Women and Children First

Almost 18 years ago, on a sunny Mother’s Day, about a quarter of a million people converged on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Provoked by a shooting at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center in 1999, the march spawned satellite events throughout the country in that year, and on the first anniversary the following May.

Fifteen years later, following the brutal murder of young Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, three young black women created a hashtag and a movement that now spans the country and models an innovative, de-centered way of doing political organizing. The leadership of Black Lives Matter remains predominantly young and female.

Cut to 2017. The Women’s Marches—led by a multicultural team of women activists—galvanized the opposition to the new president, bringing out millions in hundreds of U.S. cities and on every continent. Rinse and repeat for this year’s anniversary marches—and the continued organizing through a strong nationwide network of local “huddles” and savvy coalition-building—that came on the heels of the star-studded launch of a #TimesUp campaign against sexual harassment led by women in Hollywood (and inspired by the #MeToo movement founded over a decade ago by Tarana Burke).

And now, in the bleak winter of 2018—following yet another mass shooting by, yes, yet another young white man—it once again falls to women and young people of all genders to do the hard work of social justice. Spurred on by the tragedy of losing 17 of their classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students took to the streets and the corridors of legislative power, calling for walk-outs and strikes and action, finally, on gun law reform. Undeterred by attacks on their character broadcast by Fox News and right-wing conspiracy theories claiming traumatized activists are paid actors, their immediate pivot from grief to organizing has captivated a nation beaten down by bad news and eager for energetic leadership. Unsurprisingly, the Women’s March immediately lent its support and expertise and launched the #Enough National School Walkout scheduled for later this month.

Whether in the Fight for $15, the defense of DACA and the Dreamers or organizing for the rights of domestic workers, women—often young women and more often than not women of color—have been in the leadership of modern movements for intersectional social justice. These are not the fantasies of a fervent feminist. These are just the facts.

September 2017 March for Racial Justice in Washington, D.C. (Karla Cote / Creative Commons)

Women and children first has always been a sort of sideways insult—a statement implying that the most vulnerable go to the head of the line when tragedy strikes. We’ve all seen films where gallant men ferry helpless women and toddlers to the lifeboat before they allow themselves to jump in and row to safety, or help women out of burning building as they themselves perish in the flames.

But that lazy paternalism has never been an accurate accounting of so-called male gallantry, because only some (white) women and their white children were ever thought worthy of being saved. If ever there was a pedestal for women, it was always a small and precarious one—available for very few and liable to be pulled out with the slap of his hand. What kind of a “first in line” results in less pay and more harassment? And the myth of revered and protected children is equally fictitious, given that historically most children have been treated as expendable property of (male) owners and are more likely to experience abuse and violence at the hands of their “protectors” than at the hands of strangers or peers. Ditto for women.

This false but persistent cultural myth of “women and children first” has now been turned on its head. The failure of largely male, old, and white national leadership been made shockingly clear, and the nauseating revelations of the #MeToo movement show that the only thing women are first in line for is abuse and harassment. Now, women and children are indeed taking their rightful places on the front line—in the various and variegated and growing movements against violence and for a more equitable social order.

While this is not news to any historian of social movements, what is new is that young people and women are loudly and boldly declaring their leadership and refusing to be shuttled into the sidelines. To hear the voice of a young woman assuming a mantle of leadership without deference or hesitation, just listen to the heartbreaking words of Emma Gonzalez, 18-year-old Parkland survivor. To bear witness to the phenomena, simply observe the young women manifesting intersectional feminism and forming creative coalitions to dig deep into the body politic—from Twitter to the streets.

These young people, these women, are our best hope. They are leaning in like nobody’s business—if, by “leaning in,” we mean challenging the vectors of violence, corporate greed, sexism and racism that undergird our declining democracy. Perhaps it is time for those who have assumed they know the answers—those who invented the very fiction of “women and children first” —to lean way out and concede its new definition.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of Sociology and Director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

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