News | A moment or a movement?

Panel talks The Women’s March on Washington, intersectionality, privilege

On Thursday February 9, a group of students and community members gathered in Arts W-20 for a panel discussion focusing on the question, “Women’s March on Washington: a Moment or a Movement?”

Organised by McGill Students for Oxfam-Quebec, panelists included Shelley Clark, a professor of sociology at McGill, Gillian Sonin, one of the organizers of the National Women’s March in Canada, and Alia Hassan Cournol, one of the coordinators of, and spokeswoman for, the Montreal’s Women’s March.

The panel began by discussing the nature of the march, and whether they believed it was an isolated moment or the beginning of a movement.

During the talk, Sonin argued that the ‘or’ in “a moment or a movement” is detrimental to the image of the march, and emphasized why the march was both a moment and a movement.

The panel began by discussing the nature of the march, and whether they believed it was an isolated moment or the beginning of a movement.

“I believe that it was a big moment, clearly, it was the biggest demonstration in U.S. history,” she said. “[However] we are a coalition of women from coast to coast to coast who spent our days and nights in constant contact with one another to figure out how to mobilize that moment […]. That coalition in and of itself is a movement and that coalition exists and continues to exist and we still are in constant contact with one another to figure out what that movement is moving forward.”

“I believe that it was a big moment, clearly, it was the biggest demonstration in U.S. history.”

Cournol continued that, “It became a movement when we started understanding that a structure of political opportunity had opened. […] Donald Trump was the structure of political opportunity because he’s so misogynistic, because he’s so xenophobic, because he’s so racist, it all became political.”

The panel touched on the differences between the Women’s March in Washington D.C. and other protests. Both Sonin and Cournol identified the March’s intersectional approach as one of its strengths.

“That coalition in and of itself is a movement and that coalition exists and continues to exist and we still are in constant contact with one another to figure out what that movement is moving forward.”

“There has always been intersection in women’s movements but certain voices were not […] heralded and brought up as the leaders of these movements […]. There were definitely some groups that were omitted [at the Women’s March],” Sonin said. “It wasn’t perfect, but I think that holding something to perfection is a way to tear it down,” she added.

To contrast, she brought up the diversity within the national team of the U.S. Women’s March and claimed, “It was a moment of intersection for this movement, and that was a big theme for the march.”

“There has always been intersection in women’s movements but certain voices were not […] heralded and brought up as the leaders of these movements.”

Cournol identified her personal efforts to make sure the Montreal march was intersectional.

“Quebec has a long history of feminism, but a long history of white feminism […] I work in a community organization that is focused on anti-[racism] and islamophobia, so that’s why I jumped into the organization to have our speakers be as diverse as possible.”

Clark brought up the wide participation by men as a difference between the Women’s March and past marches. “I saw many more men at this march than usual, especially young men and when [the women] chanted, ‘My body, my choice,’ the men echoed equally loud, ‘Her body, her choice,’” she said. “Part of intersectionality is men. And we can’t overlook that.”

Clark also discussed why the march was termed a “women’s” march, as opposed to something more broad. “The U.S. as a country faced this decision between electing the first female president ever or someone who was proud and bragged about being a serial sexual assaulter. That contrast, that juxtaposition, was a great catalyst for people saying we’re going to put the issue [of women’s rights] front and centre.”

Sonin transitioned into discussing how the march has influenced action around different issues. “It created a culture of protest […] So when [Trump] announced the travel ban, protests were going on at all the airports and consulates, so it immediately created a culture of protest.”

“Quebec has a long history of feminism, but a long history of white feminism […] I work in a community organization that is focused on anti-[racism] and islamophobia, so that’s why I jumped into the organization to have our speakers be as diverse as possible.”

The panelists also discussed how the media reacted to the marches.

“We had six hundred thousand people marching in the Women’s March in D.C. and maybe 250,000 at Trump’s [inauguration] but all that got covered was just the numbers at his [inauguration] and his preposterous claim that there were 1.5 million people there,” said Clark.

She continued: “He managed nonetheless to control that media cycle […] I really think our media needs to become more savvy in not allowing [themselves] to fall into these kinds of traps because that then distracts from the other numbers and the other events going on.”

“Part of intersectionality is men. And we can’t overlook that.”

Sonin felt more positive about the media coverage because media outlets’ shock at the enormity of the protests was evident in the coverage.

“I came home from the march in Montreal and I turned on CNN and there were these photos and video of the marches happening across the U.S. and around the world. And it shocked the media so much that they didn’t even have necessarily a frame for what the story was going to be. They were just broadcasting the images […] It was this moment of catching the media off guard. They couldn’t tell the story for you. You got to tell it.”

During the question and answer period, Sonin responded to a question concerning what this movement means for Canada by condemning the attitude that the Canadian government is beyond reproach. “[There is] a lot of patting ourselves on the back,” she said, “[but] that’s a slippery slope to get into: to compare to what is worse so then you become stagnant.”

“It was this moment of catching the media off guard. They couldn’t tell the story for you. You got to tell it.”

She added that “I think what we need in Canada right now is to get out in the streets and demand that the liberal government live up to its promise of the rights that they have guaranteed to our Indigenous brothers and sisters.”

Cournol added a reminder aimed at encouraging action and mobilization through privilege: “Just remember one thing, you are here at McGill, you are in a place of privilege. And a lot of other young people around the world or even here in Montreal, they cannot be here. They don’t have the means.”


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