On January 21st, multitudes of women throughout the U.S. protested the presidency of Donald J. Trump. But what started out as a national march against a patriarchal demagogue evolved into a global campaign for gender equality, women’s rights, peace, love and saving our planet. From a boat in the freezing Antarctic to the Eigg island of 83 people; from the streets of India to cities in the United Kingdom. Even the African continent wasn’t left out. In Nairobi, South Africa and my country Nigeria, hundreds of women marched in solidarity with their sisters across the globe. Now plans are underway for a women’s strike: A Day Without A Woman.
Trump became a catalyst for something bigger. Contrary to Simone De Beauvoir’s claims in her book The Second Sex, we finally had concrete means for organizing ourselves into a unit, thanks to the Internet and social media — #WomensMarch. When we heard the new leader of free world describe a woman as “bitch”, her breasts as “phony” and his freedom to do anything to women, including “grab them by the pussy”, we collectively knew what it felt like to be objectified. To fight every day for our humanity. Taking to the streets in pink hats with cardboard signs held high and banners uniting us was our way of fighting back against “every man who’s ever tried to leverage power, money, fame, credibility or physical strength to snap your boundaries like matchsticks.” Even against other presidents like Muhammadu Buhari who believe that the woman’s place is in the kitchen or the other room. More sinister than the remarks are what they represent and the cultures that continue to birth them.
I am insistent on saying “fighting back” because using terms like “demand” still connotes need, asking and only receiving what the same oppressors — men and their female surrogates — are willing to give.
Some of my black female friends opted out of the march, citing its hypocrisy as 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. That stance assumes two things. First, that racism within the feminist cause is a modern phenomenon. And second, that all women are feminists.
Take the latter assumption for example. In an August 2016 episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, correspondent Jordan Klepper quizzed Trump’s supporters after the then presidential candidate proposed an ideology test for potential Muslim immigrants. His question to a white middle-aged woman was straightforward: “Can a woman be president?”
To which she replied: “The presidency is a man’s job.”
Upon learning from Klepper that women are qualified to be president, the woman still went on to say, “A female has more hormones. She could start a war in ten seconds if she has hot flashes, whatever — boom!” (Apparently she hadn’t heard of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or Angela Merkel.) We never get a chance to gauge the woman’s reaction after she concedes to Klepper’s satirical counterpoint that men have started all wars. Women like that exist throughout the world. They are either unaware of their subjugation, or have internalized it to the point of willful ignorance. You know those kinds of women, within any race, who will cite the Bible, Koran or pseudoscience to defend the status quo. All movements have their detractors and defectors. In the oppressor-oppressed paradigm, female surrogates of patriarchy choose to curry favor with their subjugators, believing this will mitigate their oppression or accepting said oppression as a fact of the human condition. They fail to realize that the “master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”
Backing up to the first assumption, that racism and feminism are somehow mutually exclusive. Beauvoir writes that the woman’s fight for equality has always been undermined by our dispersion among males as we are “attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men.”
“If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women…The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other. The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in history.”
This solidarity does not just exist among white women siding with bigoted partners, but we see it among people of color. I see it, for instance, in my immigrant community where Black women won’t turn abusive partners over to the authorities because of the fear of betraying one’s race. Abuser he may be, but in him we still see our brothers and fathers. As if the color of one’s skin is enough to guarantee unrelenting familial devotion.
In the context of race, we want to think of feminism as a universal set consisting of all women of all backgrounds recognizing and confronting tyranny together in one big, happy, pink circle. But think of it really as the intersection between two circles, where one circle denotes feminist white women and the other feminist women of color; that sweet Kumbaya spot is where the two circles overlap comprising of feminists who empathize with the other group’s struggle. Those who realize you can’t be selective in the battle for equal rights because that selectivity, particularly when one is resisting a common foe, subverts the individual causes or makes one vulnerable to being divided and conquered.
Saying that racism exists within womankind is not intended to cast guilt on white feminists or belittle the frustrations that women of color feel from a lack of solidarity. It is crucial for white feminists to know that the Black woman’s oppression is unique in that she vies for her humanity on two fronts: her sex AND the color of her skin. We not only have to confront misogyny within and without, but also that other racism stuff.
As we contend with renewed attacks against women’s bodies and our sexual liberties and prepare for the general strike, I implore my feminist sisters of color to join in. Abstaining is accepting defeat and letting tyranny win. We’re more effective when we insist on occupying those spaces, holding up placards that denounce hypocrisy and divisions within the feminist cause. By so doing we follow in the footsteps of afrofeminist predecessors like Audre Lorde who fought on in spite of those hurdles.
And to feminists of all races, to be successful we need to have honest conversations that acknowledge the inherent flaws of the feminist cause. Our strikes and marches will be more potent. This renewed empathy will not be a badge or safety pin of honor, but a prerequisite for furthering our cause as a collective. We can’t just be sisters when it is convenient.