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The women leading social justice movements—and the forces holding them back

//Amy E. Brown, Kelsey Lansing and Jeanette Vizguerra. Photo of Brown by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com. Other photos provided by Lansing and Vizguerra.

Women of color have always been at the forefront of social movements throughout history, from racial injustice to economic inequality to reproductive health. 

But like corporate America, sports, tech, and other industries, the activism space has its own battles with the glass ceiling of the patriarchy. When we look at civil rights organizing through history, women of color have served as organizers and have been key leaders in movements against race-based and gender-based oppression. However, these contributions have often been overlooked or seen as supporting roles to men, increasing the narrative that men are more effective leaders.

“Movements for racial justice have often framed the question of equality as one that could be answered by men,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. “The damaging impact of the oversimplified version of the civil rights story is that it has convinced many people that male leaders are a prerequisite for social movements. This is simply untrue.” 

Social movements are more effective when led by women, according to research conducted in 2019 by Erica Chenoweth, a political science professor at Harvard. Chenoweth’s research highlights how women lead nonviolent movements and their acute sense of the impactful ways to create social change.

“The first documented incidents of non-violent resistance in North America were by Iroquois women in the 16th century who demanded a right to veto war declarations. So they refused to harvest crops and feed the men, and refused to make the moccasins until they earned that right from tribal leaders,” Chenoweth explained. “We have a lot of examples of women actually exploiting their gendered roles to build social power.”

Chenoweth’s research, based on a cross-national study of revolutionary movements from 1945 to 2014, also proves that movements with women at high levels of leadership are more likely to succeed. This is credited to women’s understanding of the barriers underrepresented groups face and a decreased presence of violence under their leadership. The connection between women and non-violence is an important differentiator to movements often spearheaded by men.

 “When there are high numbers of women participating, the movement is more likely to maintain non-violent discipline,” Chenoweth said. 

Chenoweth found that women activists and members of the LGBTQ+ community are generally more involved in movements that aren’t driven through violence and are also more likely to drop out of a movement when it is. Commonly underrepresented individuals are more likely to gravitate toward a movement where they feel safe and can see themselves represented. More people in a movement organizing together for a cause is a key attribute to its success.

So why have women continued to be pushed aside if they are the right people for the job? Three women fighting for civil rights in Colorado share how they’ve seen the patriarchy and white supremacy hold women of color back in the activism space. 

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Amy E. Brown—Co-Founder, Black Lives Matter 5280

In 2020, we saw millions of Americans rallying against racial injustice at the hands of police to make their voices heard, and Black women lead the charge. A Denver native, Amy E. Brown is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter 5280 and a community organizer in the Mile High City. She has led protests and continues to fight for the resources and support from elected officials that the Black community needs.

Why do you think women of color make effective leaders in the social justice movement space?

Toxic masculinity is real and it’s dangerous. Like white supremacy, it’s not the fish in the tank but the water around them. Toxic masculinity can bleed into movements in very dangerous ways. I’ve experienced that and that’s why there is a BLM 5280, because of the ways the patriarchy and white supremacy made Black women and the queer community feel unsafe in activist spaces. 

I can only speak for Black women. I can’t speak for my Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian sisters. But Black women sit at this intersection of white supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy. Anything that hits a black man once is going to hit us twice. Anything that hits a white woman once is going to hit us five times because we’re doubly impacted. A white friend of mine told me she wished Black people didn’t have to do any of this and I should be able to be at home enjoying my life. But my life depends on this work and we can’t leave these movements for other people to lead. Historically, when we’ve left being in charge to cis-hetero men or allies it’s turned into a dumpster fire that has often been harmful. It’s our lives that depend on this work and women are impacted by every change that is and isn’t made.

I think Black women are able to come together collectively and inclusively without the impact of the toxic masculinity ego. The importance of intersectionality with our allies isn’t threatening to us in ways that it has been stumbling blocks for [cisgendered] male leaders. And as much as we don’t want to be harmed in the streets, we also don’t want or deserve to be harmed in movement spaces by male leaders who haven’t done the work to check toxic masculinity and the patriarchy.

 

Kelsey Lansing—Cultural Outreach Coordinator II at Durango’s Sexual Assault Services Organization

A member of the Near Water Clan and the Salt Clan of the Navajo tribe, Kelsey Lansing was recently recognized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center as the 2020 Colorado winner of its Visionary Voice Award for her work with Native women. For Native women, violence can be an all-too-common occurrence. While reducing such tragedies is a challenge for any demographic group, it has proven to be more so in Indigenous communities. Lansing is no stranger to the barriers women of color face in our society and she fights daily to bring justice to a group of women who aren’t given the respect they deserve.

Why do you think women of color make effective leaders in the social justice movement space?

Native American women, in general, are not valued. This is unfortunate because the majority of Colorado is full of different tribes and so often we’re swept under the rug even though we’re a big representation of the state. Native American women, like other women of color, have tough skin and it’s an important characteristic for leadership. Especially when you’re dealing with a population that might not accept you being in a position of leadership. Women of color face this often and we’re always having to work twice as hard to prove our worth. And it sucks because then we’re seeing our counterparts not working as hard or [not] having to jump through as many hoops. I’ve seen so many Native women in the community trying to bring justice and push forward awareness but their work is torn apart or attacked, ultimately halting change from happening. This creates a sense of impostor syndrome within women.

But a positive thing I’ve seen is women of color are recognizing the strength they have and how that can benefit their communities. We’re pushing forward and creating beautiful changes for society. We’re not out here to get revenge on those who have wronged us but instead are focused on how together we can reach our end goals.

 

Jeanette Vizguerra—Activist and Leader of Sanctuary4All

Jeanette Vizguerra immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. in 1997 to flee the violence and danger in her city. She started off working as a janitor and when she wasn’t cleaning for her employer, she was often working as an outspoken union organizer. During this time she started building her own business before becoming an advocate for immigration reform. This was a risky thing for Jeanette, due to her status as an undocumented immigrant. After fighting off deportation for eight years, she decided to go public with her story and sought refuge in the basement of a Denver church. She became the face for immigration rights in Colorado and is currently leading the organization Sanctuary4All, which is dedicated to supporting and advocating for the immigrant community of Colorado through mutual aid, media work, political advocacy, and non-violent direct action.

*Jeanette Vizguerra’s interview was conducted with support from an interpreter. 

Why do you think women of color make effective leaders in the social justice movement space?

Historically we’ve seen that toxic masculinity is heavily [entangled] in different cultures and men are treated with higher regard than their female counterparts because of this. Along with this, we see a lot of women leaders are stepping up and we see that because women are recognizing they are the pillars in their families. Women are recognizing the strength they have and how that can benefit their communities. 

In particular, women of color have frequently suffered from discrimination, therefore, they understand truly the experiences others are going through and better know how to take action to fix different issues. They bring expertise that men will never have.

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