Why I Marched on Washington—With Zero Reservations

By Rinku Sen Jan 24, 2017

As soon as it was announced, I knew that I would be going to the Women’s March on Washington. I thought that it would be politically important, and I felt no emotional conflict about going. I was lucky to experience positive cross-racial feminist organizing early on, which no doubt made it easier for me to engage. 

I was in college when I had my first political experience of a multiracial feminist community. Near the end of a remarkable year of activism at Brown University, women who had led campaigns about issues ranging from nuclear war to racial justice decided to push hard against sexual violence on campus. With only a few days of organizing, 120 White, Black, Asian, Latina, straight, queer, butch, femme, rural and urban women planned a women’s speakout just before finals. Some of us were new to feminism; some were already veterans. 

We made every decision by consensus, including significant time on whether or not to trample newly planted grass on our march to Wriston Quad, where all of Brown’s fraternities are housed. The speakout we planned for one hour lasted more than four. The dusk-to-dawn shuttle service we demanded still exists 30 years later. Shortly after our action, the university revoked the charter of a fraternity. We worked together across race and sexuality, and to some degree across class, and we won. Women of color were there from the very beginning and comprised a significant portion of the steering committee. There was never any question that we would do it this way. 

There’s a world of difference between an elite college campus and those of communities that are far less sheltered, less privileged. But then, as now, the experience of sexual violence, however varied, brought women together. Among the least discussed possible consequences of the election is the emboldening of sexual predators. We can see heightened racist actions, whose victims are encouraged to report incidents to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center. But emboldened rapists and abusers do most of their damage in private, and the reporting remains so hard amid media that still treat such crimes as “sex scandals.” 

Having an admitted predator in the White House proudly holding up a platform that threatens not just the right to abortion but access to birth control, dismisses any notion that we’ve reached the end of the fight against intimate violence. Just this week, Trump signed an executive order reinstating the Global Gag Rule, which prevents health care providers who are receiving foreign aid funds from the U.S. from even talking to their patients about abortion. Federal funding for programs related to the Violence Against Women Act is also on Trump’s chopping block.

That such struggles must account for poverty, race, sexuality, physical ability, age, immigration status was well represented by the March platform, speakers and signs. Did all of the White woman at the march see women’s issues through these many lenses? Of course not, and neither did all the women of color. But I wonder why that should be the standard for an action like this. Frankly, massive, planned and permitted marches are more social and cultural events than political ones. The hard-core political action and protest will start to move now. There will be the 10 actions for 100 days that the March is encouraging and there will also be campaigns. I personally plan to spend this week working with immigrant organizations around deportations and detention and urging the Senate to take a hard look at Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education, given her utter lack of qualifications.

But there’s something to be said for the positive effect of sheer proximity in recruitment and political education, and we could do with more spaces like the Women’s March on Washington. I did the march with my sister-friend Soyinka Rahim, and was inspired watching her gracefully handle nice-White-lady attention, of which she received a ton. Soyinka stands at 5 feet 10 inches and dresses regally in caftans and head wraps that she designs herself. On Saturday, she carried her baby djembe drum and wooden flute, which she used to lead chants (“Power to the little girls. Power to the women!”) or to bring some peace to the crowd. From the minute we arrived at the Silver Spring Metro station, White ladies wanted to take pictures of and with her. She always agreed if they promised to send her the photos. 

When they asked her where she was from–definitely a version of, “Where are you really from?"—she’d say, “born and raised in Oakland, California, stolen from Africa.” This is how she always answers this question, no matter who is asking. One White woman was so puzzled that Soyinka had to repeat it three times, while the African-American mom and daughter standing next to us chuckled quietly. Being used to this reaction, Soyinka didn’t get frustrated—but she did remain insistent on her intro. The White ladies needed a reminder that slavery still shapes Soyinka’s life, and they got it in a 20-second interaction that started on their provincial terms, but ended on her expansive ones. Such a conversation with a dozen White women hardly constitutes a deep education, but I bet that interaction will stick with more than one of those nice White ladies; maybe they’ll be a bit more thoughtful the next time someone says that the history of slavery still matters in the United States. 

The fact that a White woman made the initial call to march did not deter me, possibly because my first experience of organizing with White women was so positive. Not all my subsequent efforts have been so, but the feminist circles I’ve worked with since have been more often cohesive and productive—and led by women of color—than not. 

I’ve read some excellent, heartrending essays by women of color naming their distrust of the march, and their unwillingness to let White women off the hook for the racism they’ve actively or tacitly supported, like this excellent piece by Jamilah Lemieux. I respect these boundaries, and I loved Lemieux’s list of alternative marches White women should make. 

There were definitely some fails. I cringed at the American flag hijab in Shepperd Fairy’s poster of the Muslim woman. Several celebrities, (OK, Michael Moore and Madonna), took up inappropriate space and time during a program that ran hours late. In the aftermath, the crowing about “no arrests” has an overtone of smug, clueless assumption that arrests during other protests must be justifiable, gross as Black Lives Matters and Standing Rock reveal the extreme measures law enforcement is willing to use on peaceful protesters of color. 

But here we are, talking about why these things are not OK, thereby changing the discourse. If we want to build a big movement, there are going to be a lot more of these failures of judgment, and we need to address them without narrowing the movement. Tricky, I know. The trickiest thing in the world to pull off, in fact.   

Where I most disagree with march critics, however, is on the idea that these women of color stepped in to “save” White feminists from creating a hot mess with a predictably myopic, racist, imperial, middle-class version of feminism.  To my eye, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory grabbed an opportunity to bend the arc of feminism in the direction of racial, economic, environmental and global justice. They bent that arc so hard that they pulled off the largest global protest in history, in the face of an administration that many people fear will end history itself. 

They did this at considerable risk to their own well-being. White supremacists have especially targeted Sarsour, an outspoken Palestinian-American, refugee and advocate for Muslim communities, sparking the hashtag defense, #IMarchWithLinda. I, on the other hand, risked nothing except a day of my life. The least I could do in this global moment was actually march with Linda. Given the density, I didn’t get to march much, but I watched a good cross section of people go through the Americans With Disabilities Act area. My unscientific estimate is that about 40 percent of the crowd was Black, Asian, Latina, Middle Eastern or Native. 

From my spot near the stage, I saw the entire rally from start to finish. I was particularly moved by 6-year-old Sophie Cruz, already a wise veteran of the culture wars. Standing with her parents and younger sister, Cruz allowed no despair, even amid the likelihood that Trump would vacate DACA this week and deport her parents imminently. 

Watching Cruz reminded me of my first political thought ever. In the ’70s, when I was an immigrant second grader in Hempstead, New York, we covered our schoolbooks with brown paper bags from the grocery store. One day, I decorated mine with the slogan, “Girls are better than boys.” I don’t remember what incident motivated this claim, but I do remember the glee I felt while transforming this paper bag book cover. My horrified mother gave me a speech about treating everyone equally and made me replace it with a fresh, blank cover. 

This weekend, I felt that same kind of glee. It’s a giddiness that comes from recognizing myself in a community of girls and women, from revealing our real selves without shame, and from understanding that our power is substantial indeed. Maybe girls aren’t better than boys; maybe we’re not even all that different except in political positioning. But, as much as I love many people on the masculine end of the gender spectrum, I’ve never been a woman who “mostly has male friends.” I am a woman’s woman. 

For just one day before what I predict will be years of hard struggle, I needed to be surrounded by my sisters’ love, energy and leadership. All over the world on Saturday, women and girls proclaimed ourselves a source of strength, of pride, of movement—not just for ourselves, but for everyone, and for the Earth, too. Women in Iowa, Alaska, Mississippi. Women in Nigeria, India, Antarctica. It was deeply satisfying to my furious, fearful, female soul to be held in this way. I felt our tenderness, our outrage, our humor, our determination and our ingenuity.  I felt us signaling the rise of a global movement against sexists, racists, authoritarians and kleptocrats. Communities of women have been humankind’s salvation. It is a “fempire,” as one sign noted, and I am in for the strike back.