The Revolution Will Not Be Business Casual—and Other Takeaways From the Women’s Convention

The convention in Detroit was great on diversity and energy, but light on systemic analysis.

Jordan Sarti and Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

Congresswoman and civil rights activist Maxine Waters gives a keynote address at the Women's Convention in Detroit on November 27. One of the high points of the convention for many attendees was the centering of women of color. (Hannah Steinkopf-Frank)

DETROIT — At a train­ing on the third day of the Wom­en’s Con­ven­tion, a strik­ing scene illus­trat­ed the con­tra­dic­tions — and promise — of this high­ly antic­i­pat­ed nation­al gath­er­ing of more than 4,000 women and allies.

The optics were often almost utopian: a racially, geographically diverse coalition of women ready to fight for a better world. But the structure of the convention itself—with a $295 price tag for a three-day pass and a business-casual dress code—kept many women out of the conversation.

In a work­shop on Art, Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence and Direct Action,” orga­niz­ers from the Jus­tice League NYC divid­ed rough­ly 100 par­tic­i­pants into groups to role­play a direct action. One group chose to tar­get local Wayne Coun­ty Pros­e­cu­tor Kym Wor­thy for a mock con­fronta­tion. Activists have accused Wor­thy of being too harsh on juve­nile offend­ers and con­tribut­ing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Then a par­tic­i­pant point­ed out that the role­play had a chance to become real: Wor­thy was speak­ing at a pan­el two floors above them at that very moment. Atten­dees erupt­ed in calls to go upstairs and dis­rupt the forum. Vis­i­bly uneasy, Jus­tice League NYC orga­niz­ers asked that they fin­ish the roleplay.

Chal­lenges like this, emerg­ing from the grass­roots, erupt­ed through­out the Octo­ber 27 – 29 gath­er­ing at the down­town Cobo Center.

The goal of the con­fer­ence, fol­low­ing the his­toric Wom­en’s March this year, was to build coali­tions and advance col­lec­tive lib­er­a­tion.” The theme, Reclaim­ing Our Time,” a phrase adapt­ed by con­ven­tion hon­oree Rep. Max­ine Waters (D‑Calif.), high­light­ed the impor­tance of col­lec­tive orga­niz­ing and retak­ing insti­tu­tions. Women’s March co-chairs Lin­da Sar­sour, Bob Bland, Car­men Perez and Tami­ka Mal­lo­ry empha­sized the pri­ma­cy of cre­at­ing a pro­gres­sive, inter­sec­tion­al space, as did many high-pro­file speakers.

For three days, the Cobo Cen­ter was charged with pal­pa­ble yet ill-defined ener­gy. Like the Women’s March, the optics were often almost utopi­an: a racial­ly, geo­graph­i­cal­ly diverse coali­tion of women ready to fight for a bet­ter world. But as The Young Turks inves­tiga­tive reporter Nomi­ki Kon­st not­ed to In These Times, the struc­ture of the con­ven­tion itself — with a $295 price tag for a three-day pass and a busi­ness-casu­al dress code — kept many women out of the conversation.

Through inter­sec­tion­al analy­sis, women reck­oned with feminism’s racist past, which was a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence for some. But at times, it felt like the convention’s pol­i­tics rest­ed on putting a diverse group of women into gov­ern­ment posi­tions. Anger, and action, were aimed at Num­ber 45,” a usu­al­ly unnamed but haunt­ing pres­ence through­out the week­end. If the most unqual­i­fied pres­i­dent in Amer­i­can his­to­ry could sit in the White House, so could the Women’s Con­ven­tion atten­dees. Actress Rose McGowan, who has led the wave of women accus­ing Har­vey Wein­stein of sex­u­al harass­ment, took the stage on Fri­day, and told the crowd, It’s time to clean house.” It was clear she wasn’t only talk­ing about Hollywood.

Though per­haps empow­er­ing, many atten­dees felt this focus belied a lack of aware­ness or imag­i­na­tion to con­front sys­temic cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion head-on. In a sea of pussy hats and raised fists, were rad­i­cal mes­sages drowned out?

Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not enough”

I want all of the women who are cur­rent­ly serv­ing in office today, city coun­cil, coun­ty com­mis­sion, stand up,” said EMILY’s List Pres­i­dent Stephanie Schri­ock as she took the main stage dur­ing a lun­cheon on Sat­ur­day. About a dozen peo­ple rose. What I want is all those women out there, and I know you’re out there, who are plan­ning on run­ning for office to stand up.”

The num­ber of women stand­ing tripled as applause reached a fever pitch. This scene played out more than once dur­ing the con­ven­tion. EMILY’s List was one of the spon­sors of the gath­er­ing — along with Planned Par­ent­hood and the Nation­al Resources Defense Coun­cil — and host­ed a can­di­date-train­ing track.

Through sup­port­ing pro-choice female can­di­dates, EMILY’s List has played a role in increas­ing the num­ber of women in Con­gres­sion­al seats, but it has also been crit­i­cized for endors­ing can­di­dates with con­ser­v­a­tive eco­nom­ic poli­cies.

Some atten­dees ques­tioned the promi­nent slot giv­en to EMILY’s List, see­ing it as a brand of fem­i­nism that val­ues rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in pol­i­tics over pro­gres­sive change.

I’m real­ly torn between whether or not EMILY’s List should have such a large seat at the table and be an ally or if they’re hold­ing up progress,” said Kon­st, who cov­ers gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics for The Young Turks and spoke on a pan­el about women in media.

I think women have to talk about eco­nom­ics. It is some­thing that cross­es all bar­ri­ers,” said Kon­st, adding, I think we real­ly need to hold our lead­ers account­able, even the women.”

Anoth­er cri­tique of the convention’s elec­toral bent came on-stage at a pan­el on Sat­ur­day about Puer­to Rico’s strug­gle for sur­vival and inde­pen­dence. Com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er Rosa Clemente argued that the EMI­LY’s List-spon­sored mis­sion of get­ting women elect­ed would not help Puer­to Rico. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not enough,” she said.

Dis­cussing the pow­er­ful ene­mies of Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence, Clemente not­ed, One of them spoke here last night.”

Clemente was refer­ring to Sen­a­tor Kirsten Gilli­brand (D‑N.Y.), who, along­side oth­er elect­ed offi­cials, head­lined the conference’s open­ing night to an audi­ence of thou­sands flush with cheers and raised fists.

Clemente crit­i­cized Gilli­brand for vot­ing for PROME­SA, which was passed by Con­gress in 2016 with bipar­ti­san sup­port. PROME­SA put Puer­to Rico under the con­trol of a fis­cal over­sight board, which has imposed aus­ter­i­ty poli­cies. Clemente calls the act a recol­o­niza­tion” of the island.

Democ­rats? This hap­pened because of them,” pan­elist Neli­ni Stamp said of PROMESA.

Clemente said she per­son­al­ly has lost faith in the sys­tem, is no longer vot­ing and believes the real work is in direct action and dis­man­tling the cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ist sys­tem that cre­at­ed this sit­u­a­tion. Pan­elists high­light­ed the Our Pow­er Cam­paign, a grass­roots effort call­ing for debt relief, and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions pro­vid­ing aid to the island.

Julia Tor­res Bar­den, a Puer­to Rican jour­nal­ist, crit­i­cized a lack of dis­cus­sion of Puer­to Rican issues on the first day’s programming.

Tor­res Bar­den told In These Times, I do know that a few [Puer­to Ricans] are here tomor­row, but giv­en that we are cur­rent­ly in a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, if I only came for the day at $125 a day, I would have liked an oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak about it every day.”

What was­n’t said

Loren Whit­man, an attendee and orga­niz­er with North­west Indi­ana Resis­tance, was also frus­trat­ed with what the con­ven­tion wasn’t saying.

There’s a lot of avoid­ing or not-aware­ness of the under­ly­ing struc­ture of why there is clas­sism and why there is racism and sex­ism… you can’t say we need to fight clas­sism if you don’t address why class exists,” Whit­man told In These Times. Whit­man not­ed that halfway through the con­ven­tion, the word cap­i­tal­ism” hadn’t come up once.

Ener­gy is use­less if it’s not direct­ed,” Whit­man said, adding, Protests and things like this can be a real­ly good way of ener­giz­ing peo­ple, but if it isn’t direct­ed, it actu­al­ly just becomes a way of let­ting off steam. And it allows the urgency of the things that we face — not just the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, but both par­ties, the entire sys­tem, from top to bot­tom — it allows it to feel like it’s not that bad. Well, we did this protest, and we were ener­gized, and we felt good togeth­er, and I can suf­fer for anoth­er five years before I need that thing again to let it off … I fear that’s what’s going to hap­pen now.”

Though orga­niz­ers did invite women firm­ly plant­ed on the Left, and Sar­sour her­self is a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) mem­ber, most of the social­ist talk was con­fined to a pan­el about sin­gle pay­er. DSA Nation­al Direc­tor Maria Svart, Our Rev­o­lu­tion Pres­i­dent Nina Turn­er and Peo­ple for Bernie cofounder Win­nie Wong dis­cussed health­care and pol­i­cy on Fri­day after­noon. Wong also par­tic­i­pat­ed in a ple­nary on attract­ing new vot­ers and per­formed with the Resis­tance Revival Chorus.

Wong acknowl­edged eco­nom­ics were side­lined, but said, “[The con­ven­tion] is sequenced into a broad­er strat­e­gy, and I’m cer­tain­ly one of the archi­tects of that broad­er strat­e­gy. … I have been mak­ing sure that the pro­gres­sive plat­form that res­onat­ed with so many mil­lions of peo­ple across the coun­try who vot­ed for Sanders in the pri­ma­ry would not be lost in this sig­nif­i­cant moment, which in this par­tic­u­lar con­text is dom­i­nat­ed by a lot of women who feel real­ly despon­dent by the polit­i­cal real­i­ty of hav­ing Don­ald Trump as our president.”

Wong added that this broad­er strat­e­gy of infus­ing rad­i­cal left pol­i­tics” into the Women’s Con­ven­tion includ­ed invit­ing Bernie Sanders to speak, which sparked con­tro­ver­sy over giv­ing such a promi­nent space to a man. Sanders can­celed his talk for a trip to sur­vey the sit­u­a­tion in Puer­to Rico.

From the mar­gins to the center

The con­ven­tion focused on rec­og­niz­ing tra­di­tion­al­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties being rec­og­nized for their roles in the Women’s March and beyond. Promi­nent voic­es in the fields of dis­abil­i­ty, immi­grant and LGBTQ rights were fea­tured, and mul­ti­ple pan­els high­light­ed the con­tri­bu­tions of women of col­or in pol­i­tics, activism and art.

Tay­lor Dump­son, Amer­i­can University’s first black female stu­dent body pres­i­dent, told In These Times that she was con­cerned that she would not be rep­re­sent­ed at the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton, as well as the con­ven­tion. But she found that both events cen­tered women of col­or. She added that see­ing women who were new­er to the con­ver­sa­tion” around iden­ti­ty and inter­sec­tion­al fem­i­nism con­tin­ues to teach her patience. 

Undoc­u­ment­ed moth­er and activist Ingrid Vaca took the stage Fri­day night along with oth­ers fight­ing for a clean Dream Act. Sev­en­teen years ago, Vaca left Bolivia to give her two chil­dren bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties. Although she told In These Times that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has turned off the light” for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, through her work with Moms Ris­ing and Dream­ers’ Moms USA, it’s impor­tant for her not to live in fear.

Dur­ing a pan­el on South­ern women orga­niz­ing, actor and social jus­tice advo­cate Aun­janue Ellis held up the flag rep­re­sent­ing her home state of Mis­sis­sip­pi. It’s the only state flag that still bears the sym­bol of the Con­fed­er­a­cy, some­thing she would like to see changed. Ellis and oth­er activists launched Take It Down Amer­i­ca to remove the Stars and Bars.”

I felt that one of the things that we tend to over­look is the work of women in the South,” pan­el mod­er­a­tor Rukia Lumum­ba told In These Times. Lumum­ba found­ed the Peo­ple’s Advo­ca­cy Insti­tute, which fights for crim­i­nal jus­tice reform. She also helped lead both her father and her broth­ers suc­cess­ful cam­paigns for may­or of Jack­son, both of which were seen as pro­gres­sive steps in regain­ing the con­ser­v­a­tive South.

She said she was hap­py to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate a space for South­ern women to come togeth­er and talk about the work that they’ve been doing, to share their sto­ries, to share their suc­cess­es, to share their chal­lenges and to just feel some reju­ve­na­tion of being in the room together.”

She added that one of the most pow­er­ful parts of the con­ven­tion was tak­ing her 10-year-old son. It real­ly allows him to have a deep­er respect and under­stand­ing for women,” said Lumum­ba. To under­stand that he’s not just a bystander to our caus­es. That he has to also be an ally.”

Where do we go from here?

Though the Jus­tice League NYC train­ing did­n’t result in a con­fronta­tion with Kym Wor­thy, it did lead to one dis­rup­tive action” — albeit a script­ed one. The convention’s Young Lead­ers Track craft­ed protest signs with the Jus­tice League NYC orga­niz­ers after the train­ing. Dur­ing the con­ven­tion’s clos­ing remarks, this coali­tion, from tod­dlers to teenagers, took the stage hold­ing their signs, which had slo­gans like Women rock” and We are the future of change.” 

For all its faults, the Wom­en’s Con­ven­tion suc­ceed­ed in kin­dling a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ener­gy in its par­tic­i­pants. To what end is still unclear.

Orga­niz­ers urged women to bring what they learned at the con­ven­tion back to their com­mu­ni­ties. Mal­lo­ry, a civ­il rights activist, remind­ed atten­dees that not every­one could be there, though the con­ven­tion did offer schol­ar­ships. In pan­els, atten­dees were encour­aged to exchange busi­ness cards, go local and, most promi­nent­ly, vote and run for office. For some, spaces like the con­ven­tion that cater to women from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum can still lay the ground­work for rad­i­cal change.

Win­nie Wong said she was excit­ed to expe­ri­ence the gath­er­ing because large num­bers of peo­ple around the coun­try and many of the women who are here at the con­ven­tion are start­ing to think about pol­i­tics in a way that they had not pre­vi­ous­ly thought of pol­i­tics before, cer­tain­ly with the last two decades of neolib­er­al, patri­ar­chal hold on the system.”

Although she said that the cur­rent polit­i­cal real­i­ty isn’t going to be unpacked overnight, these types of dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions need to hap­pen in spaces that are more main­stream as per­ceived by peo­ple from the Left. … So you do have to meet peo­ple where they’re at.” 

Jor­dan Sar­ti and Han­nah Steinkopf-Frank are fall 2017 edi­to­r­i­al interns at In These Times.
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