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Women’s March on Washington sheds light on the problem with feminism

In the weeks leading up to Friday's inauguration of Donald Trump, there has been a sense among some women that they're girding their collective loins for an unavoidable night of bad sex.

It's a sisterhood of dread, determined to face his presidency head on and make the best of it. They're not the one and only sisterhood, of course, because there's another group – Women for Trump – who are willing to overlook the new President's misogynist and sexually gropy behaviour and can't wait to jump into bed with him.

(Sorry for the sexual metaphors but, hey, we live in a no-holds-barred time.)

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Read more: Leah McLaren: Why I'm bringing my four-year-old son to a Women's March

Read more: Third-wave backlash: Why Trump's election has fractured feminism on American campuses

Making a Canadian mark at the Women's March on Washington

Your guide to the U.S. inauguration

To bolster the solidarity of outraged anti-Trump women, the organizers behind the Women's March on Washington (WMW), where more than 200,000 people are expected to gather on Saturday, the day after Mr. Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, have presented themselves as the face of contemporary feminism.

That, unfortunately, is a sort of fake news. It would be more accurate to say that they're the wishful face of contemporary feminism.

Complacency has been an issue – and still is, according to many activist leaders, who see this political moment as a call to arms that hasn't been felt in a long time and yet one that's potentially compromised by identity politics and millennial malaise. While the numbers of participants at the WMW is expected to make it the largest inauguration-related protest in history, it is not, by any stretch, the largest women's rights march in Washington. That accolade goes to The March for Women's Lives in 2004 where organizers estimated that 1.1 million people participated to support reproductive rights and other women's issues.

Part of the problem is that in the past couple of decades, many young women, especially on college campuses, have rejected the feminist identity as being anti-men and overly crabby. There was a sense of post-feminist garter-belt liberation. Feminism had become an F-word.

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More importantly, for some women of colour, feminism remains predominantly a movement for white middle-class women despite efforts for inclusion and the widespread use of the term "intersectional feminism" that draws attention to the complicating influence of race, gender, sexual identity and class on the ability of women to advance and be heard.

"It's a lack of trust," says Julene Allen, a black activist based in Ohio who is founder and executive director of the not-for-profit organization, Women for Action, which tells the stories of under-recognized female innovators and entrepreneurs. At a sister march earlier this week in Columbus, Ohio, in support of the WMW, "there was low attendance of women of colour and I didn't see Asian or Muslim women," she says. "I don't know if the word feminism turns women of colour off. You might say intersectional feminism but the word feminism is still there."

The story of the WMW's inception itself illuminates the pot holes in the landscape of modern feminist activism. On the day after the election, two white women – Teresa Shook, a grandmother in Hawaii, and a fashion designer named Bob Bland in New York – independently floated an idea of a march in Washington on Facebook. Enthusiasm blossomed overnight and eventually the two merged their efforts. At first, it was called the Million Women March, which angered some who felt it co-opted the efforts of the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia for social, political and economic development of the black community. They apologized to Dr. Phile Chionesu, who started that mobilization, and moved on.

With Ms. Shook taking a back seat, Ms. Bland brought in three seasoned activists: Tamika Mallory, an African-American; Linda Sarsour, a Muslim who wears a hijab; and Carmen Perez, a Latina. Together, the young women look like a cool United Colors of Benetton fashion ad.

"There were rumours that they were tokens," says Ms. Allen of the additions of women of colour to the team. "It looks good but it looks intentional. It will be interesting to see the turnout in Washington," she adds.

Still, the four WMW organizers, who declined to be interviewed for this story due to hectic schedules, put out a carefully crafted mission statement about the need to stand up to the hurtful rhetoric of Mr. Trump toward women, immigrants and minorities. They talk about solidarity and the inclusion of people who are brown and black, Muslim, native, LGBTQIA (the I and A "visibilizes" intersex and asexual individuals), disabled and those of diverse faiths.

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They partnered with Planned Parenthood and the environmental group, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as well as hundreds of smaller activist organizations. Celebrities including America Ferrera, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Amy Schumer and Zendaya joined in.

In mid-December, in a move for legitimacy and a kind of intergenerational healing, they made Gloria Steinem and Harry Belafonte honorary co-chairs. In a politically astute move, Ms. Steinem will be holding a town-hall meeting during the march with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

It's important to note that the notion that all second-wave feminists excluded women of colour rankles some people because, in part, it's a revisionist narrative used to help define a difference between second-wave and third-wave feminism.

"Feminism certainly was not only for white women," says Annie Valk, professor of history at Williams College and author of the 2008 book Radical Sisters. For example, Florynce Kennedy, a lawyer and activist, was a colleague of Ms. Steinem's in the 1970s. There also were several black feminist organizations including National Black Feminist Organization and the Third World Women's Alliance.

"However, there was a lot of discussion then around issues of how feminism got defined and what kind of agenda they were putting forth," Prof. Valk explains, adding that the word "intersectionality" was also put in play 40 years ago by black feminists such as Pauli Murray and Johnnie Tillmon.

The racial tensions in contemporary feminism with discussion of "white privilege" as a pejorative have not been helpful for the WMW although feminist leaders have made a point of embracing uncomfortable discussions. Earlier this month, ShiShi Rose, a black activist in Brooklyn, wrote that white women "don't just get to join because now you're scared, too. I was born scared." She advised "white allies" to listen more and talk less. As a result, some white women have felt excluded from the march and vowed not to attend.

Another obstacle is a "civic engagement gap" as millennials, only half of whom turned out to cast ballots in the November election, "feel that government is not connected to solutions," says DeNora Getachew, executive director of NYC Generation Citizen, which works to engage young people in civics education. "One of the things we look at is the extent to which social media has created an obstacle to activism of more traditional means. Engagement has to be more than clicking a button online."

That complacency upsets older feminists. "It is hard to bring back some of the restrictions women faced in the seventies, but we may lose Roe v. Wade," says Phyllis Rosser, journalist, artist and activist who worked for nine years with Ms. Steinem and others at Ms. Magazine."Younger women were born with that [abortion] law in place, and they assumed it was their right and would always be. I would hate for them to lose it, but I would like them to realize that they could," says the 82-year-old who will be joining the WMW.

As if to transcend issues of dissension, exclusion and inertia, the WMW has taken on an atmosphere of a pink-power protest party that counters any suggestion that feminism can't be wild and crazy and fun. Posters, colourful placards and photographs of women of all ages and ethnicity using the hashtag WhyIMarch along with famous quotes from feminist icons fill their Instagram and Facebook feeds.

Many women will be wearing pink knitted caps with cat's ears after a grassroots initiative called the Pussy Hat Project took off. It aims to reclaim the word from its derogatory use. There are reports of a shortage of pink yarn in some communities.

On Wednesday, in contrast to news about poor artist participation in Mr. Trump's inauguration, WMW announced that music icons Janelle Monáe, Maxwell and Angélique Kidjo will be performing at the march. Beyoncé posted her support on Instagram.

With trains, cars, runners and approximately 1,700 buses scheduled to roll into Washington from across North America – and the DC Metro system opening at 5 a.m., two hours early – the WMW has the potential to be a large parade of rejuvenated feminist enthusiasm. This reporter is hoping there will be pink cosmopolitans in silver hip flasks.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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