On the 21 of January 2017, I joined up to 10,000 Sydney-siders at the Women’s March, and 2.5 million people globally. I initially had reservations about the March. As I recounted last week, the march started as an idea by a woman activist in Hawaii and it was soon taken over by White women from Pantsuit Nation, a group that has no commitment to anti-racism. Bob Bland, a White woman from Washington, wanted to rectify the direction of the event and soon invited three women of colour to shape the Washington March: Tamika Mallory; Linda Sarsour; and Carmen Perez. The Women’s March Washington had a special focus on intersectionality; addressing how gender inequality is impacted by racism and other forms of discrimination such as homophobia, transphobia, ableism (the discrimination of people with disabilities), and more. The Washington March was the model for the other local and international marches. As more White women became involved in discussions at the national and international levels, this mission was drowned out. Women of colour were made to feel excluded from planning groups whenever the issue of intersectionality was raised.
So when the Sydney March was announced I first felt trepidation. As the final line up of speakers was announced, it became clearer that the Sydney organisers were making the event more consciously supportive of intersectionality. The organisers regularly focused their social media posts on inclusion, thereby reaffirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion. There were some limitations as I’ll discuss later. For example, transgender women seemed to lack representation amongst speakers at the event and best practice for the inclusion of women with disabilities may have been improved.
For me, the big draw card was Aboriginal activist, Jenny Munro, who has dedicated her life to advancing the human rights of Aboriginal people. Her activism and life’s work has a strong focus on Aboriginal sovereignty, children and housing. She leads the Redfern Tent Embassy and is a living legend. She did not disappoint; but I’ll get to that!
The day led to many useful discussions on diversity and how to disrupt patriarchy. I shared highlights of my day on Twitter and I bring these to you in this post as well as additional photos and video I wasn’t able to share on the day. The quotes are not strictly verbatim – treat them more as field notes to flesh out my visual sociology. I will also address the ongoing global conversations about the Women’s Marches and in particular, the critiques about the exclusion of women of colour, transgender women, sex workers and women with disabilities from various overseas events, with a focus on the USA. I’ll draw some qualified lessons on intersectionality from the USA to Australia and I wrap up with a discussion of why intersectionality is important.
This one minute video includes some of the footage I shot at the Sydney Women’s March and draws out the key lessons on intersectionality.
(Click to jump down to the video transcript.)
The Sydney march began on a hot Saturday by the Pool of Reflection, in the gorgeous Hyde Park. We then circled around the city, and gathered again at Martin Place. Among the first keynote speakers was Professor Helen Meekosha, who spoke about her feminist journey, from a factory worker in the 1970s to a disability rights scholar and activist today. She discussed her difficulties navigating the train system in Sydney as a woman with a disability. She shared the physical challenges that a protest event would pose for her service dog and herself as an activist in a wheelchair. She took a taxi instead.
Here is the first note on intersectionality that needs unpacking. The physical organisation of events make it very difficult for women with disabilities to protest. Many of these women depend upon public transport. A taxi is an expensive option and would therefore not be viable for many women. Many able-bodied people at the Sydney march could not see the speakers. I am able-bodied and could move around the crowd, but still with some difficulty because of the sheer number of attendees. In some crowded areas, it was hard to hear the speakers; in other places there was an echo that made the speeches incomprehensible. The organisers noted that they did not expect a crowd of that size, and it is from discussions on Twitter that I too have learned some important ways to make protests more accessible. For example plan for multiple transport options for people with disabilities; offer multiple rest spots and service areas; provide hearing loops; think about the timing and diversity of speakers and their needs.
Professor Meekosha was hopeful about the aims of the Women’s March and on the possibilities that might flow on for women coming together from different backgrounds:
“Feminism is rooted in collective action. Let’s be proud of wearing the badge of feminism.”
Professor Meekosha said as feminists we must be aware of our differences but not be divided by them. She left the stage with a message on self-care and mutual-care as marchers: “It’s a long road ahead. Take care of yourselves. We must care and look after each other.” A beautiful and encouraging message, especially from a long-time activist and social work expert!
The Age of Trump
Author Jane Caro spoke next and she was as funny and delightful as audiences have come to expect. She opened by saying: “My name is Jane Caro and I am a fucking feminist!” A rousing start to any speech! The crowd cheered. Caro noted that she doesn’t hate anyone but that she dislikes the ideologies for which Donald Trump stands. She said she was inspired to raise her voice in protest of the freedoms he was taking away. Caro also made a meaningful comment that will resonate with activists who are active on social media. She noted that Australians marching supported the political struggles of Americans and that she hoped that America would also take an interest in our mutual political aims.
It is difficult to engage White Americans on issues that impact Australian feminism, like Indigenous women’s rights. Hopefully the Women’s Marches might increase two-way dialogue across nations.
Lawyer and political commentator Mariam Veiszadeh next took the stage, paying respects to Indigenous custodians of the land where we met. She acknowledged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face extreme inequalities. She then discussed a campaign she is co-managing to put up the billboards featuring Muslim Australian girls celebrating Australia Day, or as it is known by Indigenous Australians, Survival Day, Invasion Day or historically as the Day of Mourning. There was no mention of the postcolonial critiques of the billboards.
At the Women’s March, Veiszadeh said something that carries even greater weight in hindsight. I write only ten days after the Women’s March, but Trump has already issued an Executive Order to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. There has also been a bombing of a mosque in Quebec by a White supremacist who models himself on Trump. Speaking to the Sydney marchers less than two weeks ago, Veiszadeh said:
“People who think like Trump have planted the seed of Islamophobia.”
She ended by saying, “Feminism is not one size fits all.” This phrase evokes the spirit of intersectionality and was an important message we need to keep coming back to as a nation.
The next speaker was writer and law student Xiaoran Shi, who also began by acknowledging Indigenous struggles: “The stolen generation and colonial history continues today.” She then moved onto talk about how all women are united in their fight to “make the world hers.”
Global cause, local action
Ronni Kahn, CEO of Oz Harvest, reflected on her experience living in South Africa under Apartheid, and how this influences her as an Australian migrant.
I will not stand for that again… We must not normalise xenophobia. We must not normalise racism… Yes we have a global problem but action starts locally.
Kahn used the example of food insecurity as one such global feminist issue needing local action.
Wiradjuri elder and human rights campaigner Jenny Munro ended the formal speeches by talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and political resistance. She noted that Aboriginal people don’t differentiate between women and men’s causes in the way non-Indigenous people do. She said the rest of Australia can learn from Aboriginal approaches to gender equality. She also critiqued White people’s activism and understandings of Indigenous rights. She made references to the Northern Territory Intervention, where the Australian government directed the army to move into Indigenous communities. She spoke about the Stolen Generations, the children taken from their families and raised without connection to country and knowledge of their Indigenous heritage. She noted that science, the government, and even “well-meaning” Australians have inadequate understandings of Indigenous knowledge. Her speech deserves close attention:
I think all people who come to our country see very, very quickly see this place… It was paradise for us, today it’s paradise for a different set of people. We walk the other road, the road to hell, because of good intentions and misplaced policies and ideals about racism in this country,
I stand as a grandmother for this country to never, ever to forget Elijah Doughty, Mr Ward, Lynette Daley. We have an endless list of victims here, we have massacre sites with thousands of bodies yet to even be found because the atrocities are being hidden so well, for so long…
I was around for a lot of the early feminist movement. But the difference with our people was that our law and culture actually does not differentiate between men or women, we are equal in our system and in our law.
We’ve been practicing in our systems since time immemorial. Women are bosses in our system, I’m the boss of country, I’m the boss of law, I’m the boss of all my nieces and nephews, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren to come and my mother taught me how to be one hell of a boss woman. If one woman suffers, we all suffer and believe in me my people and my women have suffered in our communities and our culture more than anyone on this planet could even contemplate let alone bear. (Transcript via SBS)
Everything Munro said was a sobering reproach to all non-Indigenous Australians, with insights vital to re-calibrating our collective feminist ideals and practices.
After the speeches, we marched from the Pool of Reflection into Martin Place, doing a circle around the city. It was glorious when cars honked angrily; Sydney drivers are a thing to behold at the best of times. But some drivers gave us positive toots with their “thumbs up” and some took photos from inside their cars.
The police were inconspicuous during the first lot of speeches and they were stationed at every intersection in a non-threatening manner, to keep the march moving. They stood in a line at the edge of Martin Place but did not make their presence feel intrusive to marchers. The police were not quite so gentle in Sydney during the Invasion Day protests, which I’ll write up for you soon. There were no reported arrests during the Sydney Women’s March, but there was a violent altercation during the Invasion March. This is a similar observation that was made in the USA after their Women’s Marches. White women were jubilant about the “peaceful nature” of women’s marches, with zero understanding of how racism affects this outcome. The same behaviour from Black activists is met by excessive police force.
Let’s keep marching.
Goals of the Sydney March
When we arrived at Martin Place, singer/rapper Alphamama gave a highly amusing, and suitably feminist, introduction to her performance. She identifies as mixed race (Indonesian/ European/ South African parentage). She warned us she would swear a lot, and that she did. She encouraged a sex positive stance on masturbation and self-love, but more seriously, she said: “There is nothing inside yourself you can’t love and accept.” She then performed some songs with audience participation.
The organisers of the women’s marches spoke next. Only one of them identified herself as a woman of colour (and a migrant). The organisers said that an estimated 10,000 people attended the Sydney march: “Together we are too loud to ignore.” In turn, each of them spoke about different feminist issues and these were not centred on Trump, but instead specifically referenced Australian trends. They began by outlining that healthcare is the bedrock of social and economic stability. They noted that economic stability and equality is undermined by physical and emotional abuse of women.
Next, they talked about politics, and the fact that women make up only one-third of parliamentarians in Australia. When taking into account ethnicity, minority women are even less represented in the halls of power. The organisers argued that “complacency is futile,” as the march was the continuation of a longer-term struggle, with renewed energy.
One of the organisers (and woman of colour) identified herself as a survivor of domestic and family violence. Speaking to other survivors in the crowd, she said: “we won’t be silenced.” The organisers affirmed that violence against all women must be punished appropriately. The march ended with performances by Amanda Plummer and Bek Jensen, who brought her mother onstage. Her mother identified as a proud lesbian who, as she revealed, has not worn a bra since the women’s movement in the 1970s. The Jensens led the crowd in a sing along with the “corny” but iconic “I am woman.”
In the end, it was a productive day of intersectionality discussions and disruption.
The online hostility towards intersectionality made me nervous about marching in Sydney. I have been subjected to sexism and racism throughout my life. Public harassment has increased since I moved to Sydney, especially because I rely on public transport and I walk more than I’ve had to in other cities where I’ve lived. Comments, jeers, stares and intimation are part of stepping out the door. I have also been dealing with sustained racist discrimination through my paid work plus my blogging and the volunteering I do for equity and diversity. I was in two minds about exposing myself to this en mass at a march, particularly since White feminists (women who practice exclusionary feminism) have been especially hindering my work on intersectionality in various contexts. When women take to the streets to exercise their human rights, they bring with them their personal history of patriarchal violence. So with these injuries still fresh, I arrived at the march, hoping not to incur any more wounds.
While there was some visible diversity, the crowd in Sydney was predominantly made up of White, able-bodied women and men (and many also brought along their children). There were even some feminist dogs! The people I marched alongside were good-natured and so my sense of dread quickly dissipated. I had a really great day, and I felt invigorated by the speaker’s discussions on intersectionality.
That being said, I am able-bodied, plus I am trained in academic feminism, allowing me to be critical of what I heard and saw, but still enjoy the day. Other women of colour, whether they be from an academic or grassroots organisation, or just an ordinary member of the public, may well have felt differently. Indigenous women for example did not seem to have the same presence as they did in the Australia Day protests. The fact that the latter protest was about Indigenous rights should not preclude strong participation at a women’s rights march.
Munro noted that Indigenous people do not have the same understandings of gender equity as other Australians. The entire purpose and promotion of the Women’s March may have been less enticing to Indigenous women. As I’ve discussed, Australian feminism compartmentalises race and gender in a way that does not make sense for Indigenous women. The metro locations of most of the marches may also be prohibitive for some Indigenous women in rural and remote regions. Clearly more thinking and action needs to happen to increase the participation and inclusion of Indigenous women to boost future action following the women’s marches.
More recently, refugee activists and Indigenous feminists have also made the point that while it’s important to join global movements, these often get more sympathy than local struggles faced by Indigenous Australian women, refugee women, and other women of colour. This includes media coverage, social media interaction, social protest and other actions. There are other issues that would need to be picked up to keep the momentum going, with stronger connection to local needs and interests of minority women.
In terms of accessibility, there were some women in wheelchairs but not many and I’m unclear about hearing loop and other measures of inclusion. The grounds where the speeches took place are beautiful, but they were difficult to navigate and I am able-bodied. It’s unclear what other measures were taken to accommodate other types of disabilities as there’s no diversity statement on the Women’s March website. The organisers had initially planned for around 1,000 people but ended up accommodating tenfold this estimate which may explain some of these shortfalls.
It appeared that there were no transgender women speakers, or otherwise this was not disclosed. If this is the case, this is an obvious and devastating omission. There were lots of clever signs but as many transgender activists have pointed out at the global level, the march encouraged cisgender symbols for the march (pussy hats for example).
The organisers of the Sydney March clearly made a choice to address intersectionality and perhaps some the drawbacks can be partly attributed to underestimating the public interest in the march. Other issues such as transgender inclusion need serious attention at future feminist events.
The intersectionality message was not without problems in the USA where some of the most acute reports of exclusion emerged.
Intersectionality requires constant education and affirmation through daily actions and long-term activism and planning. There is much to learn from the brave stories shared about the Women’s March in the USA.
Lessons from the USA
The USA has very different dynamics than Australian society, with the most obvious being the demographic make-up and different conceptualisations of race. Australia’s history of colonialism and British imperialism continues due to our ties to the Commonwealth. Issues that arose at the USA Women’s Marches are specific to their socio-cultural divisions, history and current political climate. Nevertheless, the discussions from the USA are important to understand in Australia because the Women’s March began as an American project, in response to American dynamics. The lessons here are therefore qualified for Australia but nonetheless valuable.
The USA marches were predominantly attended by cisgender, able-bodied White women. The physical and social organisation of the women’s march meant that intersectionality was lacking in practice, despite the original mission of intersectionality.
Women of colour had been made to feel unwelcome in the weeks leading up to the march. Their marginalisation continued on the day and is ongoing in mass media and social media discussions.
Lakeshia Robinson, a young Black woman, was subjected to racism on her way to the Women’s March. A White woman tried to push her off the train and the other White women passengers did not intervene, even as she cried from frustration.
All over the world, Indigenous, Black, Brown, poor and disadvantaged minority women have been active in women’s rights since colonialism began. Women who have been enslaved, dispossessed or deported have long been subjugated by White feminism. In the USA, Black and Native American women led critiques of White women’s participation in the Women’s March. They made the point that they have been doing anti-racism work for longer, and at greater cost, than White women.
The success of the Women’s March in the USA is especially facilitated by the more recent political activism and sacrifices of Black American women. Black queer women have led some of the most significant civil rights protests of recent times in America, namely Black Lives Matter. Native American women have been fighting for justice for hundreds of Indigenous women who have been the victims of gender violence. Transgender women of colour have been doing the same for decades on top of fighting for basic human rights. All of these cases have found little support amongst White feminists. In short, White women do not show up to support Black women. Yet as activist and author Feminista Jones points out, the majority of White women voted for Trump.
Sydne Gray, a Native American woman was tokenised by White women before official proceedings began at the Women’s March in Washington. She was met with racist backlash for her dress, Native prayers and singing, and for her activism. In a Twitter thread, she describes the colonialist violence of the words and attitudes she encountered. White women took photos of Gray and her friends and colleagues during their prayers and dancing, but refused information resources on Indigenous rights. The “authenticity” of her friends and colleagues were questioned. White women scolded them for their chanting (at a protest!).
The Women’s March on Washington had a Disability Caucus who organised disability guidelines. This included publishing a map with disability services, entrances, shuttle buses and drop off points. They hosted disability events to promote inclusion such as a poster making party. They promoted a virtual march for those who couldn’t attend. They also hosted a Facebook live event describing accessibility measures in preparation for the event (below).
Despite the wealth of information, the disability guidelines were evidently not followed at all the local marches. Activists and members of the public took to social media to describe the various ways in which the Women’s Marches replicated ableism. On Twitter, using the hashtag #AccessibleOrganizingMeans, people discussed problems with the physical organisation of marches; considerations of cost; assumptions about what speakers are willing to do for free; representation of diversity amongst different groups of disabled people; and not putting people into a position of having to explain, justify or “out” themselves for the sake of inclusion. I include only a few examples but the thread is important to read in full.
Transgender women activists talked about being marginalised by the vagina-centred symbols of the women’s march. Janet Mock was cut off when she spoke up for sex workers. Her full speech is on her website. Raquel Willis was also cut off mid-sentence as she discussed the intersections of race and transgender activism for women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Willis’s full speech can be read on her website.
Overall, White, cisgender, able-bodied women have not responded well to critiques of the Women’s March. There can be no progress in women’s rights until White women acknowledge their White privilege. This includes reflecting on some tough questions: how do White women benefit from the oppression of women of colour?
My previous reflections on Australian racism (Indigenous relations and the experiences of migrant people of colour) can augment the lessons we draw from the American experience. The running theme in my work is that Australian feminist practices need to better incorporate intersectionality. In sociology, this means revising how we theorise, study and participate in social movements. In particular, to advance gender equity and diversity in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s experiences, leadership and participation needs radical incorporation into Australian sociology, and other scientific practices. I’ll explore these issues more in forthcoming posts.
A White woman colleague in the USA responded to my tweets critiquing White feminism. She said White women who see themselves as allies were being put off by women of colour’s critiques of the Women’s March. She said White women were feeling “cut down” because of the “tone” in the discussions by women of colour. She said that allies are just learning and needed patience and education from women of colour if they are to remain engaged on intersectionality.
I’ve already discussed how tone policing was used before, during and after the Women’s March to undermine women of colour’s contributions and insights.
I have had this conversation over and over and over with many White women whom I consider friends and colleagues. I do public sociology to educate others, but the fact is that anti-racism education is exhausting when you live with racism at work, when you’re walking down the street, when you remember your past, and when you plan for the future.
Women’s rights are limited by exclusionary forms of feminism. The gains of intersectionality can make gender equity a reality. For this to happen, White women need to keep showing up and doing their self-reflection on White privilege and structural inequalities.
I leave you with my responses to my Twitter conversation, with only minor editing for continuity.
After the Women’s March weekend, critical reflection and action is needed: how do we end White supremacist patriarchy? After this reflection, we do the work to end it.
The impact and solutions to racism have been publicly discussed by women of colour for many decades. Most recently, by Black Lives Matter activists and also by women of colour who critiqued the way they were alienated from Pantsuit Nation and from the Women’s March. The frustration expressed by women of colour is that there have been many opportunities for White women to have gotten involved earlier, and yet White people have pushed back repeatedly.
Allyship can seem tough to “newbies” without the full history of anti-racism issues, but being an ally means embracing the uncomfortable feeling that goes along with re-education about White supremacy.
The way women of colour’s frustration is expressed, especially by those with less power, is not the cause of White women’s discomfort. The discomfort is about confronting the reality about having privilege and how it benefits White women. White privilege includes not being aware of how racism works at the everyday level.
The ability to retreat from anti-racism issues, or to think that rescinding allyship is an option, is another sign of White privilege. People who belong to minority groups can’t retreat or stay unaware of biases and discrimination because inequity is part of everyday life.
There’s no nice or polite way to express justified anger, frustration or distrust in face of multiple oppression. Whatever discomfort an ally feels is nothing compared to the very real consequences of facing sexism on top of racism on top of homophobia and other injustices.
Being an ally is supposed to be hard. That’s why these discussions on intersectionality and being late to support women of colour need critical thinking if the Women’s March is to have continued positive impact.
Watch the speeches from the Women’s March Sydney, released by the organisers.
Transcript of video, Women’s March Sydney 2017
Description of the images
The video opens with people marching in central Sydney. Hundreds of people within range are seen as the camera pans around. They present as being of different gender, age and ethnicity, but they are predominantly younger, White and gender conforming men and women (as opposed to gender queer for example). There are also families. Signs that can be seen include, “Build bridges not walls;” “Close the camps,” a reference to the inhumane offshore detention of refugees by Australia; and “I march for all womankind.” At 21 seconds, the crowd is stopped by police at a major intersection and the crowd cheers. At 35 seconds and to the end of the video, we are in a new scene – the crowd has arrived at Martin Place and we see the packed crowd, singing along with a woman performer who is out of sight. Everyone is singing along with the famous chorus of “I Am Woman,” from the verse, “I am woman, hear me roar. In numbers too big to ignore…” to the final chorus “…I am invincible. I am woman!”
Text on screen
Text presented over the above images is as follows. (Note there is no verbal narration.)
Women’s March Sydney, 21 January 2017.
10,000 people took part in the Women’s March in Sydney.
6,000 marched in Melbourne and more in other cities and towns.
Australia joined 2.5 million people who marched in solidarity with the USA protests against President Trump.
The organisers in Sydney had a focus on intersectionality amongst speakers…
… aligned with the mission of the founders of the Washington march.
Intersectionality describes how gender inequality is impacted by racism and other issues like homophobia, disability discrimination and class
There have been important intersectionality critiques of the marches in the USA and elsewhere…
… by women in multiple minority groups…
…who were particularly marginalised by White cisgender able-bodied women.
Many White women especially objected to discussions about racism in the lead up to the event, and since.
This is indefensible given anti-racism is at the heart of intersectionality.
Transgender women showed there was too much focus on “pussy” or “vagina” power, which excludes them…
… and the organisation of local marches did not live up to disability guidelines set by the Washington Disability Caucus.
White women continue to push back saying critiques of the march are “divisive.” (Not true!)
Intersectionality makes us focus on the access, participation and inclusion of all women.
This is the only way to achieve gender equity.
Intersectionality is vital in the fight for all women’s rights.