Women’s Movements Are Facing Internal Divisions. History Shows That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

Women’s voices — their anger, their protest, their pain — have moved to the center of the national conversation in the United States. The extraordinary Women’s Marches kicked off 2017, bringing millions of women into the streets to demonstrate. At the end of the year, this magazine chose The Silence Breakers — the women, and some men, who helped expose the pernicious and pervasive nature of sexual assault and harassment — as 2017’s Person of the Year. Now, 2018 heralds a record number of women entering the political fray themselves, running for elective office at all levels of government.

Yet in the wings lurk of discontent and talk of dissension within these newly-hatched women’s movements. Reports of leadership fissures and breakaway factions are triggering alarm.

Just as the anniversary women’s marches were preparing to set off in late January, news coverage focused on disputes about vision, goals and tactics had split the March movement, creating two separate groups: Women’s March, Inc. and March On. There were promises of cooperation but whiffs of ill will between the groups.

Likewise, the #MeToo movement has suffered some recent splintering, as disagreements over crowd-sourced allegations, due process, proportionality and punishment has divided dedicated feminists, igniting some nasty firestorms on social media.

This development might seem disheartening to advocates. But, if history is any guide, it might actually be the very best thing for them. This sort of movement-mitosis appears to be an essential element in the natural physiology of social justice campaigns.

Many of history’s most transformative social and civil rights movements have undergone this fracture, stemming from discord over ideology, strategy and methods. The breaking point has often been whether to adopt aggressive or even violent measures to achieve the goal. It’s happened in every reform movement from abolition to temperance to labor reform in the 19th century, and continued in the woman suffrage, civil rights, environmental, gay rights — and even animal rights — movements of the 20th and 21st centuries.

These civil wars can be ugly, angry, costly affairs, breaking carefully built organizations into warring camps, tearing apart colleagues and coalitions. It’s painful and messy, emotionally and financially draining. But it may be vital. Rather than crippling the movement, splits may actually make it stronger, more resilient, and ultimately more effective. Read more

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