While pundits continue to debate what led to the outcome of 2016’s election, it is clear that intersections between gender and race played a central role. The question of how to interpret intersections between race, gender, and other axes of difference are, in turn, central to the resistance movements that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s election. The politics of intersectionality played a substantial role in the Women’s Marches across the United States following the inauguration. In this column, we discuss how feminist anthropologists might explore the explosion of intersectionality into popular debate. What opportunities does this moment present for a feminist anthropology?
The Women’s March, a highly-publicized, mainstream feminist action, explicitly presented an intersectional approach to social justice. The platform of the March places the diversity of experiences that cross-cut gendered identity at its center, rather than its edges. This approach attracted accusations, widely covered by mainstream media, of “divisiveness,” describing conflicts between organizers and potential participants who felt excluded by references to race and sexuality. Yet in spite of this coverage, the Women’s March on Washington, and its dozens of sister marches, put millions of bodies on the street in support of a platform whose opening lines state unequivocally that “gender justice is racial justice is economic justice.” These debates about inclusion, exclusion, division, and difference, though often frustrating to witness, mark the Women’s March as a watershed moment in struggles over the politics of the universal in the contemporary US.
In the weeks leading up to the March, widely circulated stories portrayed white women who felt unwelcome at the march, cancelling plans to attend. Some fretted that the March had been “hijacked by organizers bent on highlighting women’s differences” (Symons 2017). In rhetoric reminiscent of the media-produced “mommy wars,” outlets such the New York Times played up conflict between women stressing “unity” (somehow only possible through a focus on women to the exclusion of other categories) and “difference” (rather than the unified framework present, for example, in the March’s platform). We hear much less about the women of color who decided not to attend. In the face of media commentary fretting about the potentially divisive and alienating nature of an intersectional approach, the Women’s March demonstrated the potential for intersectionality to unify large numbers of Americans, or at the very least not alienate potential march participants. Evidence suggests that in the months since January 21, large numbers of march participants continue to be politically active, calling their legislators, marching in support of immigration, and joining groups like Indivisible.
As Melissa Harris-Perry made clear in her keynote at this years’ AAA conference, we cannot make sense of Trump, nor can we act successfully to change the country that elected him, unless we consider all of these processes in the same frame. These processes include the histories of exclusion and erasure that ushered Trump into office, the debates about difference, unity, and intersectionality that surround protests against him, and the media environment that works to transform those debates into click-worthy controversies. The call for intersectionality at the Women’s March was to ensure that the silence surrounding the complexity of intersecting forms of oppression and discrimination that shape women of color’s lived experiences was lifted.
Feminist anthropology has long attended to how categories of difference are naturalized, reproduced, and evaluated. This empirical focus is driven by the theoretical insight that processes of naturalization and categorization always take place within relations of power. We are well positioned to examine the relations between the many categories of inclusion and exclusion that subordinate some and convey benefits to others in the US today. But we are also positioned to ask about how those categories came to be in the first place: to ask about, in Tom Boellstorff’s words, “the prior cultural and political moves by which [categories such as race, gender, sexuality and class] are constructed as separate” (2016). As feminist anthropologists, we can consider the connections between the histories of exclusion and erasure that ushered Trump into office; the debates about difference, unity, and intersectionality that surround protests against him; and the media environment that works to transform those debates into click-worthy controversies.
We can use this unprecedented historical moment, as well, to interrogate our own scholarly practices. This positions us in a tense, yet productive, relationship with US-based activism surrounding intersectionality. Precisely because these are questions that have long informed activism and scholarship on gender, race, and sexuality, these empirical processes provide an opportunity to think with scholars whose work is often erased in the citational sweep of social science theorizing. Scholars across the academy have engaged in generous pedagogical work to make rigorous syllabi on these topics, including open access texts, publicly and widely available (Black Lives Matter syllabus, Standing Rock syllabus, Lemonade syllabus, Trump syllabus, Trump syllabus 2.0). As popular discourse reacts to the rise of (and era of) Trump and the reinvigoration of grassroots politics alike with scientistic anxieties about “facts” and “truth,” we can draw on feminist anthropology’s legacy of interrogating the partial grounds of knowledge production itself, reminding our colleagues that all knowledge production is inherently partial and perspectival. To debates about whether the invocation of identities that cross cut “womanhood” undermine unity, we can add our own questions about the discursive practices through which calls for intersectional inclusiveness are repackaged as divisive exclusion—and who is served by such reframings. We can draw connections between the categories, political praxes, and unspoken compromises of this particular moment in women’s activism in the US and those of the women’s movements we study elsewhere. We can explore the practices that erase some connections and foreground others. We can bring the innovative critical approaches our field has developed to examine the global spread of women’s rights discourse in the post-colonial world back to the metropole, as activists in the US draw on global human rights rhetoric.
Importantly, we can build on a long tradition of fashioning anthropological knowledge for policy and political action: How should feminist anthropology relate to these newly visible political projects that take on our own scholarly categories, such as intersectionality?
Julia Kowalski, (North Dakota State University, [email protected]) and Emily de Wet, (University of Notre Dame, [email protected]) are contributing editors for the Association for Feminist Anthropology.
Cite as: Kowalski, Julia, and Emily de Wet. 2017. “After the Women’s March.” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.535