My dear sisters,
There is a feeling that has been building in me for weeks. Maybe months. A concern that in our own woundedness, we will wound others. It is a concern well founded in our previous behavior. From the racism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton ( ‘We educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote’); to the deep grief and rift of white women being asked to leave SNCC after our inability to grasp some of the dynamics at work during Freedom Summers.
We all fail, I know from experience, but we all have the opportunity to learn and listen. We all have the ability to feel multiple complex emotions. We are capable of feeling the grief of what this moment means for us; while also making room for the grief of others, some of which we have caused.
Over the past week, I have been quietly observing the sometimes strained conversation going on around the Women’s March; knowing in my heart that I do hope the streets will be filled with people on Saturday, but what I am most interested in is what people will do on Monday morning.
Tonight, I saw the very worst of what we are capable of as white “progressive” women; my very worst fears confirmed; the very thing that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned about.
It was a piece written for the Women of the World Op-Ed section of the New York Times, by a woman named Emma-Kate Symons: “Agenda for Women’s March has been hijacked by organizers bent on highlighting women’s differences.”
This is what I have been dreading. Since Ms. Symons has requested real critique with reason and substance, I am going to respond to her point by point.
Here you go, point by point:
“The controversy surrounding the exclusionary identity politics unsettling what should be a unifying event — Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington — shows that the fractures underpinning Hillary Clinton’s devastating election loss have not healed.”
First one is simple. Emma-Kate, you imply that women of color had something to do with Hillary Clinton losing the election. We white women – us – we are the ones who elected Trump. Possibly not you personally, but definitely some of the women around you. 53% of white women voted for Trump. This. Is. On. Us. It does not have anything to do with division between white women and women of color: it has to do with our own internal issues, and our long-standing partnership with patriarchy, and our role as, at the very least, passive recipients of the benefits of white supremacy.
“Unfortunately, the activist wing of the Democratic Party and many leading progressives are clinging to a profound disconnect with the broader mass of Americans, both women and men.”
If you find yourself having an easier time connecting with the broader mass in this moment, it may because of your distance from the margins and the marginalized. I’ll leave it at that.
“I live in Washington and plan to attend the protest because Donald Trump’s presidency, and what it portends for America and the democratic world, demands such action. A commander-in-chief who revels in grabbing women “by the pussy,” myriad insults to women, cozies up to a Russian dictator who hacked the U.S. election, spews contempt for our allies including Angela Merkel, wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, or target people because they are of the Muslim faith, merits a strong collective response.”
Awesome! Glad you’ll be there. The more bodies the better.
BUT, your words would ring more true if you did not then go on to yourself “target people because they are of the Muslim faith” within this same article… but I digress.
“But the attempted hijacking of the march’s agenda and all the nasty tit-for-tat between white versus black/queer/Muslim/trans and other identities tells a very disturbing story about the divided state of feminism today. The separatist, inward-looking politics that helped drive Trump to power and Clinton into oblivion is not going away — in fact it is becoming more entrenched, and all for the better, say organizers bent on highlighting women’s differences rather than their commonality as American and international citizens.”
Once again: WE WHITE WOMEN elected Trump. Hillary’s loss does not fall on the shoulders of any division between us and “black/queer/Muslim/trans and other identities.” This is ours. They actually did show up for Hillary. It is 53% of us that did not. In addition, while citing an article that calls for an end to identity politics, you are writing an article calling women to unite under the identity banner of woman; and you are asking them not to debate what that means but accept the dominant narrative as their own, regardless of whether it fits them or serves them.
“Just go to the official Facebook page of the march and associated events, read the online discussions, and there amid the enthusiasm and excitement you will witness the unfiltered and unedifying spectacle of women going at each other not because of the content of their character but because of the color of their skin, their gender, ethnicity, or religion.”
Welcome to the intersectional movement. Listen to the truth of others and have some compassion, and what you’ll find is that it motivates you rather than offending you.
“The New York Times reported on a white wedding minister from South Carolina, who is persecuted at home for marrying gays, but said she wasn’t attending the march. She was made to feel highly unwelcome and ridiculed for only allegedly waking up, since Trump’s win, to the racism that black women have always experienced. Others were also riled by constant suggestions they “check their privilege” or more offensive versions of the censorious catchphrase. Then in a story titled “The Activist divide over the Women’s March on Washington,” Northeast Public Radio profiled a Black Lives Matter activist from Minnesota who said she was skeptical about going because “a lot of the stuff I was seeing on social media was really centered around white women being upset that they didn’t get their way.””
Now here is where you went off the rails. Right. Here. First of all, you are making a martyr of a woman who canceled her trip because she saw a comment on the internet that offended her. If we are to be such fragile warriors we will not stand a chance against Trump and Breitbart. When you are going into battle, you want to be able to trust the person to your left and right. That trust is earned. Many of have been earning it side by side for years, so no, such extremes of white fragility do not inspire confidence in our new comrades. We’ve been getting death threats and still coming to marches, do not ask us to center the feelings of someone who backed out from a march because a random comment she saw on Facebook that was not even directed at her. This is the height. Which brings me to your “Black Lives Matter activist from Minnesota.” You don’t even know who Lena K. Gardner is, what she has already been doing and sacrificing for women, and how much she means to many of us. Please stop. Yet, you went further.
“And to me, you know, as a black queer woman navigating the world, it was really clear to me post-election that black folks, immigrants, LGBTQ folks like myself included, are at a higher risk of violence of targeted policies that are meant to take away our rights,” Lena Gardner said. “And I really wasn’t hearing those sorts of things from a lot of white women. Some were articulating that. And some were just like — it was almost like a temper tantrum.” On Twitter, a dissenter fumed, “So this should be called ‘White Womens March on Washington?” In a subsequent post, she added, “My solidarity detectors read ‘nah bruh.’ I’m not with a movement whose poster children are WW [White Women] who have directly shitted on BW [Black Women & WOC [Women of Color]. Bye.”
This is the part where we listen to the words of women of color with a humble and teachable spirit, and see where it is that we can improve so as to diminish the hurt and division we are causing; rather than accusing them of causing the division because they dared to open their mouth and say how they felt.
“It saddens me to see the inclusive liberal feminism I grew up with reduced to a grab-bag of competing victimhood narratives and rival community-based but essentially individualist identities jostling for most-oppressed status. We need a better reaction to the election of a man who cynically responded to the center-left’s fragmentation by celebrating his own angry populist’s definition of white identity. Can’t we rise above the sniping about “privilege,” “white feminism,” “intersectionality,” and hierarchies of grievance in the face of Trump and the dangers he poses to the American and international liberal world order and women everywhere?”
This it the paragraph where you proved the point that you were trying to disprove, by emphasizing the fact that you see feminism as a sphere where women of color should be seen and not heard. If they want to say something that critiques you or makes you uncomfortable, you want them to be quiet about it: once again proving that to you, feminism is what white women say it is. Hence, why many women of color have trouble trusting us and our feminism. You are actually asking women of color to stop holding us accountable as white women and using Trump as your argument, once again implying that it is them and not we ourselves who are responsible for his triumph. This is so painful to read. Both the content of the emotion conveyed, as well as the inconsistency of the logic.
“Such an approach doesn’t mean ignoring the differing experiences of women, or the history of racism between women, but confronting them empirically and resisting blaming each other for systemic disadvantage. Despite rampant inequality in the U.S., the word “class” doesn’t get a mention in the ‘Guiding vision and definition of principles’ of the march. Yet trans women/youth/migrants receive six references.”
So, what I hear you saying is that women who are not cis/het/white women are allowed to have different experiences, as long as they do not express them in a way that critiques white women or holds us accountable for the ways that we have participated in systems that harm them. Once again the “seen but not heard” role.
“Cursory attention is given to the structural inequalities that limit all American women, regardless of their race, religion, sexual or other identities. American women across the board face huge barriers to labor force participation and achieving work-family balance compared to their sisters in Europe and other comparable developed countries. The vision document doesn’t even call expressly for nationally mandated paid maternity leave of at least three months — it describes “family leave” vaguely as a “benefit” rather than a right, in contrast to LGBTQIA human rights.”
So, once again, you want to prioritize the aspect of women’s rights that impacts you directly and resent the prioritization of aspects of women’s experiences that do not impact you as directly?
“There is no detail about the urgent need for the creation of a universal public system of quality, affordable child care, pre-school and after-school care, coverage and access to decent, paid pre-natal and post-natal care and the universal coverage of deliveries so no woman is crippled by exorbitant costs when she has a baby. Did all of these goals of feminism just get sidelined? Women are dying in childbirth at increasing rates in the U.S., the world’s richest country, at triple the rate of Canada, going against global trends, and particularly hurting black women.”
Perhaps the conversation changes when other voices enter it, and we would be best to listen and learn and understand why new voices bring new priorities, rather than resenting that we no longer define the agenda.
“Strangely there is no reference to Latino women either in the march’s vision document, yet alongside poor African-American women they suffer greatly from soaring economic disparities, poverty and discrimination. Have they been “replaced” by transgender and Muslim women? But Muslim is not a “race” or class, it is a religion; American Muslim women are of diverse national, racial and ethnic backgrounds and, in the U.S., the Muslim population compared to Europe’s, for example, is more middle-class and educated. And if we are going to talk about religiously-based disadvantage why not name Jewish women? The latest figures show American Jews are by far the most targeted group for hate attacks based on religion, well ahead of Christians and Muslims. Meanwhile, poor white women in the U.S. are experiencing declining life expectancy, in contrast to all other groups, however their plight isn’t referred to.”
So you first want to critique others as being divisive, but then you want to pit Latino* (try Latina or Latinx) women and poor African-American women against Muslim women and trans-women? Then pit Muslim women against Jewish women and poor white women? First things first, none of these groups need you to speak for them. Secondly, all of these groups have been out in the streets together for the past several years marching for justice for one another. They do not need white women who have been missing from the scene to now insert ourselves and try to divide them so that we can once again gain control. p.s. your Islamophobia is showing… remember how you said we should resist Trump because he “targets people of the Muslim faith.”
“The emphasis on a particular perspective regarding religion appears to have something to do with one of the march’s lead organizers. Linda Sarsour is a religiously conservative veiled Muslim woman, embracing a fundamentalist worldview requiring women to “modestly” cover themselves, a view which has little to do with female equality and much more of a connection with the ideology of political Islam than feminism. Could we imagine a wig-wearing Orthodox woman emerging from a similar “purity”-focused culture predicated on sexual segregation and covering women, headlining such an event? No, because she is rightly assumed to be intensely conservative, not progressive on issues surrounding women’s roles and their bodies. Bizarrely, however, it is Sarsour, who has taken a high-profile role speaking about ordering pro-life women out of the march, after a bitter dispute over the initial participation of a Texas anti-abortion group. In justifying the decision, the co-organizer invoked the liberal language of choice, despite her association with an illiberal ideology that many Muslim women say is all about men controlling their bodies, and taking away that choice on a range of issues including reproductive health.”
Please Emma-Kate. This part made me feel sick to my stomach. Once again, as with Lena, you clearly do not know who Linda Sarsour is and how well respected she is throughout the struggle for justice. The fact that you do not know who she is reveals that you are not the expert on feminism and the movement that you claim to be. Your feminism wreaks of “Make Feminism Great Again.” In addition, after you just got finished claiming to be defending Jewish women, you are now wig-shaming Orthodox Jewish women. ALSO, “many Muslim women” do not need you to speak for them; and certainly do not need you to use them as a vague faceless mass of people to deploy against one of their own, Linda Sarsour. You are doing everything to divide, while accusing others of doing so. I am not calling you a white supremacist, Emma-Kate, but this is how white supremacy operates: it seeks to divide everyone with less power against each other in order to maintain control.
“And why is a woman seen wearing a heavy veil pulled up tight to cover her neck — not even a headscarf — emerging as the symbol of the rally? Yes, Trump is singling out Muslims but must we play his reductionist game? Muslim women are a diverse group. Such a vision purposefully excludes non-veiled Muslim women, who make up the majority of American Muslims, and all feminists who champion a woman’s right to be free from the degrading virgin-whore dichotomy that has afflicted them since most of the world’s great religions blamed women for tempting men. Beyond the domestic context, what about all the persecuted and murdered women activists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere fighting the politico-religious ideology behind the veiling of women? Encouragingly the official march mission statement names Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai who fought the Taliban’s hatred of young girls and women and their own attempts to assassinate her for going to school.”
So. Let me get this. You want us to stand up against Trump because he “targets Muslims” but you do not want to have to look at a Muslim woman, and you do not want to have the image of a Muslim woman represent you? Yes, Muslim women are a diverse group; also, those who are veiled are the ones in the greatest danger because they are the most visible and easiest to target. You then want to pit veiled Muslim women in America against non-veiled women, and women in Muslim countries whose lives are at risk? Then you use Malala as your example? You mean the Malala Yousafzai who chooses to wear her headscarf in the same manner as the image that you are saying offends you? Once again, may I remind you, that division is both the thing you claim to be fighting against, as well as the tool of white supremacy.
“Then there is the growing body of secular activists, ex-Muslim women or “apostates” who didn’t vote Trump but have no representation among the organizing group. The Women’s March on Washington could also take care to call out the shaming of those women who have voted for Trump, including minority women labeled “traitors.” Muslim reformer Asra Nomani has been abjectly harassed and vilified for admitting she voted for Trump, mainly due to her concerns over the Obama administration’s response to radical Islamic terrorism and healthcare. I don’t share her views on the president-elect and Nomani’s decision may be a rarity among Muslim voters, but her defense of the secular public space is not an outlier, and no one deserves to be told they are “betraying” their race or religion for exercising their democratic rights.”
So, after vilifying Linda Sarsour yourself, a Muslim woman who is resisting Trump; you want the March itself to defend Asra Nomani, also a Muslim woman who is supporting Trump. Trust me, I understand your point about the right of every woman to her views; but your biases are showing so strongly, that I am very confused at this point about where you stand and who you stand with.
“If one lesson is to be learned from Trump’s election, which was helped along enormously by ultra-traditionalist evangelicals, the opposition movement needs less religion — not more. Or as Barack Obama said in his farewell speech in Chicago, we need to recall the origins of America, “that spirit born of the enlightenment,” with its faith in reason and science.”
To quote you yourself, “many leading progressives are clinging to a profound disconnect with the broader mass of Americans.” When you acknowledge that the “broader mass” that elected Trump was overwhelmingly religious, it does not logically follow that the resistance to Trump should move further away from religion. At least, if you want to be logically consistent with yourself.
“Feminism in the Trump era needs to reclaim its universalist core, realizing that conservative religious modesty culture, like the binary hyper-sexualized image of women, seemingly favored by the incoming president, is doing us no favors.”
If I’m to understand you correctly, you want to “Make Feminism Great Again” and reclaim a time when what white women defined as universal values set the agenda, a time before we had to listen to the voices of all these “black/queer/Muslim/trans and other identities.”
“Here’s hoping the Women’s March on Washington will stick to one of the core principles it has wisely outlined and that hundreds of thousands and even millions around the world will remember the forward-looking message of unity, liberty and justice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.””
You know what, Emma-Kate… I think Dr. King has got this one:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
3 thoughts on “Let’s Not “Make Feminism Great Again”: An Open Letter to Emma-Kate Symons”
Thank you for this thoughtful discussion of feminism. I’ve been thinking about these issues as invisible racism of privilege. Your quote from King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is spot on.
I found myself checking and re-checking, even pausing long to ponder, my own role in the journey.
As a lesbian, I have been on the receiving end of overt discrimination as well as subtle exclusion–that sense of being forgotten, ignored, left behind. Of course, the UMC remains too fond of its subtle exclusion (“I wish she would just shut up and go away!”).
Surely as a “mere” woman, I have been relegated. Even so, I was privileged to have lived large within the Women’s Lib movement, even going back to the 1960s. I went to rallies, stood to protest, kibbutzed with the famous. Then I faded as the leaders did–partly because we were feeling good about some of our accomplishments, but always feeling that we failed so many, too many. Individually, many of us continued the charge, on behalf of ourselves, but others, too. It has never been enough; ultimately, there is no satisfaction.
But as a white woman, I have had to learn much. WHITE has permitted me passage and license. Trying to be careful, sensitive. Reaching out to others not like me—Sometimes being embraced and sometimes slapped down. Innocently suggesting “I understand” when I had no clue. Saying that “Some of my best friends are…” and feeling righteous, yet terribly stupid. We use the word “ally” for those who stand next to and support the LGBT community. On one level, it is good, it is necessary. But it will never be enough in the face of any “difference” to stand next to because no one can get into another’s skin nor understand the other’s life experiences no matter how we try.
And it is this realization that keeps me in the fight, hoping that my daily skirmish can somehow offer a modicum of sanctuary to others. There is no one like me and, therefore, no one can fully understand or be the support I need. What I need is ME. I acknowledge the efforts of others, the love they offer, even the frustration they feel in trying to help. Personally, I relish their attempts. But my leading my own life, “out and about” where I can be or sheltered at times by my own choice for safety’s sake, is key to my movement forward. It can be tricky. I daily ask God’s help in my efforts to enjoy the right to live “just as I am.” Do my sometimes meagre attempts give others hope in their journey? I count on it. Much of my own effort is being an ally to those unlike me. I trust that the living of my life, no matter how quietly these days, includes speaking out, defying injustice, bringing peace, and so on. Differences exist–all are unique! I revel in each celebration of them. Therefore, I wish never to be a “fragile warrior” in the jour new toward justice, regardless of the barrives and bumps along the way. And never will I choose to wound another for my own sake. Really, I cannot imagine that anything about that could ever benefit me.
Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Tab®4
Dear Hannah, Again, you’ve outdone yourself, speaking so eloquently and heartwrenchingly (as you did in your piece on the sit-in at the jail where Sandra Bland was assassinated) –speaking humanistic truth to white supremacist power! I’m African-American, in my seventies, and still a social justice activist in my field of dance studies. I’ve sent your timely message on to several of my dear friends, non-WOC but true allies. Thanks for the service you do in the cause of equality. Peace and Love, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild (FB and http://www.bdixongottschild.com)