Lily Herman is a contributing editor for Refinery29. The views expressed are her own.
Which badass lady is it going to be? I thought when I saw the news. But the big-name draw tapped to address the thousands of women traveling to Detroit later this month isn’t a woman — it’s U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Adding insult to injury was the explanation for the pick provided by organizer Tamika Mallory: "I think that right now, no one can deny that Bernie Sanders is probably one of the most powerful U.S. senators...on progressive issues, women’s issues, mobilizing millennials,” Mallory told USA Today. “He is really in line with the principles of the Women's March.”
After I picked my jaw up from the floor (where it had been sitting for several minutes), the first words I yelled were, “Are you goddamn kidding me?!” Based on the responses to the @WomensMarch announcement tweet and the just-launched petition to remove Sanders from the line-up, I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way.
But let’s stop wasting time here and jump straight to the multitude of reasons why this pick is Not Good™.
1. This event is literally called the “Women’s Convention,” so it’d be nice to see, you know, women in the spotlight.
We have all had a tough week when it comes to women’s issues. Donald Trump rolled back the birth control mandate, BuzzFeed published a story about men in tech and media who are actively helping white supremacists target women and femmes online, and Harvey Weinstein was finally publicly exposed for decades of sexual harassment and assault.
This has led to days of broader conversations about men in power trying to take away women’s agency, conversations that have also focused on the people who are helping those men do that. Thus, it was probably not the time to announce a gathering for women where a powerful man will literally tell a room of young ambitious women that he’s the one who can offer wisdom. On top of that, the argument that Bernie Sanders is a champion or trailblazer of women’s rights is questionable at best and doesn’t hold up; after all, he supported an anti-choice candidate running for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska and then accused the Democratic Party of not being “pragmatic enough” with candidates who had different views. That’s rich coming from Sanders.
“But men need to be involved in these conversations!” people have argued. Uh, does that have to mean literally handing over the mic to a dude? Men should be listening to women on how they can be the best allies, not telling them how they can be better. And in excitedly giving the spotlight over to Sanders as the conference’s big player, Women’s Convention organizers are actively complicit in the very thing they claim to be against: Taking away an opportunity from marginalized groups like women, people of color, and young folks.
It seems I need to talk about representation yet again: Women make up only 19.6 percent of Congress and only between 20 to 25 percent of all state government seats. Only four women have ever sat on the Supreme Court. And as we all know far too well, politics is far from the only field where women are vastly underrepresented and undermined at every turn. So in the midst of those dismal numbers and the fact that women need to fight tooth and nail just to be heard, it’s downright embarrassing that an organization that claims to lift up women can’t find a damn woman to open its marquee event. That takes me to point number two...
Men should be listening to women on how they can be the best allies, not telling them how they can be better.
2. I have an obvious question: Were there seriously no women who could headline this thing?
The Women’s March told Refinery29 in a statement that more progressive stalwarts like Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris weren’t available to attend the conference, nor was Hillary Clinton. “Our program features more than 60 women leading in activism, organizing and advocacy, as well as grassroots leaders running for and serving in office across the country,” the statement continued. “We are excited to come together, to unite across our differences and to fight for the future we all believe in.”
But if organizers really wanted a politician who’s inspiring and uniting Democrats for the headline speaking slot, there’s a slew of big names currently in office who are voting against Trump’s policies at similar (and in many cases, better) rates to Sanders: Tammy Baldwin, Patty Murray, Barbara Lee, Yvette Clarke, Pramila Jayapal, the list goes on and on. Maxine Waters is already speaking at the event, but why wasn’t she considered for this opening speaker billing?
And if somehow every single one of these women were absolute no’s, this could’ve been an incredible opportunity for the Women’s Convention team to find a woman they consider an up-and-coming political star and give her the floor (Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, for example, is running for governor in Michigan, the state where the conference is being held). What a cool statement to send to the world: We’re not going to wait for you to tell us who to vote for, we’re giving you that candidate. Damn, sign me up for that conference.
3. Bernie Sanders headlining yet another major liberally-skewed event makes me say something I’ve mentioned a million times before: There are grave issues if your entire movement is centered around a single person.
The Democrats (moderates, progressives, and everyone in between) have a serious pipeline problem, and it’s not helping matters that the same 76-year-old white dude who’s been in political office for over three decades keeps getting carted out at every single one of these major events as the big game-changer. At this point, it seems like your event isn’t considered legit or progressive enough unless Sanders is a speaker. That is wildly problematic.
Sure, it made a little more sense right after the election and maybe even six months ago to bring Sanders out a lot. But we’re less than a year away from primaries for a lot of major races at the state and federal level, and this is the only person who’s supposedly “galvanizing the movement”? I don’t care about his popularity; I see it as stalled progress if it’s been a year since the election and we still don’t have a wider net of people deemed “worthy” enough to speak on these issues or inspire voters to take on liberal causes. That’s on everybody to fix.
The fact of the matter is, there was a lot that could’ve been done with such a huge opportunity. There are so many women who could’ve taken that stage and truly inspired and empowered a group of their peers into action. I’d hate to break it to Women’s Convention organizers and everyone who keeps inviting the same guy to these events, but he’s quickly becoming status quo. Do better. I’d gladly bet on a woman any day.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Glamour, Allure, TIME, Newsweek, Fast Company, and Mashable. Follow her on Twitter.