This blog post was originally published in Entropy on February 27, 2017
I am not an avid protester, despite my history as a graduate from a proud hippie-college and my work with the National Organization for Women in my twenties. The t-shirt I was gifted for Christmas that proclaims “Introverts Unite … Separately, In Our Own Homes,” better reflects my style of protest. Nonetheless, I was determined to be at the Women’s March in Los Angeles to stand with other women against a most vilely sexist election that resulted in a self-proclaimed perpetrator of sexual assault and a racist in the White House. My anxiety about marching was evident in my procrastination in creating a poster. I researched what people put on signs and created a mental list throughout my day.
At midnight, I finally set to making a poster that resulted in something more like a brainstorming exercise I would do with students as to why a woman might march. In the center was the theme: Why I March. Around it, I listed some of my reasons: freedom of choice over my body, Black Lives Matter, misogyny is bipartisan. My poster would not be readable by the drones and cameras scanning the crowds; it required close reading. I was self-consciousness about my poster when I first arrived. Later, bolstered by the reflection of my reasons on the powerful posters around me — whether a simple board with black marker or an artful and laminated production –I held my poster higher as I progressed through the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
Sunday’s LA Times article about the Women’s March by Cathleen Decker viewed protesters’ and organizers’ refusal to choose one issue as a weakness, indicating that the significance of this march had little chance of continuing beyond January 21st. Decker quoted NYU political scientist, Patrick Egan, who stated that the Women’s March “was not like rallies for reproductive rights or gay rights,” predicting that “without unifying issues,it is difficult to sustain unity.” It was not clear if this was an area of study for Egan or if he participated in the Women’s March. Decker goes on to compare the Women’s March to the perceived success of the Tea Party movement due to definable goals against Obamacare and the perceived failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement due to a lack of definable goals. They are right. Sustaining a movement is not easy. Yet, I look at my poster and wonder, how are we not being clear?
Decker and Egan fail to think outside of white, male, and upper-class definitions of political action, goals, and success. They miss how ending the domination of patriarchal rule is a goal that encompasses rectifying injustices in healthcare, education, and economic systems of this country because the realms in which patriarchy exploits women is many. They miss the fact that by not being about one issue the Women’s March, organized by a diverse group of women, was radical and rooted in a lineage of feminist theory and matriarchal histories.
Through an election that exposed unfiltered misogyny on a national and unprecedented level in the bipartisan attacks against Hillary Clinton — which must be distinguished from valid critiques of her stance on issues — the media and the nation kept their blinders on by failing to name it. As the nation disparaged a woman who displayed a thorough command of the issues and competence as a leader in the face of an avowed abuser of women and compulsive liar, women saw themselves. We saw ourselves in meetings where male co-workers ignored us then parroted our ideas as their own, on dates where men mansplained how we could achieve the success they assumed we have not attained, and on job interviews where our experience and preparation were dismissed in favor of someone who is ‘a better fit,’ that is, someone with whom ‘boys’ can continue to be ‘boys’ in the office. When she was called a liar, we were reminded of all the times we were accused of being liars when we spoke up about sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. When she was called a nasty woman, we were reminded of how we were told we were bad women because we chose to leave husbands, marry women, live alone, have multiple sex partners, or make our work a priority. Still, this white, obscenely rich man who lied about unethical behavior that was caught on video now sits in the Oval Office.
In 1972, the year I was born, there was another candidate who ran for President, an outsider with the slogan Unbought and Unbossed: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. According to a BBC profile of Chisholm she did not expect to win but hoped her campaign would change what people imagined could be possible in the United States. She launched her campaign declaring, “I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male.”
At the Women’s March, I finally saw that I was not alone in being angry that my hope and belief in a world where people would vote for a woman because she was the most qualified candidate was trampled. Why was I not given Chisholm as a role model in my middle and high school education in Florida? Why were women still on the defensive in protecting basic rights over our bodies? After November 9th, women finally understood it was not us. We woke up to the fact that if we want to shake things up we must engage, just as Chisholm once advised a young Barbara Lee, Representative for California’s 13th district.
Egan and Decker’s doubt articulates the desire to limit a movement to an either/or dichotomy valued by the binary thinking of patriarchy, the same thinking that has taught women to limit how we think of ourselves and each other: virgins or whores, mothers or spinsters, homemakers or executives, smart or beautiful, wives or mistresses. In the book that introduced me to feminism, Feminist Theory: from margin to center, bell hooks contrasts oppression – which she defines as the “absence of choices” – with exploitation and discrimination, which is how most women in the U.S. experience patriarchy. We have choices as women, but, according to hooks, not complete freedom as the choices we are given restrict us. Yet, the absence of oppression permits “many women to ignore the areas in which they are exploited or discriminated against,” and to remain in denial that other women are indeed oppressed.
I spent much of my life as a feminist guilty of this denial. I thought it was enough to get my college degree, to support myself, to travel alone, and to refuse to take minutes because I was the only woman in a meeting. I thought this was progress. That was before I could really imagine a true alternative to patriarchy because I had never seen a different model.
Vicki Noble and other feminist scholars have unearthed the history of matriarchal models of societies that achieved peace and prosperity through non-hierarchical governments and living in sync with the cycles of nature. We do not learn about this in history class because, as Noble writes in Shatki Woman, with any narrative that features women, these histories have been silenced as “…a threat to the established scholarship, which assumes ‘progress’ to be taking place throughout the development of the world as we know it and male domination to be the natural or preferred state of things.” While reading Noble I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the California Science Center that included hundreds of small goddess statues dismissed as household trinkets rather than centers of deeply personal spiritual practices. The exhibit omitted the violence the overthrow of matriarchal societies with their altars in homes by patriarchal societies where spiritual lives were controlled by men in temples. This linear, limited, and binary view of the world covers up the multitudinous ways women are marginalized and exploited in our supposedly model democracy and silences the diversity of women’s experiences and opinions. It traps us in a patriarchal way of thinking that locks out hope that we can come full circle, not back to the illusion of peace in the 1950’s, but to the prosperity and equality of matriarchal cultures.
Though the 45th president is symbolic of the worst of patriarchy, the Women’s March was not just a protest against him, just as feminism is not about women versus men. The March and feminism are about transformation, which is messy and chaotic and a work in progress, much like the poster I made at midnight.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit reminds us “that politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations,” and that “symbolic and cultural acts have real political power.” Decades after Chisholm’s run for President challenged us to imagine something more than the narratives patriarchy allowed us to hear, we elected a black man as President — twice — and a woman won the popular vote. When we engage with compassion, we can stop the progress of destruction and heal some of the damage. Solnit sees transformation as slow and often under the radar of cultural buzz: “the changes that count take place not merely onstage as action but in the minds of those who are again and again pictured only as audience or bystanders”.
I think of the circles of women I have gathered with at all stages of my life. I circled with women in dorm rooms and women in yoga studios so we could remind each other that we bear the losses and the victories together, no matter that each of us were waging different battles. I circled with women in kitchens and public access TV studios in Florida to plan, produce, and edit feminist stories and news before I really understood the importance and power of telling such stories. I circled with my tribes of writers and dancers in Los Angeles in which there are no stages, no actors or bystanders, but equal participants holding space for women to imagine a self and a world different from the dominant narrative. The Women’s March, with its myriad issues, embodied the emergence of these circles from the dark corners of our towns to call for a shift from patriarchal to feminist agendas in political dialogue.
Even with the best intentions, it is a struggle to keep the circle from turning into a stage, to keep performance from overtaking collective transformation. In Feminist Theory, bell hooks wrote the aim of feminism “is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women” nor to “privilege women over men” nor is it “a ready-made identity or role.” It is not a one issue movement and it requires the deep work of transformation. Just because we put on a pink pussy hat and say all are invited does not mean we are immune to the years of socialization living in a racist, patriarchal, and capitalist culture that teaches the primacy of competition, and that believes in a universe that operates on a law of scarcity rather than abundance.
Many participants in the Women’s March failed, like Decker and Egan, to completely step out of patriarchy and white privilege to make space for the experiences of all women.
After the march, I celebrated, along with many others, the peacefulness of the Women’s Marches, neglecting to recognize that it was so because, as Vitula Henderson writes in Racebaitr.com:
[T]he police didn’t show up in riot gear and they didn’t shoot tear gas or grenades into that crowd (as they do during Black Lives Matter protests, or as they did with the water protectors), because white women are respected and protected in a way Black women are not.
Feminism needs to step out of the confines of patriarchal hierarchy and binary thinking to follow the leadership of women of color, working-class women, LGBTQ women, and disabled women who know exploitations and discriminations that women with privileged status –whiteness, wealth, and health — do not know. We need to step into our power by building a feminist movement where writers like Barbara Sostaita will no longer have to report in Feministing how women of color are silenced by white women who do not want to acknowledge how their whiteness gives them privileges that does not make their exploitation equal to that of non-white women. This is why when I made my poster I included Black Lives Matter, a watercolor rainbow flag as the background, healthcare, and freedom of religion though none of these are reasons I have personally been discriminated against. We need a feminist movement where Henderson no longer needs to ask the same question in 2017 that hooks wrote about in 1984, “How can I work with white women who don’t care about Black women and think an improvement for them is the same as an improvement for me, when only the reverse is true?”
If the Women’s March is to be succeeded by action, feminists of privileged groups must face our discomfort. Ali Tharrington, a white woman reluctant to participate in a March that was not fully inclusive, decided to carry a sign that said “White Women Elected Trump.” She wrote about her experience carrying this sign in Vox.com: The sign made me uncomfortable, it made others uncomfortable, and that was good. I am learning that, like many things in life, progress is made through discomfort. Discomfort means you’re human and on the move.
Discomfort and difference are not tolerated in patriarchal politics, whose goal is to win rather than do the hard work of progress. Sostaita questions the whole idea of the need for uniformity in the women’s movement while emphasizing the importance of continued dialogue that is the basis of collective struggle and transformation. “Unity, if it is to be achieved and if that is even a goal to be sought, can only happen if these conversations take place first,” she writes. I want to believe in feminism as a movement that fosters dialogue to reach common ground.
As uncomfortable as it was for me to hold the sign I made and march with 750,000 others in Los Angeles, I still struggle to face the discomfort of talking to my sister about the political differences we have always pretended did not exist. My sister is an educated white woman who teaches science and math, yet asserts that she does not want to argue when politics come up. I have no idea what she really thinks of my choice to march or will think of this article. My discomfort is not just a difference in political opinions, but lies in the implications of how her world view and my silence has silenced and, now, endangers others.
A week after the March, yoga instructor and shamanic healer Bekah Turner posted a quote from Buckminister Fuller on Instagram: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” First, we must identify the narratives we have allowed to dictate our personal reality. In my family, it is admitting the family narrative of politeness and harmony is often one of complicity and denial. At work, I had to face why I falsely laughed along with others at the white male colleague who flaunts his privilege through jokes that are used to silence non-white and non-male voices. And ask myself, why, in public spaces, when men encroach on my personal space do I move to avoid being accused of making a scene, to put their comfort over my own. Why did I silently participate in the family narrative that I was the one causing the discomfort and embarrassing them with my liberal, big-city points of view, thus perpetuating the illusion that their racism and prejudices were simply differences in preferences? The privilege that allowed me to be in such denial is also the privilege to have the choice to indulge such denial or resist injustice. I choose resistance.
Collectively, we must choose whether or not January 20, 2017 and January 21, 2017 will be the tipping point that brings us face to face with personal and societal discomfort, and that transforms it into a new model for action and progress. Will we continue to hold the space that has been opened for feminist dialogue and action? I believe we are. I see it in the articles from Henderson, Tharrington, and Sostaita. I see it in the “Dress Like A Woman” pictures on social media and the emergence of TeenVogue as a source of cutting-edge journalism. I see it in women posting about their daily concrete action, modeling for others how we can resist with wisdom, force, and dignity. I see it in my new model of not seeking blame, but in creating justice and in empowering the voices that speak for the exploited and oppressed in order to dismantle the tools of patriarchy. I see it in our female senators and representatives taking the floor in Congress. I see in the female comedians on Saturday Night Live taking on the personas of male leaders to expose their hypocrisy and corruption. I see it in the dissolution of my sense of obligation to make others feel comfortable in their prejudices, to be polite. I see it in ScienceMarchLA, calling itself a sister march, in my women friends who are choosing to march, and in those who are staying home to write and submit essays, poems, and stories about resistance.
We must remember, though, the new model really is not new at all, but is, to go back to the Solnit analogy, just stepping into the spotlight from the shadows where it was kept it from public view by white, patriarchal media and scholarship. Personal activism has been going on behind the scenes in women’s daily lives. We know because poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lourde, and Marilyn Hacker wrote about it. We know because of the activism of Dolores Huerta who fought for civil and labor rights and co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, though she does not have a holiday named after her. We know because playwright and essayist Ramona Pilar witnessed it in her mother’s protest against gender norms, which she writes about on Women Who Submit: For my mother, that meant deciding to leave behind the idea of being a perfect wife and mother, and instead, risking social and cultural scorn to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a nurse.
When women in the second half of the 20th Century made revolutionary choices like Pilar’s mother, there was no headline as there was for the Women’s March. Still, thousands of women made such decisions or longed to do so.
On NPR’s Hidden Brain segment, Shankar Vedantam reported on a study about women’s willingness to express ambition publicly. The study’s findings “suggest that these women at least at some level feel they are paying a price if they express ambition.” Maybe my past avoidance of protest is not so much about my introversion and comfort in my own privilege, but about my fear of showing ambition. Maybe there were not enough images of women being agents of social change without rupturing personal relationships. Maybe we know that when we do step out of the scripts given to us, our authority will be questioned, our audacity will be ridiculed, reducing us to being labeled an angry woman, a shrew. Maybe the new model is not caring about any of these lingering fears, not giving them power.
To remind myself that I must face discomfort to dispel it, I put my poster in my meditation space. I recall a quote from Noble’s Shakti Woman: [w]e must create a strong enough central axis that each of us can stand her ground in the face of all opposition, visible or invisible, that might attempt to stop the expulsion of the possessing entity who has taken over the world (240).
Though written in 1991 and talking about the thousands of years of patriarchal rule that replaced matriarchal societies, her words apply to our current oppositional times. I see a new axis forming, strengthening, in the circle of issues around “Why I March” on my poster, and in the map of marches all around the world radiating from the Women’s March on D.C. I see this new axis in the awakened activism and the shared confidence rooted in our history and our power that we know by instinct, even if obscured in our experiences living in patriarchal society and learning a history scripted by patriarchal powers. I see the shift to a new feminism, a circle that has been pried open to allow the margins to become the center, and that I hope will heal into something stronger and more whole.
Lisa Eve Cheby’s poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in various journals including The Rumpus, Entropy, Knowledge Quest, The Citron Review, Tidal Basin Review, A cappella Zoo, and TAB: Journal of Poetry and Poetics, which nominated her poem for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Lisa’s poems are also found in the anthologies Drawn to Marvel, The Burden of Light, and Coiled Serpent. Her chapbook, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is available from Dancing Girl Press and was featured in The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed Series. Lisa holds an MFA from Antioch and an MLIS from SJSU. http://lisacheby.wordpress.com