Featured image: the Women’s March in Washington D.C. in 2017 (Source: Bryan Woolston / Reuters).
By Miranda Rector
I first met Nija Phelps at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s 2018 Power of Pink conference in Detroit, Michigan. We were both Connecticut delegates. Back then, I was just an intern for Planned Parenthood in New Haven, a nervous rising junior with little experience. She was one of the co-founders of the Women’s March CT, had run for office (but lost), and worked on several campaigns. I was a bit anxious around her.
In the gigantic main conference room with aggressive fluorescent lights, a sea of people in loud pink t-shirts, and two loudspeakers on blast getting the crowd amped, I got a migraine. In our group of delegates, it was Nija that noticed me fading and asked if I was okay. She gave me some Excedrin, the contact info for her neurologist, and a friend request on Facebook to stay in touch. I never forgot about that kind gesture.
Almost two years later, Nija and I would reunite in person for the 2020 Women’s March CT. This time, I would be speaking as the LGBTQ+ Women’s Program Officer at the New Haven Pride Center. I was slated to speak alongside Amanda Skinner, the president of Planned Parenthood Votes! Connecticut, an organization I interned for not too long ago. Despite the new job and the credibility that title gave me, I still felt the pangs of imposter syndrome. I woke up that morning with a stomach ache.
The first Women’s March that I attended was in Washington, DC, in 2017. I was a first-year and had just joined the board of the Reproductive Justice Action League at Yale a week prior. They organized a bus to get 50 people out there, and so I stayed up till 3 in the morning to ride on down to DC with a crowd of people I barely knew. My mom bought me a white pantsuit to wear. (I maintain that it’s the same pantsuit AOC wore when she was sworn into office.)
The day was a whirlwind. Once we arrived, we were left on our own to get food and make our way to the crowd. A group of first-years, two of whom would become some of my closest friends, and I bought bags of snacks and iced coffees at a CVS, the only place open before 7am on a Saturday near the Washington Mall. In a daze, we stuck together and found a spot in a giant crowd, unable to see the stage beyond a sea of people. Sleep deprived, low on blood sugar, and in caffeine withdrawal, I struggle to remember many of the details from that day. Just the feeling remains – that it was important to be there.
That same day in 2017, Nija Phelps attended the first Women’s March in Connecticut. The 2016 Presidential election had hit hard. “It was a near constant feeling for me for months. Feeling heavier, the inability to really feel much else or do much of anything, or see any light or hope out of the darkness that I saw America falling into.”
She wasn’t exactly excited to attend that first Women’s March. After everything, Nija just expected more disappointment. After her friend and fellow organizer Kaitlyn Shake texted her one last time, she decided to give it a shot.
“Friday was the inauguration, Saturday was the marches, and I didn’t look at or hear any media at all, it was great,” Nija recalls. “The next day I woke up, looked at Facebook, looked at the news, and was stunned. The weight started to lift, I started to feel hopeful again. I couldn’t believe what I saw. So many people, mostly women, truly an intersection of women all over the world and especially in our country we’re saying they were going to fight back.”
Those good feelings didn’t entirely last. It is no secret that the Women’s March has now been scrutinized from all angles. On one hand, the organization has been criticized for creating a space primarily for class-privileged white women. On the eve of the 2020 Women’s March, Black Feminist activist, scholar, and writer Rachel Cargle reposted her article “When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels.” She asks why the call for white women feminists to show active solidarity over the murder of 18-year old Nia Wilson in Oakland felt like an “attack” to many who’d put “intersectional feminist” in their Instagram bios or claim titles like “Social Justice Warrior.” The message around the Women’s March was clear: to all the white women and girls with signs proclaiming their intersectional feminism, are you going to show up when asked if the cause isn’t about you?
Reflecting on that first Women’s March I went to, I can say now that I should have seen this coming. There’s one moment that I remember more clearly than anything else that day. Janelle Monae is perhaps my favorite musician, so when she went up to speak I was thrilled. She was there to introduce some members of Mothers of the Movement, a Black-women led organization fighting against police brutality.
My friends and I stood next to a group of middle-aged and elderly White women in pink pussy hats. One of them nudged me with her elbow and scoffed, “I thought this was a women’s march.”
“It is.” I glared at her, but I failed to speak up as I should have, nervous about what my new friends may think about me going off on an old lady. I tried as hard as I could to listen to Monae and the Mothers, but I was too angry to focus.
On the other hand, the Women’s March announced in September 2019 that three of its founding members, including Black activist Tamika Mallory and Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, would be exiting. This came after claims made the news that the board had made anti-Semitic comments behind closed doors and controversy brewed over their association with Louis Farakhan, a complicated activist and open anti-Semite. Those claims are complicated. Anti-Semitism is a serious thing, but many questioned whether the claims were fueled by a conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and were used as a way to tear down powerful women of color.
As a Jew who is also firmly pro-Palestine, I have never been quite sure of what to make of this fiasco. I don’t support Louis Farakhan in the slightest, but I can’t exactly be mad that some activists were associated with him. I do, however, get the heightened sensitivity of leftist Jews towards any whiff of anti-Semitism. I know firsthand the pain of our experiences being dismissed. I know how uncomfortable it is to have a conversation with someone who seems like minded but doesn’t really understand or support your faith.
That being said, I didn’t give up on the Women’s March over this. But there are women who did. I imagine many of them are like my mother, who said to me, “I just don’t have the energy to deal with this kind of shit anymore.”
Coinciding with the exit of Mallory and Sarsour, a whopping 17 new leaders were appointed to take over. There are numerous ways to understand their thought process. The cynic in me summarizes it as follows: If we add a bunch of new people from a variety of backgrounds, we’ll maintain an image of diversity and inclusion while making it more difficult for the movement to collapse over attacks against any individual organizer.
In addition to appointing new people to be the face of the movement, the Women’s March crafted a list of key issue areas and a policy agenda for each of those. This further contributed to their image of intersectionality.
When I chatted with Nija, she approached the issue with honesty and said the accusations were “accurate.” However, she also said she sees the work being done to improve things and commented, “Elevating people doesn’t mean doing it for them, it means listening to them and then asking them how you can help them achieve their goals. Marginalized groups don’t need leaders and saviors, they need allies and support.”
National movements are always vulnerable to this sort of very public criticism. Local movements are more complicated. They must hold themselves accountable in responding to the actions of their national ties while also managing all the intimate drama that comes with community relationships.
When I talked with Nija, however, she underscored the importance of local marches. “People can feel closely connected to their communities, to their neighbors. Even though the national march and the other marches across the country and the world are a great and powerful way to show unity for common causes, I think it can leave people feeling disconnected if they don’t ever have that same moment, that same feeling locally.”
She feels that the Women’s March CT was able to respond well to the ongoing drama with the national march. “Locally, we were able to be in touch faster and easier with fellow community members that have questions, complaints, suggestions, or requests. We are also more aware of Connecticut-specific needs, wants, and goals than the national org could be.”
Many of the affiliates broke away entirely, but the Women’s March CT decided not to. “By being an affiliate, our CT branch has maintained autonomy to a certain extent from national. In addition to that, we purposefully maintained even further autonomy and wrestled with the decision to break away from national entirely. In the end we narrowly decided not to do that because once again the power of the name and the power of that unity might not reside if we didn’t stay affiliated. And because we believed that national does more good than harm, and had faith that they would be able to come back from the missteps and negative reaction that they received. We wanted to give them that chance.”
Yet in its fourth year, the Women’s March CT decided to do things differently. Rather than organize a march in one city, they hosted three different press conferences in New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford. Each press conference was centered on three themes. The New Haven one focused on reproductive rights, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights, highlighting local organizations that work on each.
The hope was that it would address some of the lack of diverse representation. “I think part of the reason that we’ve struggled to garner attention from people of diverse backgrounds is because we’ve focused so much on the march and rally and not enough on taking action. That’s something we’ve noticed over the last few years. Attendance to the march has waned, but we didn’t want energy to wane to the point where we didn’t have people actively doing something to fight for equality and equity.”
Despite the good intentions, the outcome wasn’t perfect. As I surveyed the crowd, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of apparent racial and age diversity. There were mostly just older, white ladies in pink hats. The slate of speakers was also not as intersectional as once hoped. Two white women were present to speak on reproductive rights. I was the only person there for LGBTQ+ issues, as the speaker from the Triangle Community Center couldn’t show. I’m also white. And the two intended speakers for racial justice didn’t show either. While both last-minute speakers, a single Latina activist and single Black women activist, were excellent, it wasn’t a good look.
I had to wonder how Nija could possibly feel as a Black, queer woman organizing this. “I don’t really have to reconcile anything because I know who I am and doing this is nothing new for me. Hopefully we all grow and change to be better versions of ourselves, but I also got comfortable with who I am and what I believe a long time ago, luckily. I try not to let other things or words or people define me, only inform me.”
In a later conversation, Nija quipped that she hates when people question her involvement in the movement. “Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?”
Here is where I have to acknowledge that I’m a white woman asking a black woman about racism in the movement and whether she feels tokenized. Getting bogged down with white guilt is unproductive, but dismissing this entirely would be too. I think we can ask questions without questioning a person’s values or reasoning. I’m grateful that I got to understand Nija’s better.
The long-term goal of the press conference model was to gather momentum for “youth-led days of action” in April. Hence why I, a 22-year-old queer woman working in the LGBTQ+ rights field, spoke at the event. In fact, I recall one woman looking at me and excitedly proclaiming, “You’re a young person!” Yes, ma’am, I am.
With the Covid-19 outbreak, things are inevitably in flux. I debated whether it was worthwhile to keep in touch with the Women’s March CT. After all, I was disappointed with how the press conference went. However, I decided to continue organizing with them. In part, I was betting on myself. As Nija described when she says she “knows herself,” I too believe I can uphold my values and make a positive impact on the movement.
I’ll also say this: there’s room in this world for two seemingly opposing things to exist at once. A movement can be both deeply flawed and deeply worthwhile. There are too many people who identify as women in the world to fully unite a movement around them. More than that, gender structures can be oppressive to people of all genders, even cisgender men. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to uproot them and plant seeds for something better. It just means that repeated failures are both inevitable and necessary. The process is continuous, active, and living.
I continue to be hopeful. Whether the Women’s March itself succeeds, the work of feminist activists will go on. It will go on because a woman in her thirties gave a woman in her twenties some migraine medication and a friend request. It will go on because of a billion interactions just like that one, where women build each other up.
Miranda Rector is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.