In defense of the Women’s Marches

January 26, 2018

How we assess the Women's Marches says a lot about who the left sees as its audience and how it engages them to advance the struggle, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

THE MASSIVE outpouring of opposition to Donald Trump at last weekend's Women's Marches was a much-needed boost, with well over a million people hitting the streets in cities across the country.

A lot has happened since the first Women's March--the harm that the Trump administration has inflicted, but also important shows of resistance. Not the least of those is the #MeToo campaign, and that was reflected in the big numbers who returned to the streets this year.

Online afterward, I saw friends and family members proudly talking about protests they took part in, large and small, all across the country.

They posted pictures of signs drawing attention to the concerns that face women every day, like sexual assault and reproductive rights. But there were also many other sides of the opposition to the Trump administration represented at the marches--immigrants rights, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, opposition to Islamophobia.

In some cases where march organizers excluded important issues--like Los Angeles, where one Palestinian group boycotted the event because actor Scarlett Johansson, a public opponent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, was a featured speaker--the presence of these intersectional signs and slogans was an implicit or explicit challenge to the politics expressed from the front.

In the streets for the Women's March in San Francisco
In the streets for the Women's March in San Francisco (throgers | flickr)

Through their posts, I saw people out protesting, marching with their co-workers, groups of students from high schools and colleges, friends and neighbors with their communities, all proud to be out together and showing solidarity against Trump.

Unfortunately, though, a minority of left voices expressed cynicism and ultra-leftism on social media.

For some, the massive size of the demonstrations was inconsequential compared to the march sponsors' narrow theme of "March to the Polls" that aimed to contain anti-Trump resistance to a vote for Democrats in this November's elections.

For others, the big problem of the Women's Marches was how liberal they were--too many "white middle-class women" showed up, according to comments on social media.

It's worth taking up these criticisms, even the most dismissive of them, since they have an impact on how those on the left view their audience and the kind of organizing we do.

THE MAIN organizers of the marches this year promoted the slogan "March to the Polls" with the goal of portraying the demonstrations as a step toward mobilizing a vote for Democratic Party candidates against Republicans in the November elections.

There were plenty of signs, both printed and homemade, reflecting this theme, and it's true that many marchers carried them happily--because electing the Republicans out of power seems like a logical response to having Trump in the White House and a right-wing majority in Congress.

But elections weren't the only issue that brought out those who marched. Probably more important to most participants was the immediate act of returning to the streets and showing concretely that there is a vast opposition to Trump and everything he stands for.

Among the chants that flowed through the marches, you were as likely to hear "Immigrants are welcome here" as "Donald Trump has got to go." And, of course, #MeToo led to an even greater focus on challenging sexual harassment and assault, an issue that goes well beyond elections.

As for what political action to take next, for most marchers, the idea of voting out the Republicans mixes comfortably with other possibilities: protest, direct action and civil disobedience, boycotts, internet organizing, labor activism. Some marchers reflected the politics and worldview of Democrats like Hillary Clinton, while others were clearly more radical and open to socialist ideas, including a critique of the two-party system.

The point is that all of this was up for discussion--if you talked to people at the march.

A radical left tradition is being rebuilt in the U.S., and over the last few years, there have been important developments, including a growing interest in socialism that has been reflected in the growth of left-wing organizations.

But beyond this is a wide layer of people who are sick of the status quo and open to some kind of alternative--but who have yet to find it.

The growth in the number of people committed to radical and socialist politics is incredibly important, but this is just the beginning. Most of the people who will come around left politics in the future aren't there yet--so their ideas will reflect the fact that U.S. politics is still dominated by the two major political parties, along with the labor, civil rights and liberal organizations committed to supporting the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders, the person largely credited with making socialism popular during the last election, has put forward a left-wing message that contrasts with the mainstream Democratic one in some ways. But in practical terms, he is trying to funnel supporters toward the Democratic Party above all else.

In this context, it's no surprise that the organizers' call to get out the vote would get a hearing at the Women's Marches--but that was far from the only message.

IT'S A pretty rare occurrence these days for liberal and labor organizations committed to a strategy of electing Democrats to call any kind of demonstration.

But as we can see from the Women's Marches, when they do, a huge audience will respond, including many people who have been radicalized by the Trump era and are open to politics that go beyond those of the organizers.

When leftists insist that only protests and action organized around a radical, working-class agenda are worth taking seriously, they risk missing the audience for socialist politics among attendees of a protest that actually happened. They also miss out on the impact that large demonstrations, even ones dominated by liberal politics from the front, can have.

It may be hard to imagine for a younger generation, but there was a time when liberal women's organizations called mass demonstrations when reproductive rights were under attack.

In 1989, when legal abortion hung in the balance during the George Bush Sr. administration, with the U.S. Supreme Court deliberating on the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the National Organization for Women (NOW) called on supporters to come to Washington--and half a million people showed up.

That made a difference in preserving the right to choose. The conservative justices who sided with maintaining legal abortion explicitly referenced in their opinion the general consensus that had developed on the issue--something symbolized most of all by the mass abortion rights marches.

When Bill Clinton took office, no such mass protests were called, since organizations like NOW thought they had a friend in the White House. And you could see the difference--as women's right to choose was chipped away, state by state and procedure by procedure, organizations like NOW stood passively behind the Democratic president.

Socialists proudly attended those Bush Sr.-era protests and others called by liberal organizations in defense of women's rights, bringing our own politics and demands with us--and we organized, unsuccessfully, to pressure NOW and other groups to participate in protest and activism in the Clinton era.

As for the message sent at the Women's Marches last weekend, I'm with the activists who organized to attend, and who also made sure that their demands were heard--like the "Free Ahed Tamimi" contingent in New York City that saw the march as a place to build solidarity with the struggle of Palestinian women.

I'm also with the many socialists and radicals who recognized the march as an opportunity to talk to people not already convinced of left-wing politics--including why the Democrats can't be relied on to fight for us, and thus why we should have an alternative strategy to marching to the polls.

Creating a space, during and after the march, to have discussions about what it will take to build the resistance requires that socialists have patience, but also a clear set of arguments to make. Whether we passed those tests this time around is an open question, but those whose cynicism kept them from even engaging with the Women's Marches definitely didn't.

THEN THERE'S the criticism of how "white" and "middle class" the Women's Marches were.

This was raised about the first Women's Marches last year, along with the frustration for some that the demonstrations, while they represented the largest single day of protest in U.S. history, didn't fully represent the issues faced by working people and the oppressed.

That's an argument for working to make sure that our voices and issues are better represented at demonstrations in the future. But there's a difference between recognizing that there's work to be done to create the most inclusive protests possible and condemning a whole demonstration for being made up of "white middle-class women."

For one, many of the women who attended the marches--like the contingent of union teachers at the Chicago march--would be surprised that they were there to represent "bourgeois" concerns, far removed from the "real" task of building a working-class movement.

What's more, the dismissal of the issues raised by women at the Women's Marches as "middle class" suggests they have nothing to do with the more serious concerns of the working class struggle.

Actually, this is an argument that has circulated quite a bit since the #MeToo campaign began last fall, among critics on the left, but also on the right, who diminish the importance of women speaking out because the campaign started among actors in Hollywood.

The same thing happened after the Golden Globes awards this year, when famous actors attended wearing black to show their support for #MeToo, and Oprah Winfrey, among others, spoke out powerfully from the stage about sexual assault and harassment.

Actually, revolutionary socialists take the fight against women's oppression seriously, no matter the class of the women affected. Furthermore, the fact that prominent women have spoken out against sexual assault helps create an opening for working-class women's stories to be heard as well.

There's no guarantee that this will happen--activists will have to work at it to make sure that the concerns of working-class women are central to the struggle, along with concrete demands that can make a difference in every woman's life, like equal pay, reproductive freedom, and equal access to housing and child care.

But none of this will happen if we allow women who do stand up to be derided or told their concerns don't matter. And it definitely won't happen if the left takes a hands-off approach to massive events like the Women's Marches.

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