Op-Ed by Alexa DeGagne, Assistant Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University
On January 21st, 2017 activists participated in the Women’s March on Washington in protest of American President Trump’s sexist and racist actions and words during the presidential election, and in protest of his policies, which were anticipated to target women, LGBTQ people, indigenous peoples, black people, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and poor people. The Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles of the Women’s March was ambitious, and Indigenous women, women of colour, queer women, and transgender people worked to ensure that the march called for intersectional advocacy in relation to a host of issues including prison and police reform, reproductive freedom, workers’ rights, immigration rights, and environmental protection.
In solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, marches were held in cities across the United States and around the world. It is estimated that 4.2 million people attended Women’s Marches in the United States, with several hundred thousand more protestors engaging in actions around the world. The sizes and energy of these marches were surprising for some people who had long written the women’s movement off as stagnated, fractured and/or dead.
In the days that followed the marches, and as we celebrate International Women’s Day, many have asked: What is next for the women’s movement? How can we channel the energy and emotions, and speeches and actions of the marches into a productive movement? Are we witnessing the birth of the fourth wave of feminism? If so, what are the priorities of this new wave?
I think these questions misrepresent both the meaning of the Women’s Marches of 2017, and the history and ongoing work of feminist, LGBTQ, indigenous, anti-racist, and social justice activists. These questions assume that there is or was a singular women’s movement, and that the movement neatly progressed in waves. The image of waves has long been used to describe the ebb and flow of women’s activism and advocacy in Western Europe and North America. Broadly, the first wave concerns (white) women’s suffrage; the second wave includes the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s -1980s (which excluded women of colour, lesbians and transgender people); and the third wave is notoriously more ambiguous but generally points to the DIY, independent and sexually liberating activisms of the 1990s.
Such understandings of women’s activism and advocacy both highlight the work and concerns of white, straight women throughout history, and obscure the ongoing, daily advocacy of indigenous women, women of colour, immigrant women, and LGBTQ people. As Andrea Smith states, “If we were to recognize the agency of indigenous women in an account of feminist history, we might begin with 1492 when Native women collectively resisted colonization.”
Indigenous women, women of colour, immigrant women, and LGBTQ people have been working tirelessly, as is demonstrated in the ongoing work that has been done by groups such as Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, missing and murdered indigenous women and girls groups, migrant care worker groups, sexual assault and domestic violence groups, and queer and transgender rights groups.
Yet many indigenous women, women of colour, immigrant women, queer women, and transgender people said they felt alienated and underrepresented during the marches and speeches. A now famous picture from the Women’s March on Washington features Angela Peoples, a black woman who is the co-director of the LGBTQ organization GetEqual, holding a sign in front of three white women, who were wearing pink pussy hats and taking selfies. The sign read: “Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump,” calling for accountability from white women who may have felt safe and stable in their white supremacy as they voted for the candidate who promised to target black people, Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants.
An activist at the Women’s March in Los Angeles, Amir Talai, a Persian-American, held up a sign that asked “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next #blacklivesmatter march, right?” Thus, instead of asking what will come next for the women’s movement, we should be asking both how we can take responsibility for and dismantle our own privileges within activist movements and in our daily lives; and what we can do to actively engage in and support the work already being done by groups like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. When we try to define the events of January 21st, 2017 as a neat story of the next step in the women’s movement, we risk making invisible the daily work, successes and failures, complexities, fractures and exclusions of women’s advocacy and activism in our communities.
Bio: Alexa DeGagne is an Assistant Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University. Alexa was the 2015/2016 Visiting Scholar in Sexuality Studies at York University. Her research and teaching are focused on LGBTQ social justice movements and activisms in Canada and the United States. Her latest research project examines the changing relationships between LGBTQ communities and police organizations across Canada. She has published and forthcoming works on LGBTQ politics, specifically on the following topics: same-sex marriage activism in California; the history of LGBTQ politics in Alberta; LGBTQ refugees in the Canadian refugee system; homonationalism and the Canadian criminal justice system; and the uses of anger as a tool in LGBTQ activism. Alexa’s activism is based in her Edmonton queer community where she has worked with several social justice projects as a community organizer and agitator, public educator, columnist, queer arts festival co-chair, and radio producer and host.