23 Jan SISTERHOOD IS EVERYONE
Millions. The largest demonstration in the history of the country. The largest demonstration in the history of the planet.
An estimated million people demonstrating in Washington, DC. New York City estimated at half a million. A quarter of a million in Los Angeles and Boston and Chicago each. Hundreds of thousands in Denver and San Francisco and Kansas City. A hundred thousand in Indianapolis, Indiana and even Little Rock, Arkansas! Almost a thousand separate rallies and marches across the US. Jacksonville and Charlotte and Santa Fe, Oklahoma City and Vegas and Concord and Park City, Utah; Pittsburgh and Savannah and Juneau and Anchorage and Nashville and Boise, Idaho. Millions on the move, sending a message from this country to the planet: Trump is not America, and we have just begun to fight.
And these Americans were and are not alone. Solidarity demonstrations in cities all across the globe, on all seven continents: Erbil, Iraq; Bogota, Athens, Nairobi, Florence, Auckland, Sydney, Cape Town, Paris, Stockholm, Geneva, Bangkok, Lisbon, Tel Aviv, Dublin, Wellington, Madrid, Accra, Helsinki, Tibilisi, Toronto, New Delhi, Prague, Oslo, Marseille, Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, and more. Paradise Bay, Antarctica! Sisterhood is global.
And this time, masses of men participated not in cooptation but in pride and love, making a statement: a “sisterhood of man.”
For the first time ever, “women” became the generic, while men joined under the Women’s March name; for the first time in history, “womanhood” meant “all of us”; “womankind” meant “humanity.”
The first 100 days of the Trump regime will be matched by 100 days of activism, a springboard to even more. Trump had wanted tanks and missiles in his inauguration parade (like Moscow), but the Pentagon turned him down; instead, a day later, he got WOMEN. And men and kids and babies and the world. Which is crucial, especially important to inspire young people who’ve only heard about and often express envy of the activism of the 1960s and 70s. Solidarity in large numbers, expressed in public dissent, also bolsters the press in doing its job, and stiffens the spines of legislators. It makes participants feel great about themselves and each other, as well as euphoric about the possibilities. True, that can be illusory, because now comes the real work of fighting back, of organizing. But that’s so much easier when the spirit is fed.
For myself, I notice an undercurrent in what I’ve been thinking these past, painful weeks. It has to do with the 52 percent of white women who voted for Trump. Now, I know that white women, especially non-college-educated suburban and/or working class women, traditionally vote Republican. So this is not the first time—just as this is not the first or last time that black women, Latinas, Asian American, and other women of color consistently vote for progressives. These were the women who accounted for Hillary carrying the women’s vote. But damn, those white women consistently casting ballots against their own self-interest make me crazy. I spin around in loops: where did we fail them? how can we reach them? how can we redouble our efforts? None of which is made easier by requiring a leap, well, not necessarily of faith but a leap of respect, respect for who they are—even though by their own descriptions who they are and what they do is against their own self-interest.
Recently, The New York Times interviewed a sampling of such women, asking the big Why. The answers were both obfuscating and revealing. Expectably, the women cited a range of reasons for voting as they had: worries about the economy, anger at the price of healthcare, affection for guns and gun culture (how come that’s never cited as “identity politics,” because it is!), fear of foreigners and immigrants and terrorism, and religious opposition to abortion-rights. Some were furious at Obama, for whom they had actually voted once or twice, because he hadn’t after all “solved racism.” But many of them simply voted against. Against Hillary. They bought into all the lies about her—30 years of never proven accusations, pure propaganda—while some even flatly said they didn’t care whether those were true or not: they “couldn’t put their finger on it, but just didn’t trust her.”
Mind you, when they were asked about her record as Secretary of State or Senator or First Lady, they were highly approving. But they just didn’t trust her. When asked about her policy stands, they were strongly approving (except religious diehards on abortion). But they just didn’t trust her. They didn’t trust Trump, either—but they were, as one summed it up, “Willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
This is the kind of anti logic that has me banging my head against the wall at 4 a.m.
Then, in one of those middle-of-the-night leaps of connectivity, I found myself thinking about another woman whose activism I’ve been following for some time: Irom Chanu Sharmila, a heroine to many in the violence-plagued Indian state of Manipur.
In November 2000, Sharmila was a young protester, part of a local popular resistance movement that arose after 10 people were killed by brutal tactics employed by the Indian Armed Forces, none of whom were prosecuted for the attack. Sharmila, then 28 years old, embarked on a political fast. It was to become the longest hunger strike in history: 16 years. Sharmila spent 16 years in a hospital ward, being force-fed through a nose tube under an Indian law criminalizing suicide.
Legends grew about her, songs were written exalting her, Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience. Her pale face with the feeding tube strapped to her nose appeared on T-shirts and posters and auto-rickshaws. People called her the Goddess of Manipur and made pilgrimages to leave offerings of flowers and trinkets and candles outside the hospital as if at a shrine.
Then, last July, Sharmila announced she would end her fast and run for office to unseat the powerful, corrupt chief minister of Manipur, currently serving his third term. She also announced plans to marry a British citizen of Indian descent, a man who had written and then visited her, and with whom she had fallen in love. In interviews, she noted that the tactics of self-starvation were no longer as effective as they had been in Gandhi’s time, due to changed laws and forced tubal feeding. But she pointedly declared that the adversary was the same, and that she hoped to be more effective with this new strategy. She said she counted on the good will of all the people who had supported her for 16 years. On August 9 of last year, she threw a press conference, licked a dab of honey from her hand as her first taste in 16 years, smiled, and left the ward.
All hell broke loose.
Angry crowds surrounded the ambulance bringing her home, and forced it to return to the hospital. Delegations of women arrived to beg her to change her mind. On the streets outside, throngs of people chanted at her in fury. How dare she, they screamed, she was a saint. She tried to address them. She said she didn’t want to be an icon, she wanted to make real change. They said she had no right to stop fasting. She said, “If I continued I would have died. I changed my strategy and you hate me for that?” Later, she told an interviewer “I’ve been in isolation for 16 years. I was tired of being an icon. I was yearning to meet the people. But they drew me in whatever imagery they wanted of me and they just kept me there. They only wanted to worship me. I don’t know why they are so violent.”
The women gave various responses. They weren’t happy with any kind of change. They didn’t know anymore what was happening in her mind. Some felt it was the fault of this alien, non-local man who came and put a venomous spell on Sharmila and twisted her thinking. They said she had no right to run for office because she was a woman and besides who would support her (meaning they wouldn’t). They said that women can show moral and spiritual power but that real power in the real world belongs to men. Younger, educated people do see hope in her candidacy, but her male detractors hint that she should be killed, and her even greater numbers of female detractors still say things like “Her status was so high! She was The Iron Lady. So beautiful, so strong. How could she do this to us? She broke my heart. Now, I just don’t trust her.” One spat at her and shouted, “You were the Goddess of Manipur. Now you’re just like any other woman. Like me.”
And there it is.
What underlies all the other issues, however valid they too are. Millennia of patriarchal acculturation saturating us with the message that to be female is to externalize power, to symbolize but not personify, to be a metaphor but never an avatar. Because if real power lies within you—then why aren’t you activating it?
In a society like Manipur we can see it clearly. But this can sometimes be less evident in a heterogeneous society such as ours, where women of color, excluded by racism from identifying with dominant definitions of the female (in the US, white), could dare—for the most practical reasons and also the most archetypal—to fight back in myriad ways.
But the white working-class women in Michigan and Pennsylvania, the ones who voted like their husbands, the ones who agreed with but still didn’t trust Hillary Rodham Clinton, the ones who found Trump disgusting but were willing to give him a chance, they didn’t make that leap. I suspect that in six months their buyers’ remorse will be acute. But whether it is or not, I’m haunted by words that reject even the possibility of fighting for oneself, words voicing not just self contempt but self erasure.
Now she is just like any woman. Like me. I don’t trust her.
That’s the voice of the woman that we—you and I—somehow have yet to reach. I want to believe that these new waves of women (and men) marching on the world’s streets in powerful defiance and resolve, can reach her. I believe she’s waiting.