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The ‘feminist’ stickers need background reading and shared experiences

When I read the news on Saturday morning, I was surprised to learn that there was a swirl of controversy around the nationwide Women’s March. I was even more surprised to find that it was not the usual backlash against the very existence or premise of a Women’s March. Rather, it was an internal controversy wracked by accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, amidst claims that two of the march’s founders had asserted that Jewish women played a role in exploiting women of color. It was disheartening to see that there were even multiple rival marches in many cities, especially after having felt a part of the incredible inspiration and unity of the movement that mobilized across the country in 2017.

I’m relatively new to the activism scene. Most of my understanding of the fight for civil rights in America comes from either my daily consumption of news headlines or the readings I had to do in high school. Those readings were mostly focused on the racial inequality of the past. Particularly around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I find myself remembering how many times we read or listened to the “I Have a Dream” speech, a staple of so many childhood history classrooms.

As I got older, I eventually learned that “I Have a Dream” was just one small piece of a vast, complex movement. There were also disagreements within that movement about how best to achieve its goals — or what those goals even looked like. I’m only two weeks into an English class on African American literature, and I have already been exposed to many nuances of the historical experience of race in America that I had never thought about before.

Perhaps I should have connected the dots to the women’s rights movement as well, but the truth is, I didn’t. The small private high school I went to often sheltered me from understanding why we even need a women’s rights movement. Most of the time, as a woman, I felt the same as everyone else. I believed in the ideals of feminism — that people of any gender identity should be treated equally — but wasn’t quite sure the role it played in today’s world.

That was before I went to college, before I met a more diverse array of people who had different life experiences than I did. And it was before the 2016 election when, thanks to the media firestorm of the Trump and Clinton campaigns, I became much more engaged with political issues. My personal belief in the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion, was suddenly up for debate on a national stage.

But this week, I had another wake-up call. Sure, I have an “Of Course I’m a Feminist” sticker from the Women’s Community Center displayed front and center on my planner, but I was completely unprepared for the complexities that came up in this weekend’s debate. I had no idea about the historical background behind the intertwining questions about race, religion and women’s rights.

That background, in short: We’re only just shy of a hundred years having passed since the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited discrimination based on sex at the polls. Before and after the suffrage movement, there was debate as to how to go about achieving women’s rights; some leaders believed that minorities should be embraced, while others believed that downplaying minority issues might make the movement more appealing to groups in charge. As a result, historically, sometimes women of color had to march at the back of the line.

I am far from reaching a full understanding of these issues. In fact, I’m just starting out, which even further motivates my desire for access to the ideas behind this debate. I firmly believe in the ability of literature and history as tools to inform so many aspects of our lives, from the smallest of individual thought processes to the largest of social issues. But access to that literature and history can still be a challenge; the densely packed information contained in a single book can feel like a forest of ideas to hike through without a map.

Still, I believe that we collectively possess the resources to share the unique maps we all have. Those “feminist” stickers are all over campus. Now, I just wish each one came with a different quote, essay, personal experience or historical snapshot, so we could share stories with each other. After all, the most important words we put into the world are the ones that allow us to bring different perspectives together.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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