It’s the kind of necessary conversation that takes place all the time within activist groups: someone calls out a bigoted statement or points to a pattern of bias in the organization. Now, everyone has to work to address the problem. In this case, a trash fire has been raging over an inexplicable fondness for Louis Farrakhan — a conservative, anti-semitic, and patriarchal kook — on the part of some organizers of tomorrow’s Women’s March. This sort of thing happens every day, especially in groups like the Women’s March, which are racially and ideologically diverse. Always a huge deal for the people involved, often widely tweeted, it’s almost never a news story of global import.
However, this controversy became much bigger and more public than such disputes usually do. Mike Allen of Axios reports this morning that several likely 2020 presidential candidates who attended the 2017 march will not be in attendance this year, including Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. In New York City, there will be two different marches, with a breakaway event (the “Women’s March Alliance”) protesting the supposed anti-semitism led by Kathryn Siemionko, who has worked for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Organizers have denied the charges of anti-semitism, and a group of rabbis has signed a statement supporting them. But the kerfuffle — kicked off by a bewilderingly long article in Tablet, a publication backed by figures close to the rightist political establishment in Israel — has taken a toll.
Why should the global 1 percent and its media and politicians care so much about the Women’s March? And what makes this offense so uniquely intolerable? Why not simply suck up — or quietly correct — the Farrakhan association, the way left feminists undoubtedly would a fellow activist’s association with Hillary Clinton or JP Morgan?
Another way of asking this question is, why does the elite hate the 2019 Women’s March? Most likely, there’s a simple reason: the organization’s left-wing leadership and agenda.
This morning, the Women’s March released its policy demands, titled the “Women’s Agenda,” which shows that the right wing does indeed have every reason to fear this group. So do the centrists.
The Women’s Agenda leads with Medicare for All, and is a comprehensive look at how policy changes could improve life for all women, including (in specific detail) black, indigenous, disabled, lesbian, immigrant, and trans people. The Women’s Agenda is inclusive without being performative in its inclusivity. It’s not the typical progressive laundry list, reflecting a climate in which everyone just has to be mentioned so no one gets mad. The organizers have advanced concrete ways to materially improve life for many different groups of women. The agenda is anti-imperialist, demanding an end to the war in Yemen and an end to arms sales and support for Saudi Arabia. It addresses free speech threats from both right and left, specifically pointing to the wave of current legislation targeting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The Women’s Agenda offers solutions to violence against women (including rape by cops) and workplace sexual harassment. It addresses rights to full reproductive health care, stressing the need to reverse the Hyde Amendment and all related restrictions on abortion funding, and ending the horrific shortfalls in maternal care for black women. The agenda is squarely grounded in economic justice principles, including not only equal pay for women, but an end to student debt and a commitment to union organizing rights. It also addresses environmental destruction, explaining how to attack climate change and improve the quality of human society at the same time.
Women’s March Steering Committee member Winnie Wong calls the document “the most radical policy agenda that has ever been released, not just by a women’s organization but any organization.” I laughed when she said this because it sounded so grandiose, yet I couldn’t think of an exception. Most policy statements are pretty sleepy stuff.
While a feminism of the 1 percent will tend to stick to the most falsely “universal” issues — abortion, but only for people who can afford to pay for it, for example — those building a feminism of the 99 percent are right to advance a broadly inclusive, antiwar, and redistributive agenda. All forms of discrimination — whether by disability, race, gender identity, immigration, or religion — are amplified by sexism. War, imperialism, and the religious fundamentalisms, hierarchies, and violence they sustain in our contemporary world inflict particular suffering on women and children.
The Women’s Agenda is grounded in such understandings, and perhaps especially in the insight that capitalist exploitation and immiseration are borne especially harshly by women, who are, for example, far more likely to head households living under the poverty line.
Today, thousands of women are participating in the Women’s March’s Lobby Day for Medicare for All, with the National Nurses’ Association and the Center for Popular Democracy. As Jenny Brown of National Women’s Liberation argued in Jacobin yesterday, Medicare for All should be central to the reproductive rights movement.
But the decision to unite feminists behind Medicare for All isn’t only about reproductive health. While single-payer health care would benefit almost all 99 percenters, women need it more: they are disproportionately burdened with medical debt, are poorer than men, and are more likely to be responsible for others who need care, whether elders or children. Having to depend on husbands or jobs for health care forces women to endure domestic violence and sexual harassment. It deprives women of the threat of exit in both love and work.
Just as important as the Women’s Agenda itself is the coalition behind this year’s march. The thirty-two-member steering committee of the 2019 Women’s March is far more racially diverse than the group that organized the past two Women’s Marches (the 2017 march was led by just four people), and also far more left-wing. Many of the members have focused on economic and racial justice activism. The steering committee includes women like Our Revolution president and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, Center for Popular Democracy’s Ana Maria Archila, banking industry foe and $15 minimum-wage advocate Kerri Evelyn Harris, Honor the Earth’s Tara Houska, labor organizers Marcie Wells and Marisa Franco (who has worked with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and POWER), to name just a few.
“These are women who have been fighting capital all their lives,” says People for Bernie cofounder Winnie Wong of her fellow committee members. No wonder the JP Morgan feminists — and Bibi’s donor class — don’t like this Women’s March. Right now, the Left is building a multiracial, multicultural “broad front” movement, and “the Women’s March is part of that,” says Wong. “It’s like the 1930s but we’re doing it better than in the 1930s. That poses a grave threat to the ruling class and they’re like, ‘We can’t let them win.’ But time and time again we emerge stronger.”
Still, those aiming to divide women and undermine leftist feminists of color have scored a few points. Some local Women’s Marches have been cancelled or have decided not to affiliate with the national march (at least three hundred have chosen to remain, however). The weather, cooperating with bourgeois whims, is supposed to be unpleasant. But the Women’s March, as a signifier, has been captured by a robust left feminist movement, and that’s an achievement in itself.
“I’m not afraid of what they plan for us,” says Wong. “They can’t stop us, it’s too late. Even as they deal us blow after blow, we get up and continue to do the work.”