I’ve been in the movement for a couple of years now, and over the course of my involvement with institutionalized feminism, I have been exposed to bits and pieces of the history of the women’s movement. I’ve written in the past about parts of it-~-for example, about the history of the family planning movement-~-but as I have spent more time working with organizations that would define themselves as feminist in nature, as I learn more, something has become incredibly clear: so much of what we now identify as the feminist movement started out as women helping other women.
The oldest gender based violence crisis center in the country is the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), founded just over 40 years ago. Before that, responses to gender based violence were very much a case by case basis wherein women would help other women they knew. Prior to the establishment of laws and systems to address domestic violence, the DV movement was simply a collection of women taking other women into their homes. At the time, domestic violence was considered a “family issue” (and this attitude sometimes rears its head today, making it difficult to prosecute a large number of DV cases). Though the movement against gender based violence is not all of feminism, it is arguably one of the most central at the moment, along with efforts to promote women’s bodily autonomy, equal pay, and access to educational and professional opportunities.
That list is nowhere near comprehensive, of course; the feminist movement is an umbrella term that encompasses a large number of issues and perspectives all focused on integrated marginalized voices into the discourse. But I would say that in general, and this is just one blogger’s perspective, much of the movement has stemmed from, and gained its power from, this idea of sisterhood.
Many of you will have heard the saying “sisterhood is international”, the rallying cry of internationally focused feminist work. And it is, though maybe we need to be refocusing to say that “sisterhood is intersectional” as well. “Love your sisters, not just your cis-sters”. The idea of sisterhood is not an uncommon one within the feminist canon, and it can be a powerful premise: we are in this together. Women helping women, while it seems parochial at first, has led to waves of change in this country, from individuals helping other women to look after their children while they worked to women taking in survivors of abuse to, I hope, women in privileged positions using their voices to amplify the concerns of those whose message might otherwise not be heard. One of the biggest problems that feminism has faced, that women’s movements have faced, comes from the fact that the movement has not been as inclusive as it could have been, or as it strives to be now. When white suffragettes asked Black suffragettes to march at the back of the column, when cis women ignore the concerns of trans women and trans men, when white middle class women recognize their own pay gap but fail to see how much worse it is for women of color, the movement struggles.
There is no one group that speaks for everyone, no one movement that encompasses every concern, and that is, honestly, okay.
But maybe sisterhood is a good starting point as we consider how the movement can go forward. It may be Women’s History Month, and that makes this a great time to look back-~-to honor some of the amazing women who came before us, and to recognize some of the mistakes they have made so that we can do better.
Sisterhood is intersectional. It has to be, if we are going to meaningfully tackle the problems that we face as a society. Reproductive justice needs to include culturally competent medical care, so that doctors stop fixating on things like size, disability, or making assumptions about individuals based on race, and actually start providing quality medical care. And reproductive justice might include things like access to contraception, but also needs to include things like an ability to raise your children without fear they will be shot by the police. When we decry violence against women, we need to remember that women of color and trans women are even more likely to be subjected to violence, and keep in mind the social barriers that create this elevated risk and make recourse more difficult to access. When we talk about the additional risks that women face with regards to HIV and other STIs, we need to remember that African-American women are placed at an elevated risk because of the impact that high levels of incarceration in the Black community has on HIV transmission. For any issue we can claim impacts women, it’s worth keeping in mind that it impacts different women in different ways, and we all deserve a fighting chance.
Looking back at our history, I can see how the idea of sisterhood helped get us here; I still believe it is a great cornerstone for the movement we are trying to build. But when we talk about sisterhood, we need to make sure we are not just talking about the sisters who we think look like us: when we stand on the shoulders of the women who came and fought these battles before us, we should be able to see further, do better.
Happy women’s history month