With the rise of the #MeToo moment and the #TimesUp campaign, Hollywood has discovered activism, and with it, a new lexicon and fledgling new identity. This is potentially a blessing and a curse for those of us who have been fighting feminist and anti-racist battles long before “intersectionality” was uttered from the stage at the Oscars, long before activists formed a phalanx of silent sentinels to serve as props for celebrity performances. This scene was politically counterbalanced, by the way, with a celebratory tribute to war and militarism. But this is the world we live in. And like with every industry and institution, there are a handful of genuine change-seekers in Hollywood — people who have risked their careers and livelihoods to wage uphill battles for greater justice in the arts and media. And we have to give them the opportunity to be better allies going forward, in the spirit of Eslanda and Paul Robeson and others. How do we do this work, and dance this dance, with greater attention to the principles that ground us?
My hope for 2018 is that we can strike the balance between symbolism and substantive change — that our organizing leaders can resist the seduction of celebrity, downplay individual ego, and hunker down for the long haul.
Let’s put Black, women of color, Indigenous, anti-capitalist and queer-centered feminist politics at the heart of the overall struggle for justice in the coming year. What could that look like?
We are aiming for a mass movement with social transformation as its goal, which refuses to throw anyone under the bus in the process. If we are to achieve this, a lot of very un-glamorous work will be required.
As a historian, I am biased, but in this work, it seems critically important to always remember the past. None of this is new: not the problems or people seeking solutions. There would be no Black actors in Hollywood, no women directors and no openly gay talk show hosts, if not for social movements that confronted white supremacy, patriarchy and homophobia in the courts, through research and scholarship, in the arena of public opinion, and in the streets. So it is not what Hollywood is doing for activism, but what social movements have done for Hollywood, that is at the heart of the matter. There has been progress though (including the decision by #TimesUp to foreground a statement by 700,000 women farmworkers, and to set up a major fund to support low-income victims of harassment). In welcoming new and powerful allies into the fold, let’s not get so star-struck that we sell our souls for a selfie, or lose our political compasses in the process.
In addition to Hollywood, “women’s issues” and “women’s power” have garnered unprecedented mainstream media attention in the era of Trump. The Women’s Marches galvanized millions of women in 2017 and 2018. But the bigger a mobilization, the thinner the unity that participants stand on. This is unavoidable, and should not discourage us from engaging with large mobilizations and celebrating the fact that an increasing number of people have become politically active in the last year. Still, I can’t help feeling, in the 41st year since the radical Combahee River Collective statement affirmed the concept of intersecting oppression and identified the rapacious economic system of racial capitalism as a major aspect of most women’s suffering, that we are now moving back to a more generic call for women’s rights and representation. We have seen women as heads of state around the world, in many cases, carry out the same callous policies as their male counterparts (think of the gut-wrenching case of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in it). We have seen women politicians in this country play the same power games as the men in order to get ahead. We don’t need that. We need something different, something more.
Another important lesson from history is the dangers of populism (left and right), and the compromises that come with the institutionalization of movement goals. For example, many movement activists from the 1960s and 70s went into nonprofits, universities and the Democratic Party. They were forced to shrink their politics, visions and voices as a condition for inclusion. The antithesis of this is isolation, sectarianism and insular fringe movements that speak only to the already converted. That is also a dead end. But as movement language, goals and politics translate to a mass audience, get rebranded for primetime, and get embraced by political and cultural elites, they invariably get watered down.
There are two mantras that we hear most often from the new high-profile spokespersons for women: the demand for “inclusion” and the push to exercise power through “voting.” Let’s think about these demands for a moment. First, we must ask: Inclusion of whom, into what and on what terms? How do we avoid the cosmetic shift from male to female power brokers without shifting how most of us experience the tyranny of the state and the imperial reach of a hyper-commercialized (and often misogynist) dominant culture? Secondly, women have been voting, often in larger numbers than men, at least since 1980. It is the demographic of white women that put Trump over the top in 2016. Even women elected officials are not maternal messiahs. Let’s not essentialize our politics. Mainstream women politicians all too often vote for war, sit silent in the face of proto-fascist demagoguery, negotiate with tyrants, cover up scandals, and cater to Wall Street for campaign donations. They are often game players rather than game changers. So, obviously, we need more than inclusion and voting. The games, systems and institutions themselves need to change.
So, if Hollywood and Washington are not our salvation, then where can we look for hope? Everywhere, but not necessarily in the spotlight. Black Feminist Future in Atlanta, Black Women’s Blueprint in Brooklyn, Freedom, Inc. in Wisconsin, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance in Miami, Southerners on New Ground and Sistersong in Atlanta, the #LetUsBreathe Collective and the #NoCopAcademy campaign in Chicago, the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice in Los Angeles are all sites of hope. So is The Majority, an exciting new national coalition of 40+ organizations convened by the Movement for Black Lives to focus on “building an anti-racist left for radical democracy,” that is launching this spring. These are all sites of important and paradigm-altering organizing, all led largely by feminists of color.
One troubling aspect of the Trump-era mainstream women’s movement’s narrative is the erasure of the fact that Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives are in fact feminist-led — not just women-led — movements. These are movements that embrace the politics of intersectionality, addressing the myriad of injustices that confront women’s lives and starting with those most marginalized and vulnerable. To talk about the “new” women’s organizing that has burst on the scene since the 2016 election is to ignore the feminist-led (often queer feminist-led) Black insurgency that put police violence, racism and systemic oppression on the national agenda from Ferguson to Baltimore.
We have, over 40 years, collectively fought in many organizations and campaigns, written many books, and organized dozens of conferences as ways to forge a feminist politics that acknowledges that we are not all the same, that all women are not allies of all women, that multiple systems of oppression must be confronted simultaneously if all women are to be free, and that those most impacted must be allowed to step up and speak for themselves.
A common cliché is that history repeats. It really doesn’t. Every historical moment is unique, inescapably so because the earlier (similar) moments already occurred and created new knowledge and conditions. So, here we are. We still have a long way to go, and the journey will not be easy. But we are indeed on a path of struggle together, with all the knowledge we’ve gained through history. That, in itself, is a source of hope and optimism.