In January 2017, the Women’s March held one of the largest protest events in history. Hundreds of Mainers traveled to D.C. In Portland, a crowd of 10,000 came together, while thousands more gathered in Augusta. Events occured in every major city, and in hundreds of small towns, ultimately including a total of 5 million people worldwide. Pink pussy hats, funny signs and bold speakers inspired many to imagine a United States where women and girls could thrive.
The Women’s March might have ended with that single event, a cathartic rejection of a “sexual harasser in chief.” The organizers had only weeks to plan the event. New activists had to find their place among more seasoned veterans of the work, with debates about strategy, tactics and goals happening in Facebook groups and coffee shops and organizational meetings. The importance of addressing racial justice was particularly highlighted in the formation of the Women’s March and remains a core challenge. New groups, particularly online groups, join existing social justice organizations to co-create an anti-racist, LGBTQ-inclusive, economic justice-oriented feminist movement. It is an exciting and audacious project.
The need for amplified feminist activism is well documented; inequalities based on sex are significant and entrenched. The United States ranks 49th in the 2017 Global Gender Gap report, the World Economic Forum’s comparison of 144 countries. At the state level, Maine ranks 19th, with a grade of C+ for overall equity, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Racism shapes women’s lives significantly. For example, the Department of Labor notes that while white women earn 75 cents to non-Hispanic white men’s dollar, black and Hispanic women earn just 60 and 54 cents respectively. According to the Status of Black Women In the United States report, girls and women of color face significantly higher rates of incarceration, violence, and poverty than their white counterparts. The #MeToo movement made visible the ubiquity of sexual harassment in the workplace, with the most recent TimesUp initiative amplifying the importance of remedies that address the needs of the most vulnerable women.
These facts of inequality speak to the great need for a contemporary feminist movement but also frame the challenges in building one. Shared grievances do not sustain activism. We will need time and space — resources difficult for many women to come by — for consciousness raising, for direct protest, for visioning and strategizing. We will need to address our own internal biases and theorize social change strategies that reflect our movement vision. We will simultaneously need to respond to the deluge of external threats with urgency, nimbleness and creativity. Activists will need to figure out how to pay their bills while committing to this work. Sustainability and inclusion will need to be everyone’s responsibility.
Contemporary feminist activists will grapple with challenges inherent in movement building: How to mobilize many without diluting core mission; how to engage a diversity of tactics while also building a coordinated series of demands; how to build a movement that reflect the values of the society we wish to live in, before it is fully available in our consciousness or culture; how to access the resources needed to fight the well funded “opponent” while valuing the skills and participation of all activists equally. Movement building takes skill and commitment, a bit of luck and a lot of work. Outcomes are not guaranteed. For many, though, there is simply no returning to an acceptance of the status quo; activism provides a space for hope.
As the anniversary of the Women’s March takes place, celebrating the accomplishments of 2017 will be important. However, the work of 2018 has already begun, with an emphasis on electoral politics (“Power to the Polls”). Feminists across the state and country will march once again, this weekend, and then dig into the creative and challenging work of building a feminist movement attentive to addressing many systems of oppression simultaneously.
Anniversary Women’s March events will take place Saturday across the country, including in Bangor and Augusta. On Jan. 21, Women’s March — Maine will host an event in Portland. An online kit is available for anyone wanting to host a small gathering in their home or community. To get involved, consider joining an online Women’s March group, becoming a member of the Maine Women’s Lobby, attending a feminist event, or forming your own “huddle” — The Women’s March 100 Days of Actions remain available online.
Kimberly Simmons studies social movements, works on civic engagement projects and teaches women and gender studies and sociology at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
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