Single-Issue Politics in Intersectional Clothing: What’s New about U.S. Women’s Movement?

By Rocío R. García

The slew of adult onesies with Hillary Clinton’s face plastered throughout. The onslaught of protesters hurriedly walking into coffee shops in downtown Los Angeles before the march began, ignoring the numerous homeless people sitting on the sidewalks along the way. The sea of pink pussyhats moving in harmony with waves of red, white, and blue. The loud chants demanding reproductive autonomy, Trump’s impeachment, and true democratic governance. These are some of the most striking memories I have from the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles. Of course, there were beautiful contingents of communities of color fighting for systemic revolution, racial justice, prison abolition, trans liberation, environmental justice for Indigenous communities, reproductive justice, and immigrant rights, among many other issues. Yet, as I reflect on the guiding question of this dialogue—is there a new women’s movement—I am reminded of the saying that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

I argue that the actions brought forth by the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches do not constitute a new women’s movement because generations of activists have long fought against the same issues tackled today. As Jo Reger explains, understandings of feminisms as waves that ebb and flow erase the continuous commitment of feminist action over time and space. In a similar vein, the criticisms of the Marches from trans people and communities of color are not new, their experiences and actions have long been disappeared from mainstream U.S. activism. While also not new, a significant omission in much of the criticism of the Women’s Marches that bears discussion is the extent to which their focus on U.S. democracy and electoral politics reinforces settler colonial logics that render invisible the violence experienced by Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and their continuous struggles for self-determination. In tandem with the legitimation of settler colonialism in liberal spaces, what is actually new, however, is the extent to which the language of intersectionality is now co-opted in mainstream feminist rhetoric, while lacking an active commitment to enact the principles of intersectionality. Hillary Clinton’s ill-conceived attempt to draw on intersectionality as a tactic to garner young feminist votes is but one poignant example. We are witnesses to a political moment in which a distorted image of intersectionality has moved from margin to center, the latest trend picked up by mainstream feminists with no understanding of the radical roots and possibilities that it carries.

As a sociologist of reproductive justice and intersectional feminist theories, I analyze the politics of reproduction experienced by communities of color as an entry point by which to theorize the meanings, manifestations, and futures of intersectional liberation. I spent three years with California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization, learning how they enact intersectional strategies in reproductive politics. As theory and action, reproductive justice deviates from mainstream reproductive politics centered on abortion care and birth control by equally fighting for the right to parent, not parent, and parent in healthy and safe environments. Time and again, I witnessed CLRJ staff engage in cultural shift work by “RJing” mainstream reproductive rights activists, teaching them about the importance of racial violence, anti-immigrant sentiment, environmental racism, coerced sterilization, poverty, and other issues in affecting the reproductive lives of communities of color. The results of these teachable moments ranged from genuine attempts to be better reproductive justice allies, false promises to take reproductive justice seriously with no follow-up, to an active refusal to engage in conversations regarding white privilege necessary to be an ally (or better yet, an accomplice) to the movement for reproductive justice. I refer to the logics on the part of mainstream feminists that allow them to misinterpret intersectionality as an all-inviting identity mosaic while maintaining a blind eye to their privilege and a singular focus on gender politics as liberal violence. In true multicultural fashion, the Women’s Marches invite trans, gender non-conforming, undocumented, and other communities of color to bring their oppressions with them to the streets and the polls as ‘contributions’ to the movement’s assumed intersectional power. And yet, mainstream feminists are decidedly quiet about prison and border abolition, police brutality, forced deportations, and the environmental degradation of Indigenous lands.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues, multiculturalism is a hallmark of manifest destiny. The notion that marginalized communities offer contributions to ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ has resulted in a reimagining of U.S. history that homogenizes Indigenous tribes under the label of Native American, just one more oppressed group whose gifts contribute to U.S. democracy. This rewriting of history erases the role of whites in practices of cultural and physical genocide through rape, forced assimilation via missions and boarding schools, and the removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands and on to reservations. Luana Ross and other Indigenous scholars explain that genocide has never been against the law in the U.S.; in fact, it is a legally-sanctioned ongoing process of Indigenous disappearance. The ideals of U.S. democracy were created on the backs of African slaves and Indigenous peoples, and those ideals are legitimized through the reverberating effects of settler colonialism today. Asking us to exercise our political power at the polls is to ask us to comply with liberal violence that undercuts Indigenous self-determination.

What is the future of feminist movements? I’m not sure, but my feminist inspiration comes from the everyday commitment to intersectional social justice by CLRJ, the work that Indigenous women are doing to lead the struggles for environmental and reproductive justice, the queer and female leadership of the Movement for Black Lives, radical groups engaged in transnational feminist action such as AF3IRM, and the everyday resistance practices and utopian dreaming of trans, gender nonconforming, and other women of color across the globe.

Until white, cisgender able-bodied women show up for the movements that center Indigenous, trans, disabled, undocumented, and other communities of color—rather than just inviting us to their table—until they actively divest from the privileges accorded by settler colonialism, capitalism, whiteness, and heteropatriarchy, until we all decolonize our understandings of liberation, there’s not much that is new here.

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