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Opinion | Gloria Steinem

Why women are marching on Washington

Hanna Barczyk for The Boston Globe

Two big things happened the day after the election. First, we learned that Donald Trump was the second man in recent history to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote big-time. Second, we probably didn’t learn that Rebecca Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, posted on Facebook her idea that women should march on Washington in response to the first thing.

This week, the popularity of the second overwhelmed the first. Despite a high-level effort to attract celebrities and crowds, there will be only 200 buses transporting Trump supporters to an inauguration where even the fact that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is singing has been protested by a petition signed by 21,000 Mormons. After a low-level and mostly online explosion of interest in a woman-led march on Washington, there will be 1,200 buses transporting people who speak, care and sing about all the issues Trump opposes, from equal rights to the environment. In support of the Women’s March on Washington, there also will be sister marches in every major city in this country and more than 50 cities around the world.


Of course, I have to admit that Trump himself helped galvanize this march. By his fact-free Tweets, narcissistic lashing out at the smallest criticism, seduction by praise, even from his country’s enemies, and appointment of a fox to head every chicken coop in Washington, he has depressed his Gallup poll ratings to a level way below that of any previous president-elect. We always knew he would be richer if he had just invested what he inherited from his father. Now we know he would be more popular if he just disappeared.

So what I want to address here is not Trump, but the surprising questions I’ve been getting about the guiding principles of the march. I am a supporter, not an organizer or decision-maker, but some observers and reporters ask me (a) why the Women’s March is including racism as well as sexism, thus making some white women feel alienated and guilty, and (b) why Planned Parenthood is one of the sponsors, though some women say they are turned off by abortion but would support equal pay and equal rights with men.


This has made me realize that we need a Twitter version of history and Feminism 101. So here goes:

Sexism and racism are intertwined and can only be uprooted together. That’s because controlling reproduction, and therefore women’s bodies, is the only way to maintain a visible difference in the long run. Yes, racism affects women differently. White women have been more likely to be sexually restricted in order to maintain racial “purity.” Black women have been more likely to be sexually exploited in order to produce cheap labor. But there is no such thing as freedom for any woman as long as racism wins. Even during slavery, when any contact between white women and black men was a crime more reliably punished than arson or murder, white Northern women and a few white Southern women joined with Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists to form a movement for universal adult suffrage. How brave was that?

But white male leaders divided this most threatening of all coalitions by giving the legal right to vote to the smallest group, black men, and then limiting it by everything from poll taxes to lynching. Racist white women then argued that “educated” white votes were needed to counter the votes of black men, but most others, like Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, tried to keep the coalition together. As Stanton warned: “There can never be true peace in this Republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established.” When Gunnar Myrdal researched the first massive study of racism in America, he found that laws governing slaves had been adapted from laws governing wives, “the nearest and most natural analogy.” Writing in the 1940s, he found that, “The parallel between women and Negroes is the deepest truth of American life, for together they form the unpaid or underpaid labor on which America runs.”


Even without the big added motive of racism, patriarchy strives to dictate how many workers and how many soldiers, patriarchal religions tell us that sex is immoral unless it leads to reproduction, and made-up gender roles divide our shared humanity. Yet if women can’t decide our lives from the skin in, we can’t decide our lives from the skin out. Reproductive freedom remains the biggest indicator of whether we are poor or not, educated or not, work outside the home or not, and how long we live.

OK, that’s Twitter-length history — but it’s still going on. For instance, 53 percent of married white women voted for Trump, the most obvious sexist in presidential history, so we must ask: Is dependence on a man’s income and male approval colonizing the female spirit? Is Hillary Clinton just too painful a reminder of what women could be? Ninety-five percent of black women voted for Clinton, so we must also ask: Does the lived reality of racism plus sexism make us twice as wise? Does a need for strength create strength?


We have to figure this out together, but one thing is clear: We owe a big debt of gratitude to the young and diverse women who have interrupted their lives to organize this high-tech, high energy, and contagious march. Woman-led and all-inclusive, the march is founded on the simple idea that we as human beings are linked, not ranked. Yet even as I write this, newspapers are reporting that the issue of abortion will “strain calls for unity at the Women’s March.” In fact, it isn’t abortion that strains unity, it’s religious or political forces that would deny women — or men — bodily integrity.

If you would like to join marches around the world for a silent minute of imagining equality, join 1@1 at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

After all, hope is a form of planning. If our hopes weren’t already real within us, we couldn’t even hope them.

And it’s high time.

Gloria Steinem is a writer, feminist organizer, and author of “My Life on the Road.”