The Women’s Convention in Detroit Was a Feast of Microaggression

The pink knit cap made famous by last winter’s Women’s March on Washington is already an anachronism. Not more than a couple dozen or so of the eye-catching toppers bobbed among the 4,000 or so activists attending “Women’s March Presents: The Inaugural Women’s Convention.” And those few “pussy hats” stuck out like embarrassing artifacts, reminders of the high hopes many on the left held for an anti-Trump feminist revival just 10 months ago.

These three days at Detroit’s Cobo Center are billed as a chance to “Reclaim Our Time” and “March On” in the momentous spirit of the post-inaugural protests. But the urgency of liberal strategizing for the 2018 midterms comes in a distant second to collective soul-searching. Intersectionality, the central tenet of today’s women’s movement, asks white women to cede their social power to minorities. With its emphasis on exposing “microaggressions,” intersectional feminism undercuts political unity.

The rift between the feminist left and the Sandernista further-left reopened on October 12 when the Women’s March’s official Instagram account announced Bernie Sanders as the convention’s headliner. The backlash was instant: The socialist senator is a man—and not just any man, but a man who hasn’t consistently stood with Planned Parenthood (one of the chief sponsors of the Women’s March). Worse yet, he stood in the way of the First Woman President for five stubborn months. An online petition to remove Sanders won more than 1,300 signatures and a formal statement of apology was quickly issued. He rerouted his activism to Puerto Rico, and Rose McGowan, the shero of the moment, took his place at the top of the program. It would be her first public engagement since outing herself on Twitter as an unnamed accuser who’d settled with Harvey Weinstein.

In her opening address, Women’s March co-president Tamika D. Mallory tries to push past a year of controversies. “If your feminism is the difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it does not represent me!” she thunders. “Your feminism does not represent me if it is only about our right to get an abortion!” Back in January, the march dropped a pro-life group, the Dallas-based New Wave Feminists, from its list of sponsored organizations when too many pro-choice women complained on social media.

California congresswoman Maxine Waters gave the convention its slogan back in July when she invoked parliamentary procedure to regain the House floor from Steve Mnuchin with three words that launched a thousand tweets, “reclaiming my time.” On stage in the Cobo Center’s gaping main hall, she reminds the sisterhood why we’re all here, leading the chant: “Impeach 45! Impeach 45! Impeach 45!”

It is Rose McGowan, though, who steals the show. With an otherworldly cadence and a militant message, the reformed Hollywood vamp commands her troops: “We are planet women, and you will hear us roar!” She raises a culturally appropriative fist. “From one monster we look away to another, the head monster of all right now. And they are the same and they must die,” she says, referring presumably to Weinstein and Trump, but surely with the whole patriarchy in mind. She presents #rosearmy, a Twitter shorthand for signaling solidarity with women cowed into silence about their abuse at the hands of monstrous men: “We’re free, we’re strong,” she tells us. “Rose Army is about all of us being roses in our own life. Not me, the actual flower—because we have thorns and our thorns carry justice.” In Rose Army, we may all be victims, but we’re marching toward revenge.

One woman not here to enlist in Rose Army is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of the disinvited New Wave Feminists. She’s come to the convention at her donors’ urging—in peace not protest, to represent a nuanced pro-life perspective. The intuitive premise of her advocacy sits as uneasily beside the stridency of McGowan as it does besides Planned Parenthood’s big-moneyed claim on liberal feminism as a pro-choice movement.

“No one wants to get an abortion,” Herndon-De La Rosa says aloud, while watching a religious pro-life demonstration on the other side of the Cobo Center’s high glass windows. Another woman, who doesn’t know her background, agrees, “I know, right?” Later, at a Planned Parenthood panel on “Abortion Stories,” Herndon-De La Rosa stands and asks whether women with mixed feelings about their abortions should join storytelling campaigns. “I know so many post-abortive women, some who are okay with, but some who aren’t,” she says. If their stories are at all troubling, should they stay quiet? The moderator, defensive and confused, deflects. Another woman in the audience paraphrases Herndon-De La Rosa’s question: Does a woman who regrets her abortion belong in this room? The moderator concedes, “Every experience is different.”

While we have coffee in the convention center lobby, a grateful witness introduces herself. Coco, who chairs Planned Parenthood Southeast’s young professionals group, wants to thank Herndon-De La Rosa for daring to broach a subject with which Southern women disproportionately struggle. “It becomes propaganda when we only allow women to tell positive stories about abortion,” Herndon-De La Rosa says, and Coco nods knowingly.

Jamecia Gray, a 25-year-old from Miami, isn’t interested in pro-life feminism and tends to side with Planned Parenthood. “They probably paid for my scholarship, so I’m thankful,” she says, referring to the fact that she and almost 1,000 other applicants were invited to the convention free of charge. But, she adds, “When most people hear reproductive justice, they think of white women and Planned Parenthood.” The same goes for the Women’s March, too: “The Women’s March has a lot of resources. And it’s filled with a lot of white faces. These are privileged folks who have the means to get here,” Gray observes. If she had paid to attend the convention, she would be disappointed by the lack of diversity.

The breakout session “Confronting White Womanhood” was so popular that a second session is convened. It is an examination of the various evils white women have inflicted throughout history, many of them—it seems—by a miscarriage of good intentions. “Outside, the white women were really upset,” recalls Gray, who’d been standing nearby when the first session filled up. “They were white women-ing, they were complaining that they’d paid this money, and they couldn’t get in.”

Sophie Ellman-Golan, who leads the two sessions, begins with a confusing story about telling off a deliriously drunk black man for manspreading—i.e., having his legs wide enough apart to take up multiple seats on public transportation. The man proceeded to expose himself in retaliation against her scold, and the rest of the passengers on the subway car rushed to shield her from his lurching half-nakedness. The lesson, she says, was that she should have left him alone because, “If he’d been arrested, that would’ve been on me.”

Following Ellman-Golan’s lead, we break off into little groups and confess our own microaggressions. A local husband and wife tell my circle they regret not befriending a black woman who’d recently moved out of their building—although, to be fair, the husband adds, they’ve never been more than cordial with any of their neighbors. A young woman from Indiana owns up to having traveled with a church group to Central America, where, as a typical white girl volun-tourist, she played with orphans during the day and retired to a comfortable hotel every evening. Deciding silence would be more conspicuous, I volunteer that in my interviews so far this weekend I’d asked minorities, more often than not, to spell their names a second time.

The old unsettled problem of what, other than skin color, makes a minority in America rises at the end of another session—this one “Confronting Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy.” This is a lengthy discussion of Bannonite bigotry, but little else. A disappointed Elyssa Schmier gets up to prod the fat flank of the “elephant in the room.” “I’m an intersectional feminist, and I am Jewish. I’m not going to leave my Judaism at the door,” she announces to raucous applause. “The anti-Israel movement on the left is huge. Some of those people are anti-Israel, but some of those people are anti-Jewish,” Schmier tells me later on, recalling the offenses of the “Bernie bros” on social media. Schmier’s challenge, like Herndon-De La Rosa’s, won more welcome from activists in the audience than from the panel moderators. Several women afterward thanked her for her intervention. “If it doesn’t change, Jewish Democrats are going to leave the party!” Schmier says to a new friend.

It is, after all, the future of the Democratic party that was meant to be on our minds all weekend. But the grassroots left and the Democratic establishment don’t look toward a common future. If we’re to judge by panel attendance, the average conventioneer worries more about what we can do to be less microaggressively white in our daily lives than about getting out the vote in the Trump-friendly Rust Belt.

Emily Kaufman, a senior majoring in women’s studies at the University of Michigan, made the trip from Ann Arbor in large part to attend a session organized by the women-focused political fundraising group EMILY’s List. Kaufman, who is transgender, noticed the weekend’s dearth of trans-specific offerings: There was just one event, “Not All Pussies Are Pink, And Not All Women Have Pussies,” which she would not attend, noting how its playful title made light of the profound. “It’s like it’s just a hat, but it’s not,” she says.

And, besides, Kaufman, who hopes to run for office in the not-too-distant future, ought to be thinking about what she can say to the women of EMILY’s List to secure herself a spot on their radar. The night before, she tells me, revelers complimented her convincing costume, having mistaken her for a man dressed in a skirt and heels for Halloween. That’s perfect, I tell her: When you want to close with this crowd, nothing works quite like a microaggression.

Alice B. Lloyd is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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