A Feminist Critique of the Women’s March

The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and across the country attracted as many as one out of 100 Americans by some counts. While it seemed clear what the march was against — Trump — it wasn’t clear what the march was for. Was it for feminism, policy solutions, women? That wasn’t clear.

Perhaps a definition is in order. Feminism, as I have always understood it, is a recognition that women are of equal worth as men, entitled to all the rights and privileges accorded to men. The beginnings of the first wave of feminism were entangled with the movement to abolish slavery. At that time there was an uncomfortable tension between white women pushing a feminist movement and black women trying to have their voices and concerns heard. That hasn’t changed in the almost 200 years. The movement remains a fractured one, with many different goals. At its heart, I still say feminism is about the inherent equality of all women.

Under that definition, I was born a feminist. My earliest battle cry was, “That’s not fair!” In my early years, a single mom raised me. The realities of custody, child support, child care, welfare and employment were front and center in our lives. My mom was a wannabe hippie, too young to have been at Woodstock or joining protests, but fired up about the Civil Rights Movement, feminism and the rights of people over government. When my mother remarried, my adopted father supported and encouraged the idea that I could do and be anything I wanted. While he was in college, my mother worked full-time and he encouraged her to take classes, too. They both cooked and cleaned and did yard work. I was my father’s shadow and learned how to use power tools and wield a shovel in backbreaking work. They were supportive of my high school desire to pursue a traditionally male career and were a bit surprised when I expressed a desire to go to law school, rather than continue my study of engineering.

Was the march for feminism, policy solutions, women? That wasn’t clear

It was in college, however, that I really uncovered my passion for justice. My concentration was in political science, particularly the feminist movement and law and policy affecting women and children. I interned with a small civil rights law firm run by three dynamic and powerful African-American women. I took that passion with me to law school, where I volunteered with an organization that worked with sex workers in the justice system and with the Legal Aid Society. I eventually branched out into international human rights, informed by the civil rights work in the United States and seeing a need for engagement in the global fight.

Given my life experience one would think that yesterday’s march, billed as celebrating women and recognizing the unique challenges women face, would be a natural fit for me. Only, it wasn’t.

I didn’t really consider attending. We celebrated my 4-year-old’s birthday on Saturday. That pretty much overruled everything else. At 4, you aren’t old enough to understand why your mom would postpone your cake. But from an objective standpoint, I should have been longing to be in the thick of it.

My liberal-leaning friends who attended marches wrote of the love they felt. They felt challenged by people different from them and they felt included. My right-leaning friends found themselves excluded and bewildered. Mostly, I was confused.

I heard people saying they marched for “women,” but I couldn’t figure out the message. It didn’t seem to be for all women — certainly not for pro-life, pro-Trump women. It was not for women living under oppressive regimes globally. I heard statistics flying about that aren’t completely accurate about the wage gap. I heard complaints about women’s access to healthcare. I wonder, though, how many people upset about the lack of healthcare for low income women ever were a low income woman or spent days among the homeless women in a city trying to find the mother of a child in foster care?

The march also included in its platform rights for sex workers. But if you’ve spent time trying to help young girls get off the streets in the United States or in a country like the Philippines, as I have, and away from those exploiting them, you have to wonder if the march organizers really know what “rights for sex workers” means. Those of you supporting this march without reservation, do you really know what you march for? The sex workers asking for rights are too often the ones exploiting girls too young to be on the streets at all.

It didn’t seem to be for all women — certainly not for pro-life, pro-Trump women

I saw a video of a 13-year-old girl being interviewed about being asked to leave the march if she wouldn’t take off her Trump hat. Because pro-Trump women aren’t pro-woman? Pro-life feminists were forbidden from being partners in the march or speaking but were allowed to attend because, hey, that swells the numbers. Does that lift up women? Is Madonna’s call to “blow up” the White House a unifying rallying cry for women? And what about Ashley Judd’s poem about Hitler, Nazis and more? Did that uplift women?

When I teach my children how to navigate disagreements, I emphasize that they must use respectful words and tone no matter how strongly they feel about the wrong done to them. Past feminist and civil rights leaders changed the world with nonviolent resistance, cogent arguments and facts. How could I reconcile that history with the many vulgar and mean-spirited signs used at the marches? Do I want to teach my daughter that the best way to be heard is to be rude?

That said, I understand what motivated the March. I get it. I really do. I don’t support Trump and I am wary of his presidency. I do understand why he won. And while I respect those who are cautiously optimistic, I’m not there yet. In fact, I am extremely thankful that in the United States, we have processes to remove from power anyone who abuses that power. I am not ignorant of history or of the power of words. I am listening carefully to our new president and watching closely his actions. My passion has always been for truth and justice, with a dose of mercy along for the ride. I don’t intend to abandon that passion now. I am trying to follow Trump’s cabinet picks, though I find truthful and non-inflammatory information sparse. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his cabinet picks, but, from what I see, I am encouraged that he brings onto his team smart and tough women when he thinks they are the right ones for the job. That doesn’t make him a good person or a good leader, but it does speak to his beliefs about the role of women.

Trump’s “locker room talk” was unconscionable, but I’m not naive enough to believe he’s the only powerful male to talk like that. I’ve certainly been the recipient of enough of it in so-called professional settings. Trump’s bragging speaks volumes about our celebrity culture. Because of his celebrity status he can boast, quite truthfully, I’m sure, that women go after him, and that some let him do whatever he wants. He wasn’t bragging that he does that, but that he could. Splitting hairs, perhaps, but still a distinction.

How could I reconcile feminism’s history with the many vulgar and mean-spirited signs used at the marches? Do I want to teach my daughter that the best way to be heard is to be rude?

Honest feminists have to acknowledge that for decades we have elevated men to positions of power knowing of their predatory ways — Ted Kennedy, JFK, Bill Clinton, A-list actors, football stars, Hollywood directors, and performers of various kinds. We look the other way and continue to let them play by their own rules. We’ve seen women be exploited by powerful men and let it slide. Outrage is needed — but why now? And why does the outrage come with an anti-Trump sign only?

I want to support women, but I can’t figure out how to engage the feminists of this march. I don’t understand the messages I’m receiving. Is it about women? Is it about abortion? Is it about Trump? Are the organizers of this march and those who attended listening to what marginalized women themselves have to say about their needs, or are they listening to celebrities and political leaders? If a woman is poor, a single mother, someone without healthcare, a woman of color or an immigrant, but doesn’t support the aims of this march — are you listening to them?

The many friends of mine who marched across the world yesterday genuinely care about women and genuinely felt the love and support of women at the march. They express confusion about how any woman could disagree with them. Confusion is fine. It was a confusing march.

Please, though, don’t move from confusion to dismissal. Don’t assume that the women who didn’t march were somehow ignorant, bigoted, hateful or angry. Perhaps they care about women and feminism as much as you but weren’t ready to offer carte blanche support for the March’s many mixed messages.

Feminism means treating women equally. If we want society at large to embrace that ideal let’s extend that courtesy to each other, especially those with whom we disagree.

If you marched for women, then listen to women. Otherwise, what were you marching for?

Kimberly Hart is a contributor for Opportunity Lives.