Women of Color War on Women

Reflections from a Woman of Color on the War on Women: “My Sisters-in-Arms, We Are Not United”

Yesterday, I took part in the MA Women United Against the War on Women rally at Boston City Hall. 

Across the US, thousands of men, women and children gathered in front of municipal buildings to voice their outrage at recent state and federal initiatives to propose and/or implement anti-women measures, including the GOP’s attempt to redefine rape, making abortions illegal or virtually inaccessible to low-income women, and removing government mandates for companies to include birth control coverage in the health insurance they offer to employees.

Despite the fact that it took challenging the white women organizers to include more women of color in their speaker lineup — as a little birdie told me — I was honored to be invited to participate, and share the stage with fellow women’s rights activists and feminists, Jaclyn Friedman, Sarah Jackson, @graceishuman, Idalia, and even Norma Swenson, reknowned author of the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I found myself thinking about the concept of “unity,” and the fact that so many women of color, immigrants, transgender women etc are often left out of mainstream women’s movements. But this isn’t news to me, nor to my mentors separated from my experience by four whole decades — mentors who fought so that I would have something different to say to white women “united” for (white) women. It breaks my heart to tell them that we’re still having the same conversations after all their sacrifices.

Hence, for the rally, I decided to have an honest conversation about marginalization with the crowd via a call-and-response speech I partly improvised. Here’s the message I gave, in poem-ish form.

Post-Rally Reflection: To speak from a place of anger doesn’t always mean to speak from a place that is without love. How emotional I became when speaking to the rally yesterday has everything to do with how much I love my comrades of all shades and stripes, fellow women, my sisters-in-arms. And their response to my calling out to them, “My Sisters in Arms” with “We Are Listening” helped me through my anger to the other side… hope.


When I was younger, I dreamed of being part of a revolution.

I imagined it would feel very much like it did in the movies, like Braveheart for instance:

Mel Gibson riding back and forth on horseback, pumping his fist in the air
as he inspired the army before him to FIGHT for their freedom,
we would win this war together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Like every big budget Hollywood movie,
I’d be the handsome, mysterious, emotionally constipated protagonist
who never really wanted to fight,
but live happily ever after in the same village of my beautiful virgin wife-to-be…

until one day,
the fight came to me

and wiped away the smiles of my love, my family, my home.

Only THEN, would I charge forth, my spirit consumed by purposeful rage
and the moment — the moment I’d dreamed of having my entire life — would arrive…

the epic war speech.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Yes, like Braveheart, my heart would be re-forged in stone; I would feel a bond with my comrades united in arms (and social media channels) like I’d never felt before.

And in that moment, against the violins and horns of a moving Hans Zimmer film score,
in the faces of all my sisters standing before me,
I would remember:

the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about me,
the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about them
but about US.

We would stand UNITED against whatever forces dared to oppose us,
and charge forth together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

But the revolution hasn’t quite turned out like the Hollywood movie I’d imagined it would be.
For one, it actually never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be riding a horse.

Mel Gibson turned out to be one of the biggest bigots of all time.
And sexual assault has caused too much pain to the women I love to perpetuate the idea that virginity is a prize to be won,
not when rape is still being used as a mass weapon of war.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

It’s true, the revolution hasn’t quite turned out the way I dreamed it would be,
it never occurred to me
that battle after battle,
rally after rally,
I would find myself standing in front of a sea of white women who don’t look like me,
having to keep reminding them that:

United we stand, Divided we fall.
United we stand, Divided we fall

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I know why we’re here.
There is a war on women happening,
We’re angry — and we’ve had enough.
On that we agree.

But today, I want to make sure we do more than just agree.
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to our subconscious definition of “we”
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to who is missing.

Look around you, my Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I ask you to consider,
is the women’s movement making a stand, or falling into pieces?
Are we uniting through our differences so that we can be stronger?
Or reaching for something way less grand,
with way less hands,
hoping that our “good intentions” will pay off if we just wait a little longer?

Which members of this army — of our family — are missing?

Where are the voices of low income women of color?
Where are the voices of transgender women?
Where is the rest of our family?

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

This women’s movement shouldn’t just voice the concerns of women who are pissed
that they may have to pay for birth control out-of-pocket,
but the concerns of low-income women who would have no access to birth control, period
because they rely completely on government-mandated coverage,
I know you agree, but…

My Sisters-in-Arms, are you listening?
(We Are Listening!)

we cannot profess to be building a movement for ALL women,
we cannot claim that we are UNITED against anything — especially not a war on women
when too many women of color, transgender women, women with disabilities — members of our family, are missing.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

When we picture the women’s movement what faces do we see?
What voices do we hear?
And are they reflected in our choices? In our larger strategy?
Are transgender women a part of this movement?
Have we done our jobs to make that clear?

If so, where is the outrage when transgender women are murdered at an alarming rate in this country?
Where is the feminist takedown when — even in death — the media refers to our trans sisters with male pronouns and the media suggests that their very existence warranted their assault and murder?

Too many transgender women are being left behind.
Too many members of our family are dying.
Too many members of our family are being  tortured and incarcerated, simply for surviving,
Just because we’re too busy “uniting” to look behind.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

You must do better.
We must do better.

If I’ve learned anything about real-life revolutions
it’s that they sometimes can take on the form of the war you’re fighting.
it’s that it matters less what you’re fighting for, but who is fighting with you

The War on Women needs to mean more than reproductive justice for middle class white women.
The War on Women needs to mean more than the debate over abortion and birth control.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism on women of color and our sons.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism, sexism, and homophobia on transgender women of color.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of un-checked privilege and ignorance within  our movement.
The War between Women is real.

And until we can be brave enough to face the truth —
that we have to END the war over who counts as “women” amongst ourselves
we are NOT united.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are NOT united, yet.
But I know we can get there.

I believe in you, my Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I know we can get there.
And so I dare to dream of the day
when I can finally show up to rallies and protests
and not have to say,
“Where are my sisters?”
but “Here are my sisters, united.”

I dare to dream of the day when we can all feel the impact of true sisterhood
and unleash the power of sisters-in-arms, united,
against those who dare to challenge our quest for liberation.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I believe in us.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are not united, now.
Let’s do the work, now
To make sure that one day, we will be.

And when that day comes,

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!)

God help them.

Spectra is an award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks, which publishes global news and opinions about all things gender, media, diversity, and the Diaspora.

She is also the founder of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (www.qwoc.org), a media advocacy and publishing organization that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender women of color, diaspora, and other racial/ethnic minorities around the world.

Follow her tweets on diversity, movement-building, and love as a revolution on Twitter @spectraspeaks.

  • http://www.twitter.com/meadowgirl meadowgirl

    you are amazing. this is beautiful. i’m happy to say the Tx event was attended by all sorts of human beings. made me proud to see more than just nice white people. :)

  • http://tigergray.blogspot.com/ Tiger Gray

    Yeah, so. I cried. 

  • Idalia

    Absolutely beautiful, hilarious, inspiring, badass and hopeful all at once. I can’t believe I had pleasure of witnessing  you deliver this in person.  Sigh…too good. 

    Also….ahem, any video of this perchance? :) 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Renee-Davis/812294762 Renee Davis

    While I understand what you are saying and agree completely that women of all races and sexual orientation should be included I think it is unfair to say that this is the fault of the organizers. This group was only formed ten weeks ago and the fact that 54 rallies and marches were held across the country on the 28th is a HUGE and tremendous ordeal to accomplish. There was a conscious effort to reach out to ALL communities in our states and to be inclusive of everyone. It is true that not everyone has access to the internet and many thousands and thousands of women and men tried to reach out through other means as well. Perhaps we should work together to make sure that this women’s movement is absolutely inclusive of all by having strong, intelligent and passionate women like yourself work with us to reach those who in the past have been marginalized in previous women’s movements. As we move forward it is very important that all women are included in this fight because it effects all of us. I can truly say though that organizers all over this country truly and absolutely want to continue to build a diverse group of women (and men) of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and religious association who agree with the mission of UniteWomen.org and believe that women’s rights are being eroded and challenged in this country. I ask you to please stand with together with us and help us reach these diverse communities in your states and cities so that all voices can be heard.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Renee, thank you for your comment, and for engaging in what seems to be a very difficult conversation for people to have. Trust me when I say that I understand how much work goes into planning events like this, and how disheartening it must be to look back at your work and hear criticism in spite of your efforts. But with all due respect your disagreement with the piece I wrote really misses the point. 

      This isn’t about you, or any other organizer, or protest. It seems you perceived the focus of my piece to laying blame on the organizers for failing; I was critiquing the landscape, not anyone in particular. And moreover, I was calling for ALL of us to be better about thinking about who is missing from our spaces, hence the dozens of times the word “we” appears in my piece. 

      2) Even if I was solely blaming the organizers — and yes, they, we, all of us with some kind of privilege (be it race, sex, gender presentation, sexual orientation etc) — are to blame when members of the group in which we have privilege say that they don’t feel welcome/connected to the work.

      The suggestion that marginalized communities (who by the way ARE WORKING, VERY HARD on issues they care about) drop all what they have to “unite” at YOUR protest for the sake of a women’s movement that hasn’t made it a priority to build relationships with them until now, completely misses the point. 

      I’m a community organizer. I know how SO very hard it is to plan events with little to no support, no money, limited resources etc. Yet, the JOY of my work is the year-round time I dedicate to building RELATIONSHIPS with communities I care about so that when I host ANYTHING, I don’t even need to do so much work inviting them; they’re harassing me asking me how they can help. THAT is true solidarity. 

      It is not okay for the “women’s movement” to declare what all our issues our and then rally around them, and then be SO surprised when marginalized WOMEN — women of color, transgender people, women with disabilities, immigrant women, gender non-conforming people who ARE affected by the work you’re doing — don’t show up. It’s very easy to talk about a “movement” and picture one big body without thinking more critically about how we each as individuals are the drivers. The truth is, as a community organizer, activist, politician etc, if you don’t do the work year-round — when there’s no war, no battle, no protest to plan — then when it’s TIME for the war, the battle, the protest, it will show. 

      So, in essence, my piece — which again, addressed everyone, including you as my “sisters” — is calling for women everywhere to take a long hard look at who is around them. I shouldn’t have to CONSTANTLY be asked to leave my community, my own work to “take a seat at the table.” Women with privilege (which includes white women, able-bodied women, etc again, including me) should do the work to engage in other people’s work so that we can all truly unite when it counts, because we’ve gotten to know each other; and because we love each other. 

      At the heart of this piece I wrote is love. But I won’t mince words with anyone attempting to re-focus or re-center the narrative. The piece called for the women’s movement (and individuals who support it, who care about it and want to see it grow) to create safer spaces for transgender women; to rally and be JUST AS OUTRAGED when transgender women of color are murdered, and in the rare event that they survive, face imprisonment because of racism and sexism in this country. THAT is a women’s issue, but there’s something to be said when people aren’t motivated enough to plan rallies around that, or to even amplify the news around that. 

      Again, I really appreciate your comment. I’m happy to have a frank conversation about how we can build stronger relationships between intersecting communities, so that we can move forward; I didn’t write this piece to field defensive comments about how many hours people put in. We’re all working. Okay, so let’s talk about how we can occasionally meet in the lunch room, and how it shouldn’t always have to mean that I leave my table to come sit at yours. I hope you read this comment, follow the links I included, and take it upon yourself as a women’s activist to learn more about different kinds of “woman” experiences in this country, and figure out how you can start building relationships to stay more connected to them. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Renee-Davis/812294762 Renee Davis

         Spectra completely understand and agree with what you are saying. We all need to work more in every community to understand the issues and perspectives of all women. I do understand the difficulty when it comes to these issues. I have written many research papers on this very topic and understand the complexities as well as having personally spent over 20 years working to bridge, include, and bring together many women of all races, sexual orientations, religions, and political ideologies to help bridge the divide that exists. I fully agree that this is something we all have to work hard in doing and UniteWomen.org will continue to make every effort humanly possible to do just this. I will gladly come to your table any day Spectra full of love and a desire to understand and support. I look forward to reading more of your articles. Peace and Love.

  • Iris Matos

    I noticed at the Ohio rally that there were few women of color (not none, just few).  As a woman of color, I felt like I had let us all down by not speaking up during our organizational months to bring this issue to the forefront.  I have committed myself to working towards achieving more representative participation in our voices as we move forward. We are a young organization, still learning as we go.

    One thing I know I need to do is to educate myself on ALL of the issues facing ALL women and have begun to do so.  This article has shown me how much I still need to learn and opened my eyes to issues I did not even know existed.  It has also shown me that “if you build it, they will come” only goes so far.  We have to work to reach different segments of the population and speak for those who cannot (or will not) speak for themselves. Thank you for that. 

    With this new perspective, I will move onward and upward. I promise to not let us down again.

  • http://twitter.com/U4ERA2015 U4E

    As a feminist and supporter of Hillary Clinton, I would ask my sisters of color why so many claimed it was the man of color that had to be President now though he could have waited 8 years and the Dems would have held the White House for 16 years?  I was told over and over by black women for Obama that your allegiance was to your race first.  Your gender is secondary.  I was supposed to understand how you felt, but then do you understand how we feel?

    I met some brave black women on Hillary’s campaign who whispered how their families and friends deserted them because they chose to support Hillary vs Barack. They were blackballed, threatened and disowned for choosing to vote for a white woman.   One woman was afraid to go back home to Florida after working on the campaign.  Another woman had a dead rat put on her doorstep.

    The 2008 election taught me the side of this debate that is rarely discussed.  How much pressure, intimidation and anger there is in the black community to remain isolated from whites because your elders believe whites are all bad.  They insist that younger generations in the 21st Century must never forget that whitey is the enemy.

    How are you working to build unity and trust among your own community?  You don’t want to trust whites and yet continue to blame white women for ostracizing you!  The fact is that you choose not to participate with white women.  We aren’t all middle class and we aren’t all privileged.  Feminism is not owned by white women.  Anyone who believes women and men are equal as human beings is a feminist.  Period.

    It is certainly your choice to not trust white women, but then be OK with your choices.  You can’t have it both ways.  To continue to live in segregation when it is no longer legalized is by your choice. 

    If you refuse to visit and share your gifts of culture and sisterhood, then you will never have compassion for your white sisters who have suffered too.  And your white sisters cannot learn of your sorrow and pain towards our mutual enlightenment.  Certainly, you may continue to harbor hatred of white women, but your outcry of injustice then is self-inflicted.

    I hope you also choose to share your speech with the women who freely chose not to stand up for themselves and didn’t find the time or interest to join you in the March.   Those are women who also need to hear your plea for unity.

    In Sisterhood,
    Carolyn Cook  “United 4 Equality” 

    That is how you can build unity for it will take participation

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com/ Spectra Speaks

      Carolyn, your comments are really so off-base and derailing that I can’t be bothered to respond in-depth.

      I hope you cross paths with a white ally who will have more emotional capacity to educate you on your privilege (which by the way on this blog has taken the VERY typical form of derailing the argument to how ostracized ‘you’ feel).

      If your definition of unity is that I have to ‘suck it up’ and force myself to stay in white spaces where people like you tell me that my seeking to hold white women accountable is hatred, then I don’t want your kind of unity. There’s a healthier form of unity that I’ve found in my work, which includes white women, women of color, diaspora, immigrants, trans, and gender non-conforming people who share similar ideas that I prefer to stay focused on.

      Incidentally, the majority of my speech focused on the inclusion of transgender women — but it seems it’s too much to ask that you to stick to the topic at hand. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable for you to see the part you play in all of this which is why you would rather revert to defensiveness, pulling out rhetoric you’ve already prepared and have used time and time again to prevent you from taking a hard look at yourself?

      I don’t know. Only you can answer that. But take a look around at my blog (I doubt you did before you left a comment attacking my character / calling me hateful) — I don’t profess to claim one part of my identity over the other; I’m Nigerian, black, woman, queer, etc., but I certainly won’t stay silent if I find any part of my communities (plural, FYI) are being ostracized, systemically. (look that word up).

      There is no hatred on this blog, only a militant inclination to accountable progress, and I admit, an impatience for people who play victim (“oh you’re attacking us poor white women”) to avoid discussing real issues.

      I meant every word of my speech when I said “my sisters in arms.” We all get on each other’s nerves, don’t always understand each other, and could ALL be better. But we’re all in this together. However, when you tell me to keep my hatred and go back to building unity among ‘my’ community, you prove my point; you don’t see me as part of the community I’m fighting to make better. And it plays out, in your comments, and in this movement.

  • http://simplesavvy.wordpress.com/ SavvyChristine

    Wow, thank you!  I wish I had been there to hear the call and response and to see the reactions — and to feel them myself.  Just reading this, I teared up, especially during these stanzas:

    “it never occurred to me

    that battle after battle,

    rally after rally,

    I would find myself standing in front of a sea of white women who don’t look like me,

    having to keep reminding them that:

    United we stand, Divided we fall.
    United we stand, Divided we fall

    My Sisters-in-Arms…

    (We Are Listening!)”

  • http://www.facebook.com/coopchic.sweet Melissa Carson Cooper

    Hello, Spectra I want to thank you for this article because it spoke to me personally. I am the UniteWomen.org North Carolina State Director and feel you made a very valid point. Since I became state director I have made it a priority to focus on growth for our organization in a diverse way. I understand that women face a up hill battle when it come to women’s issues however, women of ethnicity, disability’s, or of the LGBT status are essentially a minority within a minority and they face a greater challenge. I acknowledge that there is an equality gap between feminists. It appears taboo to discuss it but it is there. This to me is our biggest issue because in reality we all want the same things but we are not truly united to achieve it. I am not very experienced in feminism, and activism but my passion and dedication is my true compass. I believe there is allot I could learn from you Spectra, and if there is any advice on how I can begin to bridge the gap I am all ears… Thank you, for speaking the the taboo truth…

    • Spectra

      @Julie, from your comments, this is obviously not the forum for you. I don’t permit derailing on my blog. You’ve clearly missed the point and are more interested in defensiveness vs truly considering how the actions of white feminists alienate and devalue the work women of color are *already* doing. All the best.

  • Pingback: Spectra: A Love Warrior Leading With Relationship Over Rhetoric | The Feminist Rag()

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