Women’s Rights Are Human Rights and the Women’s March on Washington

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Women’s Rights Are Human Rights and the Women’s March on Washington

Loretta Ross

I feel like celebrating our inevitable progress toward victory for equality, dignity, and justice, despite the reasons we are marching in the first place: to unite to challenge the immoral and probably illegitimate presidency of Donald Trump.

I won’t be at the Women’s March on Washington this weekend because I can’t—I can’t get to D.C., can’t physically march anymore, can’t afford the trip, and so on. But I wish I could, so I’ll attend the simultaneous event here in Atlanta this Saturday.

My heart will be in D.C., though, because I’ve helped organize women of color for most of the large national women’s protest marches in Washington since the 1980s. I began organizing national feminist marches during my time on the staff of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and, most recently, as the co-director of the widely successful 2004 March for Women’s Lives, which attracted an estimated 1.15 million participants.

Because of this experience, I’ve been interviewed this week by some mainstream media, including the New York Times and Elle Magazine, along with alternative media like local Pacifica stations. Mostly, I’ve been asked to use my historical lens to analyze the power of march mobilizations, and their long-term effects on building the feminist movement.

Not marching in D.C. does not shut my overly busy mouth, however, so I want to offer my opinion on several issues bubbling up. The first is the march’s theme: Women’s Rights Are Human Rights. This is a moment I’ve wanted for three decades to become a clarion call for feminist organizing in the United States. I first heard it in 1988 in the Philippines from Gabriela, the Filipino women’s organization that successfully fought the Marcos dictatorship, and participated in the election of the first woman president, Corazon Aquino. I’m not sure they coined the phrase, but the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University founded in 1989 under the leadership of Charlotte Bunch promoted the phrase as its global call to action. I recognized its resonance with the U.S. women’s movement’s international solidarity work, and welcomed its prominence at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights that shifted the global human rights movement to become more gender-inclusive.

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Two years later, First Lady Hillary Clinton received a lot of media attention when she declared the phrase at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. Many people in the United States who first heard the phrase from Clinton thought she created it, but she simply echoed a growing global demand for reframing our domestic struggles for equality and justice in human rights language that aligned us with powerful international women’s movements. This challenged the left’s brand of American exceptionalism that disdains to accept feminist thought leadership from those perceived as belonging to the Global South.

In 2003, when my former organization SisterSong was asked to participate in what was then titled the “March for Freedom of Choice,” we rebuffed that brand, demanding that reproductive justice be used to reframe the march as a March for Women’s Human Rights. Two of the four mainstream groups organizing the planned 2004 march, the Feminist Majority Foundation and NOW, supported the idea, but NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood did not. We agreed to recirculate a previously used name, the March for Women’s Lives, and thus history was made, by mobilizing the largest, most intersectional march the feminist movement ever organized.

Many don’t know this story because the mainstream media insisted on calling it an “abortion rights” march despite our efforts to demonstrate the inclusiveness of our demands: protesting the unjust invasion of Iraq by President George W. Bush; calling for an end to the debt crisis crippling the Global South while enriching Western countries; ending the death penalty; and challenging poverty-racism-homophobia-militarism and environmental destruction by the military and corporate industrial complexes. Our message was too complicated for the mainstream media, so they lazily reduced it to a binary they could easily report: pro-choice vs. pro-life.

The reproductive justice and women’s human rights frameworks proved they could provide platforms to successfully mobilize millions of people, but apparently it was an idea too ahead of its time for the mainstream media to accurately report.

Now with the Women’s March on Washington using the “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” call for mobilizations in 616 simultaneous marches worldwide, I believe feminists in the United States have finally caught up to the rest of the global women’s movement. I feel like celebrating our inevitable progress toward victory for equality, dignity, and justice, despite the reasons we are marching in the first place: to unite to challenge the immoral and probably illegitimate presidency of Donald Trump.

This brings me to my second point. I have observed many social media discussions about whether women of color could and should participate in a march that was originated by a white feminist. The chatter felt equally familiar and sad if you have a historical lens. It comes up with every feminist march, and there is absolutely no way to get this right in the minds of some people. Should women of color only support ideas that we think of first? Should we use this political moment to prioritize calling attention to racism in the women’s movement? Should we expect that the needs of women of color be centered? Should white women opposed to white supremacy step back so that women of color can step up? Sometimes it feels like some women of color believe they should be invited to decision-making tables instead of feeling self-empowered to take their rightful places whether they are invited or not. To me, that feels like an awfully disempowering place from which to make demands.

Women of color helped build the U.S. women’s movement, from its inception centuries ago to major campaigns today to end violence against women; to combat poverty, racism, and the prison-industrial-complex; to defend reproductive and sexual freedom; to protect Mother Earth; and to achieve human rights for all. This is our history we must learn about and use to challenge anyone who believes that feminism is solely the property of “white middle-class women,” as I’ve had to tell many reporters. When that mythical (and racist) stereotype is internalized by women of color, we support our own subordination and diminish our foremothers’ legacies that are consistently under-reported by the media and many historians. Women of color have always resisted white supremacy, settler colonialism, and gender injustice. To forget that legacy is to invisibly re-shackle our souls, our spirits, our hearts, and our minds.

Instead of demanding inclusion, we have and will continue to assert our organic leadership, not asking anyone’s permission.

I am proud of the team of women of color and white women who are the march organizers. I salute their vision and capacity for being brave together to unite to face this neo-fascist threat that has brazenly come out of the netherworld closet that unites the far right, the religious right, ultra-conservatives, and traditional bigots. A vote for Trump was a vote for white supremacy, despite the pollsters’ beliefs that economic or gender anxiety produced this outrageous outcome. Trump was not the cause; he was the outcome.

I hope that we can stay together for the multi-generational struggle we have always faced. To paraphrase my hero Dr. Willie Parker, “It’s at times like these we must remember it’s always been times like these.” Being “woke” is not an event; it’s a life’s commitment for which many people have sacrificed their own lives to give us the privilege of being able to march and protest. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

My third rant is about the inclusion of anti-abortion folks in the marches. My opinion of that is also nuanced. As I’ve posted on Facebook, “Plumbing does not a feminist make.” Just because someone has the “right” genitalia (or race, class privilege, education, or whatever), does not entitle them to presume to divide up women’s human rights or pit us against each other. Every woman may have an opinion about feminism, but everyone who claims our feminist mantle does not understand justice-based feminism—to end all forms of oppression and injustice, not simply achieve an equal opportunity to oppress others. No more than everyone who spoke of Dr. King’s Dream three days ago understands the permanent struggle against white supremacy.

Human rights are indivisible, universal, and inalienable. Abortion rights are human rights, the same as workers’ rights are human rights, and health care is a human right. The feminists I support understand that everyone has the same human rights, and we use our intersectional identities to assess what every person needs to have their human rights protected and respected. So my “pro-life” friends, if you are against a woman’s right to control her own body, to make decisions about herself and her family, to obtain necessary health care, to live in freedom from interpersonal, immigration, or government violence, and to enjoy food, security, and peace for herself and her family—you don’t meet my definition of a feminist because we feminists who believe in freedom and justice are marching against Donald Trump, together. Even if we unite only for an ephemeral moment, if you choose to march with us on the right side of history, don’t keep trying to pull us back into the days in which we are still fighting the Civil War against white supremacy, disrespecting women’s freedom and autonomy, and killing the earth with our militaries, corporate greed, and environmental destruction.

We will not be distracted and we are not amused. I hope you eventually understand the full meaning of our demand “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” so you don’t become pimples on the ass of time reveling in your hurt feelings, because our feminist movement can only see you in the rear-view mirror as we march together toward freedom.