Last year, the Women’s March emerged as a result of the election of Donald Trump as president. While the organizers of the March created a broadly progressive political platform, resistance to Trump dominated the event. This year, however, the organizers sought to transform the Women’s March into something more than just an anti-Trump movement. With the theme of “Power to the Polls,” the organizers sought to “channel the energy and activism of the Women’s March into tangible strategies and concrete wins in 2018.” On Saturday, my wife, Casey, and I attended this year’s March in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Shreveport march included speakers to discuss issues of women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQIA rights, education, healthcare, and voting rights. Rather than treat these issues as separate, the speakers stressed how they all intersected with one another. This embrace of intersectionality is an important and necessary step to the growth and survival of the Women’s March as a political movement.
Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989. Put simply, intersectionality stresses that ideas of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other categories of social belief do not exist independently from one another. Rather they weave together to create complex systems that govern relationships between people. Any effort to isolate one individual component (class, for example) fails to the tell the whole story of how people relate and react to one another.
Crenshaw’s insight has been especially useful for those trying to understand forms of discrimination and inequality. To take an example from my subject area, if I want to study the racial views of white southern slaveholders, I can’t just look at their thoughts on race. Rather I need to look at their views on issues like class, sex, and gender, since they all interact with and shape one another. Let’s take a look at the famous “mudsill theory” of South Carolina slaveholder and senator James Henry Hammond. Hammond claimed that
In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement.
Hammond believed that successful societies rested on a class of menial laborers, who lacked the intellectual ability or capacity for higher thought. Hammond bragged that the South had “found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.” Hammond’s class of menial laborers happened to be African-Americans, a naturally inferior race (in his view). For Hammond, the issues of race and class intersected and could not be easily separated.
Intersectionality is a difficult concept to grasp and to explain—I hope I’ve done it some small measure of justice here. But those who seek to fight inequality and discrimination should understand intersectionality and how race, class, gender, sex, ability, and other issues relate to one another. Let me offer another example, one of the speakers at the Shreveport march spoke of education and the failing school systems in Caddo Parish. She recognized that education funding in Louisiana was not simply a product of impartial state budget decisions, but deliberate choices at the local and state level to steer money away from lower performing schools in poor and primarily African-American communities into higher performing white schools in middle and upper middle class neighborhoods. Issues of education, race, and class were all intertwined with one another. The solution to solving these problems, she and the other speakers suggested, was simple. Get out and vote. Vote for candidates who understand these issues and will do their best to rectify them.
The Women’s March’s commitment to intersectionality is all the more impressive in light of the refusal of the March for Science to do so. Like the Women’s March, the March for Science gathered together hundreds of thousands of Americans, agitating for political change. But from its very origins, participants in the March for Science disagreed over how political the march should be. When groups of scientists, especially women and minorities, pushed for the March to tackle issues of discrimination and inclusivity, they experienced significant pushback. Some, like Harvard’s Stephen Pinker, argued that the March should have remained apolitical in support of evidence based science. Other scientists, however, disagreed, arguing that science was not some apolitical issue absent of the current political context, especially after years of Republican attacks on climate change. In the aftermath of the March for Science, the organization has accomplished little in terms of presenting a political position to the American public. It remains plagued by organizational dysfunction and an inability or unwillingness to engage in the broader political organizing necessary to bring about political and policy changes.
By pushing beyond a simple anti-Trump ideology and embracing intersectionality, the Women’s March is trying to channel its efforts into lasting political change. Now only time will tell if they’ll be successful.