This article, by Kimberly Simmons of the University of Southern Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on January 14, 2020.
On Jan. 18, thousands will take to the streets for the fourth annual Women’s March, a moment within a larger movement to expand women’s human rights, freedom from violence and opportunities for leadership across the globe. Nationally, organizers are emphasizing the issues of climate justice, immigrant rights and reproductive justice. In Portland, the theme is “Side By Side, Hand in Hand, We Demand,” and it will feature calls to action from frontline organizers.
A century prior, in January 1920, U.S. suffragists were similarly working overtime to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. (It was signed into law on Aug. 26, 1920. Nevertheless, the dream of universal suffrage remains unrealized.) A central lesson learned from studies of the suffrage movement is that women do not share a singular collective identity or political interest. Today, women as a group lean Democratic, support abortion rights, want stronger equal pay laws, support establishing a paid family leave program and renewing the Violence Against Women Act and more. Yet passionate opponents to these policies are also women, as were many of the most persuasive anti-suffrage leaders. The Women’s March speaks on behalf of women’s rights, but not for all women.
The category “women” is very large, and many other identities also shape women’s lives. Racism and xenphobia divided the suffrage movement and feminist movements thereafter, delaying success. Age, class, sexual and gender identities, religion and region also shape our political and personal interests (as do many other aspects of ourselves).
“Isms” internal to social justice movements can make participation in activism frustrating and painful, especially for those with multiple identities under threat. Yet collective action is essential for visioning and realizing a world where we all fully thrive. The Women’s March has publicly brought an intersectional framework to organizing, including an ambitious set of principles and policy initiatives. Events like the Jan. 18 march encourage partnering organizations to build connections, share resources and recruit new members, while allowing each to maintain particular missions, strategies and tactics that reflect the interests of smaller groups.
Suffrage leaders encouraged women to live as if the stereotypes and social constraints facing them didn’t matter. Through activism, women in the 19th and early 20th centuries traveled, spoke publicly, organized the first Women’s March on Washington, donated money, had passionate love affairs, published books, picketed the White House, all despite living in a society that said women could not do these things. Activism emboldened women, and bold women took greater civic risks that provoked greater change, a mantle we take up today.
Contemporary Women’s March leaders similarly recognize that participating in protest is a powerful act. The experience of taking up space, being visible, making noise, actively issuing demands out loud are all experiences that challenge sexism. Large protest events build a pipeline for movement leadership. Many who marched in 2017 as new activists now lead the “resistance”: organizing community groups, running for office, volunteering for political campaigns, working to develop and pass new public policies and building spaces for healing, pleasure and mutual aid.
Marching reminds us that we matter, that we are not alone, and that we can stand in solidarity with many others. Public protest reminds politicians that there genuinely is “power in the people.” Posters and public art inspire us to imagine new futures. Chants and music energize us and help us harmonize. Movement heals us. The streets are a great place to spend some time, in service to another decade of feminist activism.
Kimberly Simmons teaches women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national 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.