It’s been a very feminist week. There was a massive, worldwide march of millions to stand up for women’s rights, and to stand in solidarity with other groups targeted by the new Trump administration (read: anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, Christian male who doesn’t criticize Trump). People were out in full force to make themselves seen, to make themselves heard; people with their children, people all across the gender spectrum, people of all colors, groups of scientists, teachers, you name it. It was incredible. And still, some people were invisible.
Last Monday I saw the movie Hidden Figures, which told the story of three African American women “computers” working at NASA in the 1960s and the struggles they faced to advance their careers and be taken seriously. These women—Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson— were instrumental to the success of the space program, but because of two inherent qualities they possessed (their femaleness and their blackness), they had to fight so much harder to access opportunities that white men were handed, they were not given nearly as much credit as they deserved, and they have been overlooked by history. I never learned about these three women in school. If you had asked me before Monday to name a historic black NASA employee, I regrettably wouldn’t have been able to do so. This is partially my fault for not being proactive in learning about African American history beyond the snippets taught in my history classes, but it also shows the gaps that persist in the education system and our culture. People are omitted, because omitting women and people of color is a normalized action in our culture. Perhaps in my case, this is a symptom of having gone to suburban schools in a mostly white area. People of color, especially black people, were relatively uncommon, and since they weren’t visibly present, it was easy to forget to talk about their existence and contributions. Their history was largely masked to me.
Just as the three protagonists of Hidden Figures have been overlooked, so have the people who laid the groundwork for the Women’s March that occurred on January 21st, 2017. One of my favorite podcasts, Stuff Mom Never Told You (RIP, I don’t know where I will get my feminist fix without you), recently featured an episode on women’s marches and highlighted the fraught racial history of the feminist movement. While white feminists in the 19th and 20th centuries fought for the right to vote, they simultaneously marginalized and elected to exclude black women from the movement. Much later, in the 1990s, black women organized the Million Woman March in Philadelphia, with the intent of empowering black women and with goals including increasing access to education and healthcare for black communities. But I doubt most people marching in 2017 know much about this history. I certainly didn’t until I listened to that SMNTY episode. If feminism as a movement is going to succeed, it must be inclusive, and it must take this history and the current social climate into account. Yes, it feels great to march and send a message that we stand with each other and against the tyranny of the Trump administration, but it’s not enough to actually make a change.
So how do we make change happen? White feminists especially need to start by being aware that women of color have had, and continue to have, greater struggles to be taken seriously and claim their rights. Be aware of the people who came before us and did the work decades ago. Listen to what they have to say, and ask what you can do to help them. Stand beside them when they march for their rights, even if it doesn’t directly affect you, the way men joined the Women’s March in 2017. Keep their concerns in mind as you continue to fight for people’s human rights, hopefully by calling your representatives and getting involved. Use whatever privilege you have to elevate their voices. I will try to do my part by blogging about underrepresented groups and people to raise awareness, even if my impact is small. And of course, I’m open to suggestions, because I certainly don’t know everything, and to some extent I’m a product of my upbringing and all the biases and ignorance it came with.
This is all in the hope that one day we’ll fulfill our lofty goal of achieving equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, orientation, or whichever method of pigeonholing people you choose. By overlooking women and people of color, even by passively excluding them just because we don’t think about them, we are missing out on the potential of all those people who never got the chance to apply their talents to the best of their abilities. We are shortchanging our society by keeping doors closed to underrepresented groups. Things have improved slowly over time, yes, but we are not living in a post-racial society. If anything, Obama’s presidency made an obvious demonstration of that. So as we move into the age of anti-Trump resistance and attempts to redefine the truth, let’s all make an effort to learn about the history of our movement(s), even if that history is unpleasant, and take it into account as we act to protect and expand civil rights. And as Caroline from SMNTY said, don’t just attend this one march, check the box to say you participated, and call it a day. Take action, keep fighting, and make an effort. This is our job.
Featured image: Women’s March in Oakland, January 21st, 2017. Picture courtesy of G. Mannell.