One Year Later, Women’s March Still Needs to Center Marginalized Voices

By Negar Esfandiari

Last January, over 5 million people participated in the worldwide protest we know now as the 2017 Women’s March, with a half-million of them marching right here in DC. Fired up and itching to speak out against the atrocities of the man who had been inaugurated the day before, the city’s streets were filled with chants, signs, and marchers who had traveled far just to demonstrate their willingness to stand up for human rights.

But many left the March feeling misrepresented, glazed over, and ultimately excluded from this suddenly widespread iteration of resistance and refusal. Through a sea of pink pussyhats, the recognition and acknowledgement of the transgender community was left in the dust, even though they are one of the most vulnerable populations under the Trump administration. Without confronting the overwhelming percentage of white women who voted for Trump, there was a failure to align with women of color, the intricacy of their positions, and the marginalization they were already facing prior to Trump.

As a young woman of color, I cannot say I feel included, amplified, or heard by staunch supporters of the Women’s March, whom I have observed are majority white, cisgender women. Many of its supporters emphasized the importance of coming together rather than picking at the differences which seemed to “divide” the community, but what this year’s DC March focused on was the importance of unity rather than uniformity. And yes, there definitely was more acknowledgement of the intricacy in our differences as a movement, but instead of being on a level playing field with more privileged counterparts (whether that was due to race, documentation status, gender identity, ability), it definitely felt like marginalized communities were more of an afterthought.

If you look at the list of speakers for DC’s 2018 Women’s March on Saturday, you immediately notice the increase in diversity from last year. The feedback and outcry about including more speakers of color, disability advocates, trans voices, and undocumented perspectives seemed to have been heard to some extent. But how can we claim to have an equally representative movement if the majority of the speakers from marginalized groups are lumped at the end, many of them watching the crowd antsily leave to March after hours of waiting?

Speeches from DNC Chairman Tom Perez, NOW President Terry O’Neill, and Senator Tim Kaine generated roaring applause and what seemed like an electric energy among most of the crowd. These speeches happened in the first half of the rally. The excitement of hearing from well-known and influential people can definitely drive an audience’s willingness to listen, so why is it that speakers like Kofi Annan, President of the Fairfax County chapter of the NAACP, or Muthoni Wambu Kraal, Vice President for National Outreach and Training at Emily’s List, were squished at the very end of the program? Despite their credentials and influence in the community, marchers chanted over them to let the organizers know they were tired of listening.

It should be noted that the March this year was not organized by the national Women’s March organization; rather it was led by March Forward Virginia. In a statement put out on their Facebook, Women’s March, Inc cautioned that “there are many different events this weekend that are associating themselves under the ‘Women’s March’ banner, but not all of them share the national Women’s March’s commitment to intersectionality.” Official or not, representation and amplification of marginalized voices is much more complex than mere inclusion. It was, of course, amazing to hear about the fight for reproductive justice from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and first woman Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, but better organization, time management, and prioritization of voices that have been traditionally discounted would have allowed speakers like Brittany T. Oliver, Founding Director of Not Without Black Women, to implore the crowd about what they were doing to advocate for the visibility of Black women without seeing the masses thin out.

Broadening the conversation and celebrating differences has the power to erase stigmas of dividedness, but people of color, the trans community, those with disabilities, and undocumented people are not just an add-on to the regularly scheduled programming. As an attendee of this year’s March, I really wished that there was a closer examination of the structure of the event. It did seem there was a deeper understanding that letting the group become an amalgamation of progressivism unfortunately results in the most privileged groups becoming the only faces of the movement. But it is time to go beyond baby steps and put those who are most affected on the forefront, so we may listen and learn about the most effective ways to support one another.

The past year has seen political changes like no other, with continued attacks on reproductive health access like the threat of eliminating Medicaid reimbursement for women and men who use Planned Parenthood clinics, the reversal of the DREAM Act, and many other others. As the largest collective protest across the United States, the Women’s March obviously proved to mobilize many in a more energized and unabating way. A year later, it has grown as a collective and established call to action in the face of Trump. When we look back at how Alabama elected a Democratic senator, or how Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person elected to serve in a U.S. state legislature, we cannot forget the 98% of Black women who voted for Doug Jones, or the tireless work of trans advocates despite the sheer volume of hate they receive.

Here in DC, we are no strangers to protests. Many of us pride ourselves on our willingness and passion to advocate for the causes we believe in, whether that’s reproductive health access, Black Lives Matter, the DREAM Act, or all of the above. In fact, it is the solidarity across causes that make us strong, diverse, and educated. Last year’s Women’s March showed that there needed to be improvements within the movement itself. For this year to make a lasting effect on future Marches and movements, the shifting focus on greater awareness and support for marginalized communities can no longer be put on the back burner.

I have many mixed feelings about the March, and I did really enjoy hearing from many of the speakers. But the most influential moment for me was hearing from Marcela Howell, Founder and Executive Director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. In her speech, Marcela talked about the importance of women voters, and how crucial it was to have the difficult conversations with family and loved ones about doing what’s right, no matter how difficult or awkward it may be. She ended by declaring “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” and she’s absolutely right. That ‘we’ must include women of color, the trans community, disability rights, justice for undocumented individuals, and all those who have historically been left out of the spotlight. The strength, resilience, and steps forward are all before us, and if we listen closer, we can move into 2018 with an even stronger foothold.