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Emerson Faculty on Activism, Feminism, and Intersectionality at Women’s Marches

Emerson College faculty member Heather May took her 3-year-old son across the street from campus, to Boston Common, to join at least 3 million people worldwide who were taking part in Saturday’s Women’s Marches.

The marches were a show of solidarity in support of women’s rights and civil rights at the dawn of President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I think for a lot of people, and women in particular, that it was an important moment to realize not just [that] you’re not alone, but how not alone you are,” said May, a senior lecturer in the Communication Studies Department.

Emerson College Today asked faculty what the significance was of what is said to be the largest demonstration in U.S. history, and how a massive one-day event could be translated into a sustainable and equitable movement.

In her public speaking classes, Communication Studies lecturer Caitlyn Jarvis said she tries to make the course material practical and relevant to her students by talking about civic engagement as a way to support and understand their communities. Part of that is making everyone feel welcome in the conversation whether or not they agree with every aspect of it, she said.

Jarvis said she’s been shying away from calling the marches a “protest.”

“I don’t think ‘protest’ fits,” she said. “I think it’s more of a show of support for anyone who feels underrepresented, [and] trying to build a community of support for people who were struggling with that.”

But for Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor of Communication Studies, the way the media covered the marches was problematic.

“They were giving a lot of importance to the numbers, but I don’t think they were giving a lot of importance to the underlying issues,” Raynauld said.

To the extent that the media did cover the issues at the marches, they didn’t tend to go any deeper than what was written on the marchers’ signs, he said. For any real results to come from mass demonstrations, the media need to do their part and “pivot away from covering fluff,” Raynauld said.

“They were talking a lot about women marching,” he said, “but they didn’t talk a lot about reproductive issues, they were not talking about abortion, they were not talking about women’s rights, about salaries.”

Far too few people, in the media and at the marches, were talking about “how to be intersectional in our feminism,” said May. Many of the marches were criticized for being overwhelmingly white, both in organization and attendance.

“If we looked around at the march on Saturday, and we saw a lot of people who looked like us – meaning white women – then we have to… say ‘What is it about this movement that makes women of color feel marginalized and left out, and what can I do to reach out to them?’ because it’s not their job to reach out to us.”

Judy Pryor-Ramirez, executive director of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research, attended the march in New York City. She said, for example, there was a lot of messaging around misogyny, but little to no messaging around the ways misogyny affects women of color disproportionately – policy brutality, school-to-prison pipeline, and quality health and reproductive care among them.

In thinking about Saturday’s marches, Pryor-Ramirez pointed to a quote from Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

“There wasn’t a shared sense of that liberation,” she said.

Pryor-Ramirez said education is crucial in bringing about a more intersectional feminism. She recommends women read writers like bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Patricia Hill Collins. She suggests learning about the Combahee River Collective, a black, lesbian feminist organization with roots in Boston, and attending upcoming ArtsEmerson performances like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower concert this spring and a stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in the fall.

For people looking to hold on to the energy from the marches, Pryor-Ramirez recommends “find[ing] your entry point and tak[ing] action.”

That can mean tweeting about issues important to you or signing petitions; donating money to organizations that share your goals and values; or helping likeminded candidates run for office or running for office yourself.

In Boston, an upcoming mayoral election will provide plenty of opportunity for education and action, she said. And the Elma Lewis Center offers a number of ways for Emersonians to get involved, whether through Alternative Spring Break, teaching service learning courses, or helping out with the #EmersonVotes campaign.

Israela Brill-Cass, affiliated faculty in the Communication Studies Department, said she thought the collective experience the marches provided were “critical” to spur people to action, but that the “magnitude” of issues needing attention are overwhelming taken together.

“I think we need to find what’s important to us and focus in on one small thing we can do every day going forward, and not become overwhelmed the way I think many of us were during the campaign,” she said. “Focusing on what you can do on a local level works.”

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