Commentary Human Rights

Why Black Women Are No Longer Asking for a Seat at the Table in Philadelphia

La’Tasha D. Mayes

In this political moment, we have an urgent charge for continued resistance against threats to our safety and autonomy. But I will not participate in my own oppression by attending a march that has excluded Black women from its leadership.

This Saturday, activists will gather in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the country to march for women’s rights. Despite my commitment to women’s equality, I won’t be participating in the Women’s March on Philadelphia.

Now, more than ever, women need a strong intersectional movement for our civil and human rights. But we can only build that unified movement if all women are equally at the table where decisions are made and strategies are developed. Until Black women are regarded as leaders—not just participants—in demonstrations for women’s rights, I will not accept these efforts as legitimate calls for equality.

Organizers of the Women’s March on Philadelphia have not genuinely reached out to Philadelphia’s Black communities (which represent 44 percent of the population) in our experience and that of our peers, let alone genuinely engaged Black women leaders in planning the event and developing its vision from the start. New Voices for Reproductive Justice knows this firsthand via phone and email correspondence. When we as Black women activists and leaders offered our time, expertise, labor, consultation, and organizing assistance to the lead organizers of the Philadelphia march, we were met with delayed responses that undermined the opportunity to build meaningful partnership. Our intention was solidarity that modeled intersectionality, but our experience was tokenization.

As a result, the only Black-led reproductive justice (RJ) organization in the state will not be represented in the leadership of the march (whereas in other cities like Atlanta, RJ groups are present). Given our critical work of promoting the health and well-being of Black women and girls and women of color in Pennsylvania since 2004, we know that our leadership is essential to any progress in this nation. Black women are being asked to be in the streets at our own peril while white women attempt to lead, blinded by their own privilege and lack of attention to anti-Black racism. Unfortunately, this brand of engagement with Black women is typical.

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This country’s original suffragists traded the rights of Black women to secure their own access to the vote and white privilege. Betty Friedan’s feminist tome The Feminine Mystique famously outlined a version of gender oppression that really reflected the plight of affluent white women. Most recently, the national Women’s March on Washington has been marred by criticisms that it has not been inclusive of women of color, resulting in some leadership changes and the recent announcement of progressive, racially conscious policy platforms. Unfortunately, the Women’s March on Philadelphia has yet to respond publicly to such critiques.

Organizers did tell the Philadelphia Tribune in December that “they are working to make the event as inclusive as possible,” but my experience and that of other Black women in New Voices’ networks did not reflect this in the city that hosted the 1997 Black woman-led Million Woman March.

At a time when our nation’s next president is someone accused multiple times over of sexual assault and harassment, we most definitely need to be advancing the movement for all women’s rights.

Gender-based violence and injustice, attacks on access to health care, reproductive coercion and oppression, environmental injustice, and police brutality endanger our lives, safety, and dignity. These are all issues that affect women—in many cases, these issues hit Black women and other women of color the hardest.

And while the organizers of the national march have said in the movement’s platform that they “honor the legacy of the movements before us,” including the feminist movement, as feminist scholar and activist bell hooks has said, “It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement.”

This has been true since the dawn of feminism, and it is true today in Philadelphia. We can and must do better.

Holding women’s rights movements accountable to the highest possible standard is the only way to build an intersectional human rights movement that can stop the attacks promised by the new president, his administration, and Congress. We need only look at the 2016 voting patterns to understand that white women alone will not save all women and our rights. After all, 53 percent of white women voters opted for a presidential candidate who has promised to defund family planning service providers, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and discriminate against Muslims and immigrants. The majority of white women participating in the 2016 election voted for a man who mocked a person with disabilities and who bragged about sexually assaulting women. (Yes, grabbing women by their genitals is sexual assault.)

In contrast, Black women overwhelmingly supported his opponent, who built her campaign on the belief that women’s rights are human rights. Ninety-four percent of Black women showed up for the future of all women.

We who organize for race and gender justice, including reproductive justice, cannot leave it to white women to move us forward. Any successful movement for women’s rights will be fueled by women of color—especially Black women—at the helm as leaders.

In this political moment, we have an urgent charge for continued resistance against threats to our safety and autonomy. But I will not participate in my own oppression by attending a march that has excluded Black women from its leadership.

Black women in Philadelphia will no longer ask for a seat at the table. We will continue building our own.

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