Marching in the shadows: Black Women and the Women’s March on Washington

Carolyn L. Mazloomi

Millions of women from all over the nation came together the day after the inauguration to send a powerful message to President Trump, a man as deplored for his misogynist and sexist gender philosophy, as he is for his hard line stance on immigration, health care, race, and almost every progressive issue affecting American citizens. Massive marches took place in Washington, D.C., as well as locations across the United States, to bring attention to the protection of women’s rights, including reproductive health care, LGBT issues, and equal pay. Efforts to organize the march to oppose these huge problems and forge a united front were not without problems. 

Soon after the idea for the Women’s March on Washington was conceived, old disagreements between Blackwomen organizers and the White feminist movement began to surface. A number of issues upset Black women. The march, initially called the Million Women’s March, was similar to the name originally attributed to a massive march for Black sisterhood and self-determination held in Philadelphia in 1997. After a backlash, the Women’s March was rebranded by organizers to prevent confusion with the historic protest. The name change still didn’t stop the criticism, because there were no women of color helping to organize the march. Organizers then invited three women of color to help plan the event in order to gain support of nonwhite women.

Overshadowing all doubts of sincerity by Black women was the fact fifty-three percent of White women voted for Donald Trump. Black women were perplexed to understand how they could vote for a man who boasted about sexual assault. Certainly Black women would look at White feminist somewhat askew when thinking about joining them in a national march for women’s rights.

Historically, feminists have a long and complicated history with women of color. White women were unequivocal in prioritizing their rights over those rights of African Americans. Since the 1850’s Black and White women have been divided. During that era, feminists split over whether to champion women’s rights or abolition. White women chose women’s rights. Soon thereafter, Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?”speech at a women’s rights conference in Ohio. In fact, the roots of the early feminist movement were entrenched in disregard for Black women. The Suffrage Movement was about getting White women the right to vote. At the same time that Truth spoke her truth, suffragette leader Susan B. Anthony issued a warning to her influential White male colleagues to set aside working for the liberation of Blacks in order to guarantee suffrage for White women. Anthony infamously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Susan B. Anthony continues to be lionized to this day, with barely a mention of this racist aspect of her legacy.

Many women of color are uneasy about joining forces with White women feminists, because they lacked understanding of the plight of women of color. Women who are members of multiple minority groups, specifically single, Asian, Black, Latino, and LGBTQ, women, are likely to have an inclusive gender-political consciousness. These women are likely familiar with other forms of discrimination, like racism or homophobia. Practicing the concept of intersectionality in the oppression of women has not been central to the feminist movement.

Much of what this country knows about resistance, defiance, and reclamation of power from systems, have been learned from Black women and indigenous people. Strong Black women have confronted a power structure that conscripted for them the role of slaves. Through the power of their unbending intent, faith and perseverance, they continually snatched back the script and rewrite their lives as victors. I speak about Black women who found a spiritual balm for self-healing and used that balm on their families and communities. I speak of women like Mum Bett, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks - spiritual giants who devoted their lives to binding up the wounds, inspiring the downtrodden, nurturing children and resurrecting the consciousness of a nation tarnished with the blood of native and African Americans. I speak about Black maids in Montgomery, Alabama boycotting public buses and walking to work for thirteen months in protest; Black women beaten, burned and jailed during the Civil Rights Movement; Black women marching to protest police killings with the Black Lives Matter movement.

If the women’s movement is to advance to the next level, White feminists must deal with hard facts. Tremendous strides have been made for the rights of women, however there is still so much more to be done. Women’s rights have not been conferred equally to all women. Issues such as race, class, gender, immigration are intersectional, and must be addressed for women of color. It is critical women present a united front in resisting the incoming administration’s policies during the next four years. The marches were a critical step toward having those tough, but necessary, conversations. 

“My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Mother Pollard (c. 1882–1885 – before 1963) participant in the 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott.