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March for what?

This past Saturday, while Duke students were cheering on the Duke men’s basketball team as they took on Georgia Tech and others were busy grinding away in Perkins, some Blue Devils chose to attend the Women’s March on Raleigh. This demonstration was just one of hundreds that have been organized across the country since the national Women’s March in 2017. This first gathering took place in Washington, D.C., the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. While a number of issues were represented by countless coalitions and individuals, the focal point of the rally was largely Trump himself, who had been recorded speaking crudely about women and has faced accusations of sexual misconduct. As the march has gained traction nationwide, its offshoots have expanded messaging into the civil rights of women, Black Americans and immigrants, and have highlighted broader women-centric issues like restrictions on abortion rights and gendered wage disparities. 

Despite its unifying mission, the women’s march has not gone without controversies. There have been allegations of anti-Semitism among leaders of the national Women’s March after they attended an event with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan where he espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The organization then splintered into two separate coalitions—Women's March and March On—and the march in Raleigh was organized by a group that is independent of either. Furthermore, some have written off the march for its cisnormativity and reinforcement of biologically essentialist understandings of womanhood. With symbols like the pink “pussy” hats, cardboard cut-outs of giant vulvas and signs declaring “No uterus, no opinion,” the women’s march has had the effect of inextricably linking womanhood with certain body parts. Additionally, as with many activist movements, the women’s march has been criticized for its lack of follow-through. Although there have been a considerable number of high profile demonstrations since the inauguration, concerns linger about how much the movement has actually accomplished and whether there is any substantive post-march organizing to institute the demanded change. Perhaps the yearly recurrence makes the march lose its value; if gathering becomes a yearly engagement, one can show up, feel satisfied and then not do anything again until next year’s march rolls around.

In light of the Raleigh march, we should be taking a closer look and scrutinize the nature of marching itself. Why do Duke students rush to make a poster and travel to Raleigh? Is it for the photo opportunity and guaranteed likes they’ll receive on their Instagram post? Do the women’s marches of today do justice to the thousands of women who have braved violence to make their voice heard before? Are these truly a modern equivalent of female laborers, who marched and risked their safety for empowerment or the brave Black civil rights organizers who faced down certain violence during protests from police in the 60s? The Women’s March on Raleigh gives the impression of a safe protest, one without any risk involved. With cutesy signs riddled with wordplay and pithy one-liners, these marches feel more like casual events for political engagement, rather than high-stakes gatherings where people are actually putting something on the line and have something to lose.

One potential theory behind the “safe” nature of the march is that, in the genesis of the inaugural women’s march, energy and anger came from a previously satiated group—white, cisgender women. With the election of Donald Trump, white millennial women found themselves suddenly found themselves suddenly under far more threat. As a result, the movement heavily centered mobilization around Trump’s misogynistic comments—a reality that continues to appear as though the many issues that consistently threaten Black, brown, disabled and poor women are less important. This new mobilized force of white women is out of touch from the majority of these issues—and the people that have been organizing around them for years—because, ultimately, the majority of systems of power still in place mostly work for this demographic., White, cis women who have just recently realized that, they too, can be marginalized have the luxury of adopting political activism then dropping it once their threats are extinguished next election cycle—not so for others. The white feminism-centric freezing of the momentum around Trump has spelled stagnation for the movement.

Here at Duke, without fail, there’s significant student mobilization around election season and other major political events, but all too often silence on issues in Durham or rampant sexual assault on campus. Among the busy lives of Duke students, it can be hard for students to maintain a vested interest in these issues. Organizing is needed for change, but with a loose, surface-level attachment, feminist mobilization on campus becomes little more than a fun side-project for college students. What we must understand is that feminism is not an accessory, but rather a revolutionary movement for breaking free from patriarchal structures that reinforce the inferiority of women in everyday life.

Marching is easy and cathartic, but impactful organizing is difficult with slow turnaround. Feminist activism is more than just wearing a pussy hat along with two thousand other women. This is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t attend public rallies to show our solidarity, but we need to be more thoughtful about doing so. Through investing time in the less flashy (but massively important) elements of community organizing—like contacting representatives, doing political education and working with established local campaigns—we can start to actualize our visions of a better future.

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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