Trump has given the world's women a taste of their power

Started by one grandmother’s post on Facebook urging women to march on the day after Trump took office, the Women’s March grew organically. (Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images)

Started by one grandmother’s post on Facebook urging women to march on the day after Trump took office, the Women’s March grew organically. (Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the largest peaceful march ever to take place in the United States – and globally – which followed Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States, critics are asking whether the diverse range of protests that spread like a Mexican wave across five continents on January 21 can sustain the energy.

What is the women’s movement and why is it leading the march that saw three to five million people, 80% of whom were women, take to the streets with such determination? Can it be the vanguard of all the progressive forces galvanised by Trump’s narrow world vision?

It’s often pointed out that a large proportion of American women voted for Trump (his first tweet on seeing the marchers was: “I thought we had an election?”). On the other hand, 58% of women did not vote for Trump, including more than three-quarters of African-American, Latino and women of developing world immigrant descent.

Hillary Clinton received three million more votes than Trump – the largest gap between the popular vote and the electoral college vote in American history.

Sounding more like a revolutionary than a business mogul, Trump vowed at his inauguration to “give power back to the people”. But clearly a large number of Americans, especially women, do not feel part of Trump’s movement.

From Gloria Steinem to Charlize Theron and Madonna, the celebrity power conspicuous by its absence at the inauguration came out in full force the next day.

Many carried placards with word plays on Trump’s televised comment about Clinton being “such a nasty woman” during his third debate with her. #NastyWoman has since been appropriated by women in the US to denote strong, capable, intelligent women who the strongmen of politics find so threatening.

Aided by social media, the anger unleashed by Trump’s many sexist, misogynist, racist and xenophobic missives came together last weekend in an impressive show of citizen power. As Steinem put it: “The Constitution begins with ‘We the people’, not ‘I the president’!”

Started by one grandmother’s post on Facebook urging women to march on the day after Trump took office, the Women’s March grew organically, through the work of volunteers, with no hierarchical structure. The mission statement makes the connections between diverse struggles: “Women’s March Global invites individuals and organisations committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and those who understand women’s rights as human rights to join our local coalitions in representing the rights and voices of progressive people around the world.”

Cutting across race, class, ethnicity, migration status, disability, sex and gender, women’s rights provide a natural thread for social justice.

Sister marches and gatherings, like the one we organised in Johannesburg, were urged to downplay anti-Trump sentiments and focus on what we stand for.

In the US, the slogan “Love, not hate, is what makes America great” summed up the positive thrust of the messaging, resulting in a largely peaceful march that contrasted sharply with the bombs being dropped in Syria.

These are the strong points about the way women organise and efforts are underway to sustain the momentum. The movement is calling for 10 actions every 10 days to mirror Trump’s first 100 days in office. The first action is to write postcards to senators about “what matters most”.

In one of several reversals of progressive policies championed by former president Barack Obama, Trump this week signed an executive order banning international nongovernmental organisations from providing abortion services or offering information about abortions if they receive US funding. This “gag” rule is likely to be a major rallying point for thousands of women converging on New York for the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meeting, which takes place soon after March 8 – International Women’s Day.

There are valuable lessons and inspiration to be had from the Women’s March. This astounding case of “one woman can”, the use of social media, claiming political space and demanding accountability is the democracy in action we all dream about. If Trump’s accession can prompt the strong voices of women to counter the many strongmen in politics around the globe, the chances of a more just future will indeed be enhanced.

In South Africa, as we build up to the 2019 elections, we should demand that all would-be leaders put their policies out there, including where they stand on women’s rights (see Gender trouble in ANC’s succession race).

Colleen Lowe Morna is the chief executive of Gender Links and Lucia Makamure is the advocacy co-ordinator for the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance, which is hosted by Gender Links

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