by Zoe Samudzi
On the day after the inauguration, millions of Americans took to the streets in major cities across the country and in the nation’s capital for the flagship Women’s March on Washington. Organized around the five principles of Kingian non-violence and intersectional feminism, the march espoused a desire to “stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families” and in unwavering affirmation of women’s rights as human rights. These are fairly uncontroversial political premises for any person who self-identifies as a feminist. But unfortunately, despite the desires for women to be bonded and united through a common understanding of “sisterhood” and “womanhood,” it was clear that there were disparate understandings in ideology and gendered identity.
One almost overwhelming feature was of vagina-centric rhetoric and imagery, clearly a reaction to both the march’s theme of safeguarding reproductive justice rights and President Trump’s atrocious “grab her by the pussy” comment. From vagina hats to iterations of “This Pussy Grabs Back!” women asserted their bodily autonomy in the face of a presidency that seems to almost uniquely embody all the worst parts of white cisheteropatriarchy. While walking through Oakland’s own iteration of the Women’s March, I saw a trans man wearing a sign that said “I know what women want, I used to be one,” which served as an uncomfortable reminder of gender-sex essentialism’s politics of exclusion and inclusion.
By contrast, I saw relatively few signs (both in person and across the internet) in support or even acknowledgement of transgender or intersex women. There was also a fair amount of rightful controversy and objection to the inclusion of the anti-choice organization New Wave Feminists as official partners by the organizers of the march: they were removed a few days later. There were subsequent conversations and debates about whether or not “pro-life” women’s groups should be welcomed in the Women’s March and in feminist spaces writ large. The Women’s March also waffled on its inclusion of support for sex workers, a group that has been historically erased from, marginalized by, or tokenized by mainstream feminist politics.
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In commenting on the problematic aspects of the Women’s March, racialized and trans and disabled and other women were condescended to and chastised, generally by white women. They were met by the same predictable retorts about their “divisiveness,” the same dog-whistle code for “non-compliant” and “uncooperative women.” Ideas about “unity” and “sisterhood” were also employed to shut down critique, as were ideas about “progress” and “efforts.”
One of my favorite critiques about the Women’s March came from Yasmin Nair who called on us to march together as feminists rather than as women. She wrote that “to march as feminists would require a deeper entanglement with political and economic histories, and to consider how all that is connected to the political and economic histories of people everywhere who are enmeshed in capitalism.” I, for one, am still asking myself what this march might have looked like if it hadn’t revolved around a womanhood essentialized in white supremacy-maintaining ways. What would a response to an overarching system of oppression, one that takes into consideration the unique and differential ways we are both similarly and uniquely oppressed by state and global structures, look like? What would a march that usefully conceptualized power and even horizontal power have looked like?
In this march, and in so many other instances, unity is weaponized as a means by which to bludgeon and silence the critiques of multiply marginalized people. Empty rhetorics and heavy emphases placed on shared womanhood, for example, erased the critical voices of trans women who were alienated by womanhood revolving around sex organs.
More often than not, “unity” serves as a powerful silencing tool.
There is a distinct difference between “unity” and “solidarity”: where solidarity recognizes our differing social contexts and positions but still highlights the criticality of working together, “unity” pushes a violent doctrine of sameness. It allows for individuals in positions of relative dominance to set agendas that more marginalized and disenfranchised individuals and communities are dogmatically expected to follow.
It is worth noting the similarities in discourse between a “unity” in sisterhood where identity-based struggles are unacknowledged and the Democratic Party’s calls for “unity” with the Trump administration, the expectation that black voters put aside their race-based concerns to be in “unity” with Bernie Sanders’ supporters, or the invocation of a sanitized Dr. King in favor of an identity-destroying racial colorblindness or criticisms about how Black Lives Matter uses tactics that alienate potential allies. This kind of unity is implicitly predicated upon relatively marginalized communities to be self-sacrificial, and to sacrifice their “selfish” interests for the “greater societal good.”
In the coming months – or weeks at this rate – President Trump is going to continue his attacks on rights and liberties that will affect marginalized communities of all natures. Rather than foisting uncritical expectations for unity upon these communities, it’s critical that we develop an understanding of the overarching systems at play, i.e. racial capitalism, and begin to imagine not only community-specific responses but also broader collective imaginings of a better and more equitable system.
We need a sustained political energy that galvanizes a deep inter-communal solidarity against xenophobia, economic inequity, hetero- and cisnormativity, attack on indigenous rights, racism, misogyny, ableism, climate change, militarism, Islamophobia, reproductive injustice, sex work criminalization, and every other oppressive system in the web of violence that racial capitalism has spawned. It will require us to meaningfully recognize the multiplicity of identities and experiences that exist, and it’ll require us to recognize that many of us can be and are simultaneously oppressed people and oppressors, even as women. Only then can we really begin to foster an earnest and honest unity.
Zoe is an doctoral student in Sociology living in Oakland. She studies whiteness and structural violence as they both drive poor health outcomes in ethnic and gender minority communities.
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