By Layton E. Williams 1-19-2017

This weekend, hundreds of thousands will flood the streets of Washington, D.C., to take part in the Women’s March on Washington, a massive rally that organizers describe as an opportunity to “stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families — recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

The march calls for unity, and indeed, such a public event has the power to shape and energize the future of feminism, at least in the months ahead. But many are asking who that future will serve, and who might be left behind.

Last week, the organizers of the march published their political platform — a comprehensive document outlining supportive stances on LGBTQIA, gender, racial equality, and reproductive justice. They quickly faced heavy criticism for naming a solidly pro-life organization, New Wave Feminists, as one of their 400+ sponsor organizations. In response to the criticism, the march organizers removed the organization from the list, saying, “The Women’s March’s platform is pro-choice and that has been our stance from day one. … We look forward to marching on behalf of individuals who share the view that women deserve the right to make their own reproductive decisions.”

The Atlantic’s Emma Green reported on this exchange and questioned whether pro-life activists have a place within the feminist movement. While some argue that being pro-choice is fundamental to feminism, others, like prominent Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, see the march’s uncompromisingly pro-choice stance as a missed opportunity “to build a broader coalition.”

But debate over whether it is possible to be both feminist and pro-life is not the first issue erupting from the march — it’s drawn controversy almost since its conception. As the event gained public attention immediately following the election of Donald Trump, critics pointed out that it was helmed almost entirely by white women with little organizing experience. Some activists of color argued that the event was yet another example of “white feminism” — a phrase used to describe pro-women activism that ignores intersectional realities, especially related to race. 

In response to these critiques, the march organizers brought on three professional activists and women of color — Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour — as co-chairs, in addition to original organizer Bob Bland. With this shift, some who had previously objected to the march decided to attend after all. One such person is Ashley, who works as a director of Christian education at a church in Manhattan and asked to be identified only by her first name.

“My church decided to go while I was away, so I had no chance to register my concerns,” Ashley said. “When I saw how the [march] organizers handled the criticism, I signed up to go. The closer we get to the date, the better I feel about my decision.”

Idaho pastor Marci Auld Glass also decided to attend her local satellite march. “It isn't perfect,” she said. “But for me, at this point, silence is assent. And I do not assent to what's happening in this transition of power."

Still, others remain frustrated and see the initial exclusion of women of color as an irredeemable flaw. In a piece written for Colorlines, Jamilah Lemieux explained why she is still planning to skip the march: “I don’t know that I serve my own mental health needs by putting my body on the line to feign solidarity with women who by and large didn’t have my back prior to November.” And the host of Black Girl Dangerous, an independent blog that centers voices of queer and transgender people of color, tweeted, “A march that won’t center the most oppressed ain’t gonna be anything good.”

Concerns about inclusion go even beyond racial justice and reproductive rights. The march is also facing criticism for its nebulous position on sex workers. In its “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles,” march organizers initially included sex workers among those whose worker rights it seeks to support. Later, the reference to sex workers was replaced with a statement of solidarity with “all those exploited for sex and labor.” In response, trans activist Janet Mock posted a statement on Tumblr saying, “I reject the continual erasure of sex workers from our feminisms because we continue to conflate sex work with the brutal reality of coercion and trafficking.” She then tweeted that she was working with march organizers to have sex workers added back into the document. As of today, the original phrase supporting sex workers’ rights movement has been added back, along with the phrasing around sexual exploitation.

While the march’s rapid growth and global attention attests to the widespread fervent energy around women’s rights, its controversies and debates – from inclusion of women of color to abortion to sex workers’ rights – reveal feminism’s fault lines and the far-reaching diversity of issues and perspectives within the movement for gender justice.

As the day of the event draws near, the question remains: Is it possible for all women and allies to come together for a unified cause, or are the convictions and experiences that divide us too great? Does coming together in spite of those differences inherently privilege white women and erase the ongoing struggles of those who face forms of oppression beyond their gender?

Some see the responsiveness of march organizers as a promising sign — not that unity can be achieved, or is even the goal, but that listening to concerns and adjusting the terms of inclusion can make for a stronger movement.

Tricia Dykers Koenig — a pastor who works as a national organizer for a Presbyterian LGBTQ advocacy organization — suggested that inclusion is ultimately the only productive way forward.

“Certainly I want to be sensitive to all perspectives, and absolutely we can all improve,” she told Sojourners. “But fighting amongst ourselves and letting the failure to be perfect prevent us from moving forward together is exactly what the powers that be hope we will do. While we are in the circular firing squad, they are chuckling all the way to the bank (and the dismantling of our democracy).”

No doubt Saturday’s event will draw large crowds, and questions of its merit and effectiveness will continue to be asked and explored long afterward. While we can’t overlook the imperfections in our efforts or the internal divisions that persist – not if we’re truly committed to justice for all women — the work of achieving true gender justice requires both acting and listening, both pride and humility, justice and grace. For some, the best next steps are the steps they’ll take on Saturday, and for others, the best next move is to sit this march out. Justice for women won’t ultimately be achieved by the steps we do or don’t take on Saturday, but by the steps we commit to taking after the march ends.

Layton Williams serves as Audience Engagement Editor at Sojourners.  

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