On this past Sunday, October 29, organizers responsible for the Women’s March on Washington that took place earlier this year on January 21, wrapped up their inaugural Women’s Convention in Detroit, MI. Billed as a weekend of “workshops, strategy sessions, inspiring forums, and intersectional movement building,” the event strove to build on the feminist resurgence that’s emerged since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. The gathering attracted an estimated 5,000 attendees and featured a slate of more than sixty speakers including influential legislators such as Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI), and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA). Yet, despite the prominence of these powerful women, roughly a week before the conference it was not their scheduled appearances that were making the headlines, but that of a Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
It seems counterintuitive to think that an event entitled the “Women’s Convention,” planned by leaders of the Women’s March, and predominantly attended by women striving to secure women’s rights would prompt much conversation about men. Yet, discussion surrounding Senator Sanders’s planned involvement at the Women’s Convention, prompted me to not only examine what would be an appropriate role for Sanders to play within the convention, but what would be an appropriate role for all male allies to adopt within the entire women’s movement.
Where is a man’s place in the women’s movement?
Following announcements of Sanders’s anticipated participation in the convention, there was an immediate backlash throughout activist circles. It’s no secret that Sanders has been controversial figure amongst feminists since he first entered the 2016 presidential race. While some activists share Sanders’s progressive ideals and favored his campaign over Secretary Hillary Clinton’s, others within the Women’s March still view him as the man whose candidacy divided Clinton’s voting coalition and thus served as a contributing factor to her electoral loss. Yet, the controversy surrounding Sanders’s participation in the event had less to do with his political history and more to do with the political implications of his role as a man at a gathering so explicitly tailored by women for women. Regardless of which candidate individual convention attendees had previously supported in the election, Sander’s announced role at the Women’s Convention united them all in asking the same question: Where is a man’s place in the women’s movement?
Some argued that featuring a White, heterosexual, cisgender male so prominently at the Women’s Convention would undermine its intended purpose to empower women—and especially, to empower women with traditionally marginalized intersectional identities. I personally can’t help but agree. After all, the movement behind the Women’s March has been organized, mobilized, and sustained by the strength and tenacity of a diverse coalition of women across the United States. While Sanders’s voting record certainly demonstrates a passion for women’s rights, allowing him to headline the event would have shifted the its focus from female activists who struggle every day as women for greater gender equality to Sanders’s own achievements as a politician who benefits from not only male privilege, but multiple intersecting privileges. Elevating Sanders to a position of prominence in the Women’s Convention may have garnered more media publicity, but such attention came at the expense of the other women planning to speak at the event. With Sanders in the spotlight, women were forced into the shadows, just as they so frequently are both intentionally and systemically by a patriarchal society.
“In my mind, there should always be a place in the movement for men who are dedicated to women’s rights.”
Following continued critiques surrounding his involvement, Senator Sanders ultimately chose to forgo speaking at the convention and instead traveled to Puerto Rico to aid in Hurricane Maria disaster relief. While this decision alleviated the immediate concerns of several activists regarding women’s representation at the Women’s Convention, it’s also led many feminists to question what roles male allies can play in the Women’s March movement. For, how can one claim to build a movement based on inclusivity, but fail to include male-identifying allies in its processes?
Although I questioned Sanders’s planned participation in the Women’s Convention, I believe that welcoming male allies as part of the movement would be extremely beneficial to female activists and the Women’s March as a whole. There is nothing more dangerous to a movement than groupthink, where all the members of a team share such similar perspectives on issues that the movement grows stagnant or fails to anticipate potential outside areas of weakness. Engaging male allies in the planning process could result in leaders gaining additional insight from an alternative point of view as well as provide foresight about how men may react to different planned political actions. Furthermore, male allies can serve as advocates for women in male-dominated spaces where women either may not have access to or may not receive the proper respect from men because of their sex. In contrast, male allies can use their male privilege to enter these spaces, challenge their ideas, and be respectfully heard as a peer.
And so, we return to our earlier question: Where is a man’s place in the women’s movement? In my mind, there should always be a place in the movement for men who are dedicated to women’s rights. For men who are willing to accept their privilege and use it to help those who their privilege oppresses. For men who are willing to have their beliefs challenged and actively listen to the beliefs of others. For men who are overall willing to sacrifice and willing to learn. But when such men join, they must also understand and uphold the integrity of the Women’s March being a women’s movement lead by women. Ultimately, they must be men who are willing to respect the leadership of women within the movement while questioning the leadership of men within society. Then, and only then, will men find a place in the women’s movement.