Back to top

A feminist blueprint for saving democracy in the US – and beyond

A group of women link arms, shielding protestors from armed security forces who stand ready to detain them. Thousands of women, many dressed head to toe in white and holding flowers, line the streets in “chains of solidarity”.

These are the “Women in White”, who have mobilized in unprecedented numbers in Belarus, calling for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko after his disputed re-election this August.

Belarus offers a cautionary tale. It’s a story of an authoritarian leader who rigged an election, claiming to have secured 80% of the vote. When people rose up in protest, he cracked down through widespread police brutality and the arrest of thousands of peaceful protestors.

Here in the US, it’s no secret that Trump has been laying the groundwork for shady election maneuvers. He has consistently cast doubt on the validity of mail-in ballots and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Trump has shown willingness to use violence, deploying federal troops to suppress non-violent protests for racial justice in Washington, DC and Portland. And he has emboldened an armed, white supremacist base in urging the Proud Boys to “stand by and stand back”. These are loud and clear warning signs of the risks this November brings

The end of Belarus’s story has not yet been written, and neither has ours. We can take a page from their book and from the history of pro-democracy, feminist activism worldwide. It may be the key to saving our democracy here at home.

Step one – if Trump blocks vote counting or refuses to step down – is to urgently mobilize a peaceful, people-powered resistance movement. Non-violence is a hallmark of women-led, feminist organizing; indeed, up to 70% of non-violent movements between 2010 and 2014 included the significant presence of women.

The data is clear: this tactic works. Research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan shows that between 1900 and 2015, non-violent campaigns were nearly twice as effective as violent campaigns. In part, that’s because if security forces meet peaceful protest with violence, they often trigger an indignant, popular reaction, thereby expanding the protest movement.

In April 2019, Algeria’s “Hirak” movement opposed Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to seek a fifth term, successfully ending his 20-year reign of the country. There, women were highly visible at the forefront of organizing.

Protestors maintained a steadfast commitment to non-violence, chanting “Silmiya” (“peaceful”) as a rallying cry, handing out flowers at demonstrations and even injecting a bit of humor – bringing houseplants to protests to “get watered” when police threatened to fire water cannons.

Step two is to usher in mass participation in protests through an inclusive approach that unifies people across many identities, while centering the demands of marginalized communities.

Campaigns with significant women’s representation tend to be much larger – and ultimately more successful. When so many people mobilize, it becomes harder for the government to delegitimize the movement as fringe or extremist.

In Sudan, women – who bore the brunt of the regime’s repressive rulewere at the forefront of last year’s revolution, which ousted President Omar al-Bashir after three decades in power. We were transfixed by the powerful image of Alaa Salah, standing atop a car and leading a peaceful chant.

Forming up to two-thirds of protestors, women also brought with them a wide cross-section of society, across all regions, ethnic groups, ages, sexualities, religions and classes. Protestors pushed back against the regime’s racism and efforts to polarize the Sudanese people along ethnic lines by chanting “We are all Darfur.” This broad-based participation and unity was key to the movement’s success.

Third, successful movements are full of leaders, not just a single icon. Here, we can learn from women-led movements that employ a feminist style of leadership rooted in collaboration and challenging hierarchy. We see this in Belarus; while the movement was initially sparked by one fearless woman, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, it has since taken on a life of its own. Ordinary people have used digital platforms to spontaneously organize hundreds of protests. Not only does bottom-up leadership empower more people to join in, it also makes it harder for state forces to target and discredit the movement’s figureheads.

In Iraq, people took to the streets in late 2019 calling for an end to the corrupt, sectarian brand of politics shaped by the 2003 US invasion. The decentralized protests, which succeeded in forcing the prime minister’s resignation, resurged this October to demand free and fair elections.

Groups such as the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) have been a constant presence in Baghdad’s main protest square, insisting that there is no true democracy without women’s rights, and vice versa.

We can learn from them how to ensure that protests are accessible to the greatest number of people. In Baghdad, OWFI set up tents at protest sites to welcome and educate new arrivals to the movement, create spaces for women’s leadership and offer support to protestors – including food, baking soda to counter tear gas, and safe transport to and from protests.

Finally, we can strengthen connections across borders – and galvanize movement allies abroad in support of pro-democracy activism in the US. Protests in other countries can help fortify domestic organizing.

In solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, for instance, women have organized demonstrations in Germany, Poland, Belgium, Russia and Ukraine.

Likewise, in the aftermath of brutal police killings of Black people in the US, international women’s rights group MADRE brought together hundreds of feminist organizations and human rights defenders from around the world to sign a statement of support, drawing from their common experiences of confronting militarism and white supremacy.

Feminists know that building transnational solidarity is often crucial when trying to counter domestic oppression.

We know that if our democracy is threatened, we can and must turn out in massive numbers to protect the results of the US election in November. To do so, we can learn from feminist movements the world over how to generate the kind of people-powered movement we need to preserve our democracy. We have a feminist blueprint: let’s put it into action.

October 29, 2020