragist organizations that most history books reference were led by white, wealthy women at the expense of the alternate organizations who were not. I expect my profession to do a better job of documenting the voices of the determined and demanding women who brought us to yesterday. The organizers and speakers of yesterday’s marches cut their teeth on organizing around issues that often go ignored by white women, by me. When the history of the early 21st century is written, they will have their place in it.

I will do what I can to ensure that my niece and nephew know that the history of this movement was founded on the theory of intersectionality, a term coined by African American civil rights advocate and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw.

I will do my part to fight for a culture that internalizes the importance of representation and a government that actually represents the people it is supposed to govern. Even when that is full of conflict and disagreement.

As one of the speakers said in Ithaca yesterday (curse my inability to remember names!) “Why do we keep fighting these battles? Because they are the most important battles to fight.”

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