Mending the feminist movement

The Clinton-Sanders fight drove a wedge through it. The backlash to Donald Trump has made it stronger than ever.

There was a time, about a year ago, when U.S. feminism was considered fractured, perhaps for good. Bernie Sanders’s upstart challenge to Hillary Clinton’s run at the presidency had supposedly uncovered a dark rot in the women’s movement, a stark generational divide that plagued Clinton’s nomination.

“Hillary’s woman problem,” ran one Politico headline. “Women and the generational divide,” offered NPR. From Vox: “Why younger women love Bernie Sanders, and why it drives older women crazy.”

At a campaign event for Clinton in New Hampshire in February, Madeleine Albright took aim at young women supporting Sanders at the expense of Clinton. “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done. It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

It was the end of women supporting other women. It was the dumb young blond vs. the grouchy old shrew, the latest iteration of a classic fascination, and focus, on women vs. women conflict. Young women, we were told, just didn’t care that much about sexism.

Well. Maybe you were among the more than 70,000 people in Toronto, Vancouver or Halifax this past Saturday, when the Women’s March on Washington took over not only the U.S. capital, but cities around the world. Or maybe you travelled to Washington, D.C. Maybe you saw the footage from Los Angeles and New York, New Orleans, Alaska, Paris, Colombia, Nairobi, India, Belgrade, South Africa, and even Antarctica. Towns I’ve never heard of held marches: Beaver Island, Mich. (18); Bentonville, Ark. (300); Green Valley, Ariz. (400).

There were at least 500 events across the U.S. (an estimated 673 worldwide), all told drawing between 3.2 million and 4.6 million marchers. All under the banner of women’s rights.

MORE: Anne Kingston on the meaning of the march

In Washington I saw, without question, the most diverse crowd I’ve ever witnessed. There were rainbow flags, pink “pussy” hats and pink hijabs. The march had an ambitiously intersectional list of official priorities, from climate change to Black Lives Matter.

Women activists in their twenties and thirties organized the event, and it was headlined by seasoned feminists and political activists, like Melanie Campbell from the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

“We march for black women who voted 94 per cent for Hillary Clinton!” she said. “We march—and I need your help on this one, my sisters and my brothers—we march even for the 53 per cent of white women who voted for that other guy, to reflect and join us” in electing the first woman president of the U.S. and a black woman to the Supreme Court.

“We are linked. We are not ranked,” Gloria Steinem—who uses her New York home to mentor younger activists—told the crowd.

The actress Ashley Judd, 48, performed a thundering poem written by 19-year-old university student Nina Donovan from Nashville.

MORE: From the archives, Gloria Steinem on the future of feminism in 1987

Wandering through crushing throngs and hand-made signs, I met 16-year-old and 72-year-old women. Women in their twenties, thirties and forties. Mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, grandmothers and granddaughters, sisters and brothers, fathers and friends. The march, said one older woman, proves feminism is “alive and well.” “The girls are bolder than ever, smarter than ever,” she said.

Two young black women told me the march held more unity than division, and neither considered the march a “white feminist” event.

One young man carrying a sign about consent said he came to march in part because his girlfriend couldn’t, “in solidarity with women across the world.” “I wanted to highlight that feminism isn’t just for women, it’s for men, too,” said Brandon Denney, 23, from Nashville. “And consent is something everyone can get behind.”

In bringing women together, in proving that there is no deep, intractable generational divide among feminists, the march also spurred support from both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The former spent the day on Twitter sharing posts and praising the marchers. The latter gave a speech at the event in Montpelier, Vt.

“We have to keep the momentum,” Clinton tweeted.

“Mr. Trump: We are not going backwards, we are going forwards!” Sanders proclaimed.

MORE: Donna Ferrato’s photo-essay from the March on D.C.

But even if the momentum is with the march movement, President Donald Trump now wields incredible power, and he’s already flexing it. On Monday, he alarmed women’s health advocates when he signed an anti-abortion executive order that could squeeze funding for international women’s health organizations by cutting off money from those that even speak about abortion, as well as those that offer it.

That is but one move. The joy of millions of feminists taking over the streets was never going to dent Trump’s impenetrable ego. It was only ever a warning shot. And now that the defence that Clinton likely would have offered women as president—on health care and reproductive rights, child care and education—has been replaced by a radically different reality, the movement cannot afford to slacken.

The feminist unity seen this weekend must hold—not only to stop what damage may be coming, but to be ready to mend what cannot be stopped.