Women Remaking America: behind a documentary on Trump-era feminism

From the Women’s March to #MeToo, Not Done: Women Remaking America recalls some of the loudest inflection points and tensions of the women’s movement since Trump’s election

It’s worth remembering, a week before the current administration faces electoral reckoning, that the single largest political demonstration in American history occurred on the first day of his presidency. The Women’s March held on 21 January 2017 drew 4 million Americans to the streets in what was ostensibly a loose collection of outraged responses to Trump’s election – in particular, from white women newly awakened to political dissent – under the banner of gender solidarity. In the nearly four years since, the women’s movement has cascaded through the national consciousness – feminism as mainstream slogan, as #MeToo, as political movement undergirding the blue wave, as central framing.

Not Done: Women Remaking America, a new hour-long retrospective on the past four years from PBS, traces this diffuse, energized, frustrating, expansive, evolving fight for gender justice in the United States. Though the film launches from the catalyzing effect of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, Not Done sketches a movement too often divorced, in sweeping takes, from its foundations in the practices, protests and rhetoric developed by women of color.

The film covers the broad strokes of feminism in the Trump era and its roots: how the Black Lives Matter movement established by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in 2013 and the indigenous-led Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline prefigured the Women’s March. How the mission of Tarana Burke, an activist who first used the term “Me Too” in 2006 to build solidarity among black women over the shared experience of sexual trauma, framed the #MeToo cascade which exploded with the reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s predatory abuses in the fall of 2017. How social justice movements for agricultural and domestic workers, led by women such as Monica Ramirez, informed the structure, language and aims (a legal defense fund for sexual harassment claims by lower-income women, for example) of Hollywood’s starry Time’s Up initiative. (Both Burke and Ramirez appear in the film.)

“Ultimately, we wanted to be clear that the foundation of so much of this time period, really, was coming from the grassroots, from a lot of women of color especially who were expanding our idea of what women’s issues are,” Sara Wolitzky, the film’s director, told the Guardian. “It’s the anger and the awakening that got triggered after Hillary’s loss that threw gasoline on that fire.”

From the cauldron of the Women’s March, Not Done cascades through the headline flurries and quieter, backstage wiring behind some of the biggest feminist inflection points of the past four years: the #MeToo movement, and the waterfall of sexual harassment and assault stories shared on social media; the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings in 2018; the marches for Breonna Taylor and black trans lives this summer. The film zings between reflections from such commentators as the New York Magazine columnist Rebecca Traister and the New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who reported on Harvey Weinstein; Hollywood stars-turned-activists America Ferrera, Natalie Portman, showrunner Shonda Rhimes, and several Time’s Up co-founders; Black Lives Matter co-founders Cullors and Garza; the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in the late 1980s; and Women’s March co-leader Linda Sarsour.

In succinct, bird’s eye fashion, Not Done explores, as Sarsour told the Guardian, the past half-decade’s “re-emergence of a diverse, inclusive women’s rights movement that is led by women of color”. Sarsour, a Palestinian-American from Brooklyn who joined the Women’s March leadership in an intentional bid to diversify an event primarily organized and catering to white women, speaks to the double-edged sword of visibility; how the flourishing of grassroots, intersectional movements – ones, such as Black Lives Matter and climate justice, not explicitly framed around yet inextricable from gender justice – in mainstream coverage can both raise consciousness and erode solidarity into empty sloganeering. In late 2016, when she joined the Women’s March, Sarsour “never identified as a feminist”, she said. Instead, she “saw feminism through kind of a western context that didn’t really include women like me”, a proudly hijab-wearing, Muslim-American advocate who began organizing against police misconduct in the wake of 9/11.

Linda Sarsour speaks at the Good Trouble Tuesday march for Breonna Taylor
Linda Sarsour speaks at the Good Trouble Tuesday march for Breonna Taylor. Photograph: Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Part of the women’s movement evolution over the past decade, and particularly during the Trump years, has been, as Sarsour put it, “the question of whether or not feminism can be the overarching theme in our intersectionality”. As the movement expanded, incorporating work and ideas from black women, indigenous women, migrant workers – women who challenged the Intstagrammable, pink pussy hat “feminism” – some white women “couldn’t grasp this idea that sometimes we’re just not gonna agree on every issue and on every policy”, said Sarsour. “Because we are all different people, different women, different experiences, we are connected to different communities on different parts of the world.”

The capacity for and design toward contentious dialogue “is a strength of the movement, but some people don’t see that as a strength – they want us all to have one uniform idea that’s just not going to work”, she said. “That’s the place where, for me, I still see the potential moving forward – that we must learn to grasp unity not being uniformity.”

Sarsour left the Women’s March organization in the summer of 2019, along with co-leaders Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland, as internal accusations of antisemitism and leadership fissures splintered the group into sister marches around the country. In August, Sarsour and Mallory relocated along with their organization, Until Freedom, to Louisville, Kentucky, to focus on building a nationwide movement for police accountability out of the killing of Breonna Taylor. Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot by police in her apartment in March, during a botched drug raid fueled by a no-knock warrant; a grand jury declined to charge the three officers last month. “In order for us to have a true inclusive women’s rights movement, it must stand for black women,” Sarsour said. The next evolution of the women’s rights movement is “beyond reproductive rights, it’s beyond equal pay, it’s beyond the kind of #MeToo movement. It’s also about criminal justice, it’s about police accountability, it’s about immigration and immigrant rights, and really getting the nation, and women in particular, to understand that if a black woman is not able to live in the safety of her own apartment, then our larger movements are moot when it comes to women’s rights.”

Wolitzky, too, pointed to the messy, loud, at times contentious arc toward intersectionality – feminism as acted principle rather than rhetorical litmus test – captured briefly in Not Done as extant in the increasingly young, diverse and diffuse protest movements. “When you look across all social justice movements today and especially the ones led by young people” – the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives teenagers, advocates for the undocumented – “there’s so many women at the forefront of that”, said Wolitzky. “And they’re not necessarily thinking of themselves as feminists, that’s not what’s animating them, but that’s also a huge change. It is women who are driving all of these movements.”

Those women, and the ones featured in Not Done, are “like many women in our country – we are moms, we are products of public schools, we are children of low-income or middle-income families,” said Sarsour. “All of us made decisions to stand up for our communities and for our family, and anybody can do what we do.”

  • Not Done: Women Remaking America airs on PBS on 27 October with a UK date to be announced


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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