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Historic Exclusion From Feminist Spaces Leaves Black Women Skeptical of March

White feminists have a complicated history with women of color that leaves some skeptical of efforts like the Women’s March on Washington.
A Women's March kicked off, the first of a series of global protests in defense of women's rights, in Sydney on January 21, 2017.. (ANDREW MURRAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of women will attend Saturday's Women’s March on Washington, an event planned to protest Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies that organizers believe undermine women across identities. But some black women are opting out of the event because of historic exclusion from the feminist movement.

From the rejection of black women in the Suffrage Movement to contemporary missteps to acknowledge the ways in which multiple forms of oppression affect African-American women and the failure to show up as allies, white feminists have a complicated history with women of color that leaves some black women skeptical of efforts like the Women’s March.

Tamika D. Mallory, a national co-chair of the march, acknowledges the long-term rejection of black women in feminist spaces but she believes is important for black women to be at the march to articulate their concerns.

"We should not allow ourselves to be an agenda item. We need to set the agenda.”—Tamika D. Mallory

“It’s either we have a seat at the table or we’re on the menu,” said Mallory former executive director of the National Action Network and founder of Mallory Consulting. “How can we allow anyone to speak on the issues of women and not have women of color, particularly black women, involved? We should not allow ourselves to be an agenda item. We need to set the agenda.”

In fact, the roots of the early feminist movement were entrenched in disregard for black women. Suffrage leader Susan B. 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."

Mallory was one of the three women of color invited to serve as co-organizers of the march a couple of days after the event founder Bob Bland, a white woman, recognized that women of color were needed to be part of the planning and to gain the support of other nonwhite women, Mallory said.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and Carmen Perez, the executive director for The Gathering for Justice, are also national co-chairs of the march.

"When you look at the history, there is a strain… When it came down between patriarchy and sisterhood, they chose patriarchy.”—Gwendolyn Pough

But changes in the march don’t erase white women's voting record during the presidential election. 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump while 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton.

According to Gwendolyn Pough, a professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Syracuse University, today’s attempt at solidarity can’t be trusted because given the numbers, some of the same white women who put on pantsuits on Election Day walked into the voting booths and cast a ballot for Trump and they’ll likely be at the march.

“A lot of black women showed our unity by voting for a candidate that most sisters were not excited about, “ said Pough, author of Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip Hop Culture and the Public Sphere.

“Somewhere there was a fail and not all women were in solidarity with that. We had been operating under the guise that there was unity and now we’ve been shown there isn’t so what do you do with that?”

White feminists' early failures to embrace black women in the Suffrage Movement set the stage for future decades of exclusion that still makes it difficult to join them in solidarity, Pough said.

“It may look like it’s different but it's the same,” continued Pough. “Knowing the history, it’s important when you look at the Suffrage Movement, it really was about getting the white women the right to vote. When you look at the history, there is a strain… When it came down between patriarchy and sisterhood, they chose patriarchy.”

The march initially felt like a repeat of historic missteps white feminists made in the past but adding three respected women of color organizers helped give the credibility along with its policy platform which puts concerns of black women in the forefront, said Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective.

“It’s giving intersectional feminism a mainstream platform like this and saying it’s not white women’s issues and women of color issues as an addendum. It means we’re going to lead with and we include everybody,” said Cooper, author of the forthcoming book Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. “That’s a huge shift, a really important pivot and one that’s worth watching.”

“Many people woke up on Nov. 9. We have to recognize that this march is a place for them to stay awake."—Teresa Younger

Mallory said she and other black women who are planning the march worked to make black women’s issues central in the march. “I’m committed to what it means to ensure that the voice of the black women is not used as a token or a laborer but rather our issues are front and center and those who claim to be allies would actually join us in some of the important fights that we’ve been addressing.”

Teresa Younger, the first Black president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, is attending the march and her foundation is participating in and organizing activities in Washington to help women transform their energy from the march into political action when they get home.

“Many people woke up on Nov. 9, woke up,” she said. “We have to recognize that this march is a place for them to stay awake and we all need to create avenues for them to stay awake and in action for the next four years and beyond.”

More than 600 local versions of the Women’s March are planned across the country on Saturday. The fact that the sentiment of the march has spread nationwide indicates a widespread concern about what could come under Trump’s administration, Mallory said.

“So many people they have not been engaged in movement,” she said. “They've been on the sidelines. This is what it looks like when people get concerned about their future and their children’s future and now they’re waking up and getting engaged.”

Cooper agrees that the Trump administration’s position on Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood funding and other issues present real challenges for women. She will not attend the march but she believes there is a sense of urgency for feminist concerns and whether women attend the march or find other ways to get politically active, they will be needed to resist the incoming administration’s policies in the next four years.

“We haven’t seen the level of attack that we’re about to see in a couple of generations in the '60s and '70s,” Cooper said. “This is an all-hands-on deck call.”

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