Can the women’s movement sustain the call for change

Date: February 2, 2017
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In the aftermath of the largest peaceful march ever to take place in the US and globally following Donald Trump’s inauguration, critics are asking if the diverse range of protests that spread like a Mexican wave across five continents on 21 January can sustain the energy. Who is the women’s movement, and why is it leading the march that saw three to five million people, 80% of whom were women, take to the streets with such determination? Can it be the vanguard of all the progressive forces galvanised by Trump’s narrow world vision? And how will it stand up to what Trump believes is his movement for change in the USA, with inevitable consequences for the rest of the world?

It’s often pointed out that in the US itself a large proportion of women voted for Trump (his first tweet on seeing the marchers was “I thought we had an election?”) On the other hand 58% of women did not vote for Trump, including over three quarters of African American, Latino, and women of third world immigrant descent. Hilary Clinton had three million more voters than Trump – the largest gap between the popular vote and the electoral college vote in American history. Sounding more like a revolutionary than business mogul, Trump vowed at his inauguration to “give power back to the people.”  But clearly a large number of Americans, especially women, do not feel part of Trump’s movement.

From Gloria Steinman to Charlize Theron to Madonna, the celebrity power conspicuous for its absence at the inauguration came out in full force the next day. As song bird  Alicia Keys (famous for refusing to wear make- up or be airbrushed on the cover of a glossy magazine) put it: “these girls are on fire!” Many carried placards with word plays on Trump’s televised comment about Clinton being “such a nasty woman” during his third debate with her. Hashtag  “nasty woman” has since been appropriated by women in the US to denote strong, capable, intelligent women whom the strong men of politics find so threatening. Aided by social media, the anger unleashed by Trump’s many sexist, misogynist, racist and xenophobic missives came together last weekend in an impressive show of citizen power. As Steinman put it, “the Constitution begins with ‘we the people’, not ‘I the president!’”

Started by one grandmother’s post on Facebook urging women to march the day after Trump took office, the Women’s March grew organically, through the work of volunteers, with no hierarchical structure. The mission statement makes the connections between diverse struggles:  “Women’s March Global invites individuals and organisations committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion and those who understand women’s rights as human rights to join our local coalitions in representing the rights and voices of progressive people around the world.” Cutting across race, class, ethnicity, migration, disability, sexual and gender diversities, as well as climate justice, women’s rights provide a natural thread for social justice.

Sister marches and gatherings, like the one we organised in Johannesburg, were urged to down play anti- Trump sentiments and focus on what we stand for. In the US, the slogan “love not hate is what makes America great” summed up the positive thrust of the messaging, resulting in a largely peaceful march that contrasted sharply with the bombs being dropped in Syria. These are the strong points about the way women organise. And efforts are underway to sustain the momentum. Women’s March US is calling for ten actions every ten days to mirror Trump’s first 100 days in office. The first action is to write postcards to senators about “what matters most.”

In one of several reversals of progressive policies championed by outgoing president Barrack Obama, Trump this week signed an executive order banning international NGOs from providing abortion services or offering information about abortions if they receive US funding. The “gag” rule is likely to be a major rallying point as thousands of women converging in New York for the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting that takes place around 8 March – International Women’s Day. Globally, the march agreed on a set of HERS principles – health, economic security, representation and safety: a simple galvanising framework.

Most importantly, at a time of severe funding cuts for rights-based advocacy, there are valuable lessons and inspiration from the Women’s March. This astounding case of “one woman can”, the use of social media, timing, claiming political space and demanding accountability is the democracy-in-action we all dream about. In South Africa as we build up to the 2019 elections, we should demand that all would-be leaders put their policies out there, including where they stand on women’s rights (see “Gender trouble in ANC’s succession race”, Mail and Guardian 20-26  January). If Trump’s accession can prompt the strong voices of women to counter the many strongmen in politics across the globe, the chances of a more just future will indeed be enhanced.

Author: Colleen Lowe Morna and Lucia Makamure

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