Intersectional Politics of Representation: The Rhetoric of Archival Construction in Women’s March Coalitional Memory

Intersectional Politics of Representation: The Rhetoric of Archival Construction in Women’s March Coalitional Memory

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Rachel Chapman Daugherty

Rachel Daugherty is a PhD candidate and Doctoral Teaching Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where she teaches courses in writing and rhetoric. Her dissertation, “Constructing Feminist Coalitions: Activist Arguments for Membership and Memory in the Women’s March Archives” reveals how intersectional feminist activists build coalitions by constructing archives to positively frame the coalition’s history for public memory. Her research focuses on coalition-building practices in activist and educational contexts, as well as feminist rhetoric, pedagogy, and writing program administration.

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This is the rebirth of the women’s movement. These women are the suffragists of our time. And our movement isn’t going away—it’s just the beginning.

-U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on the Women’s March

The 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage—the right to vote—calls us to consider how we understand women’s activism today. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington is a pivotal example of feminist collective action as it was the “largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history,” connecting 470,000 marchers in Washington, D.C. and five million marchers in Sister Marches worldwide through women’s activism (Chenoweth and Pressman). The suffrage movement and the initial formations of the Women’s March had overlapping similarities in that they were both marked by the centrality of white women to the movement. Kristan Poirot argues that “a rhetorical understanding informs accounts of racism in feminism’s ‘first wave’” because “in the minds of some nineteenth-century advocates, these contexts pitted sex against race, and those who advocated for woman attempted to ensure that white womanhood would win in the end” (A Question 44).1  Nearly a century later, the planners of the woman-led protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration initially used the name “Million Woman March” in ignorance of the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia that focused on uniting women of color. While this naming confusion resulted in the revision to “Women’s March on Washington,” it also signaled greater concerns about potentially centralizing white women’s experience and repeating feminist activism’s historic exclusions of women of color. Women’s March organizer Vanessa Wruble explained: “What we were hearing was basically, ‘Black women, you should not march with these white women, and this is why.’ And then it was like, oops, a bunch of ignorant white women have reappropriated this name that black women used in the past. It was a huge controversy” (The Women’s March Foundation 37). Wruble went on to describe how the Women’s March organizers responded to this critical feedback:

I saw the opportunity—and this is where you can fault me for being naive and idealistic—but I saw it as an opportunity to try and properly build a coalition amongst women from different backgrounds. I jumped, thinking I can help make this happen. And I knew that the march had to be led at least in part by women of color. And those voices needed to be going on, because we can’t continue to make the same mistakes—we can’t do something that’s going to tear this country apart. We can’t afford that at all right now. (The Women’s March Foundation 38)

The Women’s March organizers clearly demonstrated their investment to intersectional feminism in order to avoid the mistakes of the past by creating a “woman-led movement” to express connected concerns in a pivotal political moment (Chenoweth and Pressman). The 2017 Women’s March shows how contemporary feminists can come together in collective resistance, but also how feminist activist practices are in progress, presenting opportunities for reflection that can lead to future growth. In this centennial moment, feminist rhetoricians need to take a critical look at how contemporary women’s activism is taking shape to prevent the exclusionary mistakes of first-wave feminists and make inclusive strides toward future action.

The 2017 Women’s March revealed how a contemporary women’s movement could utilize digital networks to coordinate 653 Sister Marches worldwide, and their “Sister March” archive is one such site of study to explore these concerns around inclusivity. The “Sister Marches” page on the Women’s March website connected participants by providing locations of planned marches worldwide, transportation information, and press resources, including links to a photo archive and video archive of the Sister Marches where anyone could download images from Flickr and video clips from Dropbox. On January 21—the day of the March—the “Sister Marches” page featured a new link to stream photos and videos through their Facebook and Twitter pages. The Women’s March organizers invited marchers to upload videos to the official Dropbox website and email photos to the Sister March Google Group as soon as possible, with the hope that “photos and videos could end up in the official Women’s March livestream!” (“Submit Your Sister March”). The YouTube recordings of the Sister March livestreams contain over 10 hours and 37 minutes’ worth of footage of images, videos, and social media posts. After the march, the Sister March archives contained a Dropbox video archive of 38 videos (produced and phone-recorded) titled, “Sister March Videos (For the Press),” and a Flickr photo archive with five albums, 871 total photos with a descriptive “About” page.2 Together, these three websites constituted the Sister March Network, the network of websites actively collecting Sister March photos and videos connected through the Women’s March main site. By creating decentered, plural, and digital records of Sister March memories, the Women’s March organizers attempted to construct archives that aligned with their collaborative and inclusive feminist values, creating an opportunity to study this coalition’s feminist practices through the construction of public memory in this archive.

In this article, I demonstrate how feminist rhetoricians can take a critical look at current women’s intersectional activism through archival construction: acquisition, selection, and curation methods that circulate selective histories through authorized materials. Feminist rhetorical historiographers like Jessica Enoch have established the “construction of memory” as a rhetorical act (“Releasing”), tracing the ways that ideology shapes the inclusion and exclusion of memories from archives and public memory. I apply Enoch’s concept of construction to the archival submission and selection criteria of the Sister March archives, treating archival construction as a rhetorical site for inclusion through representation in public memory. As a rhetorical analytic, archival construction encourages researchers to identify how, why, and for whom public memory is made, reiterating our discipline’s commitments to making visible what KJ Rawson calls “the invisible organizational logics of a collection” (“The Rhetorical Power” 337).  My analysis of the Sister March archives continues feminist rhetorical attention to archival metadata and organization (Graban; Graban, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myer; Potts) by urging rhetorical scholars to question whether and how archival construction facilitates inclusive and exclusive representation in public memory. As my analysis will detail, I see that these archives work toward inclusivity by documenting the scope of the 2017 Sister Marches and inviting marchers to collaborate in the archival process, but fall short through disinviting critical feminist reflection and crafting an unquestioning narrative of unity through archival construction. In this centennial moment, feminist rhetoricians can look to archival constructions of women’s activism to take stock of our practices, assess how our practices reflect our values, and then critically engage in activism as it unfolds.

Archival Construction and Coalition-Building Practices

The Women’s March organizers created an opportunity to study their activist practices through their official archive—the Sister March archives—containing photos and videos from Sister March events worldwide. The archival construction of the Sister March archives reveals how the Women’s March organizers intended to frame these records for public memory. On the Women’s March website, the “Submit Your Sister March Photos and Videos” page encouraged marchers to connect their Sister March participation with archival practices: “On Saturday, January 21st, we will make HERstory when one of the largest worldwide grassroots mobilizations in history takes place. . . . [P]lease help our team capture this important moment in time” (“Submit Your Sister March”).3 Marchers were encouraged to submit “only your best” 5-10 photos and 2-3 videos, creating an initial participant curation method that anticipated many submissions. The submission page described how to upload videos directly to the “official dropbox,” and submit photos by email to the Sister March Google Group, making sure that submissions included location and attribution information to provide evidence of the scope of archival materials and a glimpse of the march itself. This page frames the Sister March archives as a historically significant event itself, encouraging marchers to generate evidence of the worldwide scope of participation as a coalition-building practice of solidarity with the Sister Marches. Through inviting submission in this way, the archive fosters collaborative connections with marchers by making archival practices part of the 2017 Women’s March experience.

The Sister March archives continues to shape its memorial activism by defining submission guidelines through conditional agreements for the Sister March Network: Community Guidelines and Terms and Conditions for Photo and Video Submissions. All Sister March submissions were subject to community guidelines, which list the following restrictions on photo and video content:

  1. No material with overt criticisms of politicians or political parties.
  2. No depictions of violence, destruction of property, alcohol, or drugs. 
  3. No material that contradicts the tenets of respect, honesty, transparency, and accountability in our actions.
  4. No material that undermines or contradicts the unity principles . . . that have been put forward by the Women’s March team. (“Submit Your Sister March,” emphasis in original)

Archival submissions that did not adhere to these restrictions would “not be published on behalf of the Sister March team” (“Submit Your Sister March”). Collectively, the Community Guidelines prioritize restrictions on the content of material submitted to facilitate positive narratives of marcher’s experiences that align with the Women’s March agenda.

Individually, each item on the Community Guidelines creates policing mechanisms for the Sister March Network to select or exclude photo or video submissions. The first criteria point restricts materials with “overt criticisms of politicians or political parties,” which seemingly contradicts the March’s initial exigence of resisting Trump’s election because of his misogynistic statements and actions. However, this restriction does shield the coalition from external political criticism or internal pushback from members whose political affiliations might differ. Indeed, the second criterion protects the Sister March Network and thus the Women’s March from liability for destructive or illegal behavior. However, the third and fourth criteria prohibit contradiction with the coalition, specifically with their moral actions and Unity Principles. These policing mechanisms allow the Sister March team to curate the photo and video submissions, creating a selection process that ensures that all archival materials posted on behalf of the Sister March team adhere to the Women’s March Unity Principles.

The Unity Principles is a six-page document that describes the coalition’s intersectional activist priorities regarding reproductive rights, ending violence, LGBTQUIA rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.4  The Unity Principles connected the Women’s March organizers with marchers by articulating shared beliefs and agendas, but this statement was also critiqued by activists concerned about intersectional practices. Disability rights activist Emily Ladau found that the Unity Principles subsumed disability under larger frameworks of oppression5 and represented disability as a burden for care-givers: “It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a ‘burden.’ My existence as a disabled woman is ‘work’ for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter” (Ladau). Furthermore, Janet Mock, one of the contributors to the Unity Principles, noted how the initial release of the Unity Principles showed that the Women’s March organizers had removed the phrase, “we stand in solidarity with sex worker movements” and changed it to “those exploited for sex and labor” (@melisagira). Mock saw this language shift in the Values & Principles as “momentary erasure” of sex workers that perpetuated the “policing within and outside women’s movements that shames, scapegoats, rejects, and erases and shuns sex workers,” but also still encouraged sex workers to “[show] up to their local March and [hold] the collective accountable to our vast diverse, and complicated realities” (Mock). Both Ladau and Mock demonstrate how feminists can offer critique as productive engagement with a movement’s goals to advance future intersectional activism. Thus, by prohibiting contradiction with the Unity Principles, the Sister March archives calls contributors not to take on (and archive) intersectional critiques like Ladau’s and Mock’s, constructing an archive that could make the same mistakes of the past by silencing feminist critique.

Read positively, the Terms and Conditions reveals the Sister March attempting to live up to its intersectional goals by requiring users to agree not to “submit images that abuse or discriminate on the basis of religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc.” (“Terms and Conditions”). The Women’s March organization sought archival materials that supported their activist goals, and thus required that archival materials adhere to the coalition’s intersectional activist mission. These conditions echo the tenets of intersectional feminism by recognizing the intersecting features of identity than can be subject to oppression and thus ensure that submitted materials will be representative of the Unity Principles. In short, the Sister March Network submission guidelines ensure that the collected memories would represent the Unity Principles and therefore the future activism of the Women’s March organization. In this instance, Terms and Conditions ensure inclusive representation of intersectional feminist values in the Sister March archives under the leadership of the Women’s March organization. 

As a feature of archival construction, submission guidelines provided the Sister March Team with control over archived materials, revealing how this decentered intersectional feminist movement planned to use archived memories of the 2017 march to recruit for future activism. The Women’s March organization became the guiding leadership for intersectional activism when they were incorporated with 501(c)(4) status after the 2017 march, making their organization directly responsible for the Sister March archival content (Women’s March, Inc.).6 Forming the Women’s March organization connected the 2017 march to future intersectional activism through the Sister March archives by crafting a positive and unquestioning narrative of unity in the 2017 march. Yet as this analysis has already shown, the productive feminist critiques that guided this movement’s growth were potentially silenced through the Sister March submission guidelines. On the one hand, submission guidelines provide archival and organizational alignment with intersectional values, but on the other hand, the same guidelines reify a partial, specifically positive narrative of the 2017 Women’s March. While the archival collection process characterized marchers as collaborators in the Sister March archives, the archival Terms and Conditions redirect marchers’ collaborative agency to the Women’s March organization.7 Thus, the organizational responsibility of the Women’s March removed individual agency from marchers through archival construction.

By using submission guidelines to craft a narrative via submissions that follows the Unity Principles, the Women’s March organizers created a positive archival legacy for public memory and a selective official history of this ongoing social movement. Importantly, these submission guidelines are no longer associated with the Women’s March official website, nor are the links to the Flickr or Dropbox pages that house the Sister March archives. One can perform a Google search for “Sister Marches Flickr” and find the official photo archives, but the Dropbox link to the Sister March videos and associated submission guidelines are only available through Internet Wayback Machine links. When you visit the official Women’s March website, it no longer contains a page dedicated to the 2017 march. Instead, this intersectional feminist organization is now focused on future activism and this year’s national Women’s March. Thus, the Sister March memories have been integrated into the Women’s March organization and therefore disconnected from their archival contexts. Without knowledge of these archival submission guidelines, archival researchers would lose this sociohistorical context of this social movement’s archival collection and selection practices. For feminist researchers, it is critical to understand these guidelines and their work in shaping archival construction in order to understand how intersectional activist practices included or excluded from the archives.

I argue that the internal archival contradictions of collecting positive memories of intersectional activism while removing the individual agency of marchers prioritized the long-term growth of the Women’s March organization over the feminist value of critical reflection that benefitted the organization since its inception. As a feature of archival construction, archival submission guidelines can dictate the conditions for public memory by restricting submissions and policing recorded materials. Social movement scholar Suzanne Staggenborg argues that “[c]oalition organizations need structures that allow for input from different types of members. . . .Coalitions and SMOs [social movement organizations] that lack participatory structures may engage in actions that do not benefit all of their members equally” (“Conclusion” 323). Thus, the archival construction of social movement archives can provide rhetorical evidence connecting activist values and archival practices. But to generate this evidence, inclusive activist movements like the Women’s March need to welcome materials that document the moment, not materials that reify a specific narrative. As feminist rhetoricians, I argue we can actively engage in ongoing social movements through their memorials to encourages critique as a path to positive feminist growth.

Evaluating Archival Construction for Public Memory

As we reflect on the importance of the suffrage centennial for women’s history, we can also appreciate how the networked, digital, and transnational nature of our current activism necessitates new methods of critical engagement. Archival construction reveals how social movement rhetoric extends into public memory by aligning a movement’s agenda with the archived materials. The archival construction of the Sister March archives offers curation criteria that shaped what marchers saw as possible for submission and provided the Women’s March organization with ownership over all Sister March archival materials. For rhetorical historiographers, these kinds of criteria are vital for understanding the content of the archive, and thus exist as part of the social movement’s rhetoric in the archive. If we, as feminist rhetoricians, are invested in developing methods to evaluate public memory projects around women’s rights and activism, then those methods must facilitate what Stephanie Kerschbaum describes as the “difficult, intersectional questions about how our histories are composed” (“Inclusion”). As feminist rhetorical scholars increase their attention towards intersectional coalition-building practices, archival construction can reveal the inclusive and exclusive rhetorical practices shaping coalitional memory. With the archival metadata now available to contemporary researchers, we can use archival construction to determine how the memorial activism crafts narratives for public memory to shape future activism.

Public memory projects like the Sister March archives present an opportunity to discover the politics of inclusion and intersectionality in action, creating new possibilities for rhetorical analysis that could intervene in ongoing movements and their memorials. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge have urged feminists to analyze the critical praxis of intersectionality, emphasizing that being critical in social movements working toward “equity, freedom, and social justice” requires a “self-reflexivity of thought, feeling, and action about one’s own practice” (Intersectionality). The Sister March archives created a woman-led, collaborative archival collection of memories from marches around the world. But also, the archival construction of the Sister March archives paints a positive, yet partial picture of the 2017 Women’s Marches by excluding critical reflection on the organization’s values in the archives. Feminists and archivists should be encouraged that contemporary social movements are actively documenting their actions and telling their own stories. But also, archival construction reveals the inner practices of social movements, creating a need to understand how and why activists tell their own histories. Ultimately, the Sister March archives circulated valuable memories of this significant feminist activist moment and provided insight into new intersectional activist archival practices that demand feminist rhetorical attention.

If the Women’s March organizers are indeed modern suffragists, as the opening epigraph suggests, then I see this centennial anniversary as an opportunity for feminist rhetoricians to determine how contemporary women activists are making their own histories, and how the archival construction of women’s activism makes arguments for future feminist action. I urge feminist rhetoricians to consider the troubles of suffrage memorialization as rooted in selective archival practices, specifically the ways that submission and selection criteria for archival materials frame memories of feminist activism. Coalitional social movements function as rhetorical negotiations of shared exigence and vision. Since the Women’s March contained so many different and connected ideologies, the Sister March archives could be instructive to rhetoricians who seek to discover what Benita Roth describes, “the meaning of coalition for situated groups of social movement actors in order to understand how or whether that meaning may have influenced decisions that participants made” (113). As rhetorical scholars, our critical attention to archival construction in records of women’s activism can enable us to build better future coalitions on tenets of accountability, transparency, and inclusivity.


  1. Poirot uses the singular word “woman” to indicate how “‘woman’ and ‘female’ function as changing prisms” of meaning through which identification and difference are rhetorically defined (A Question 5).
  2. While the Dropbox video archive only allows users to view the files, Flickr’s “About” page feature provides a description of the archive’s purpose to “feature select highlights from over 600 solidarity events planned globally” and share the Women’s March mission (“About”).
  3. Interestingly, the Women’s March livestream did not include any photos or videos from the Sister Marches. The livestream was a five-hour YouTube broadcast of the Washington D.C. march and speakers, reinforcing the centrality of the Women’s March organization and leadership in this coalition.
  4. The “Unity Principles” were first released by the Women’s March organizers as the “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles” nine days before the 2017 March. This six-page document includes four major sections: “Overview & Purpose,” “#WHYWEMARCH,” “Values & Principles,” and “About This Document.” The “Overview & Purpose” outlines the vision for this “woman-led movement,” and “#WHYWEMARCH lists a legacy of 27 women “revolutionary leaders who paved the way for us to march,” (Women’s March on Washington). The third section, “Values & Principles,” contains nineteen bulleted descriptions of what “we believe,” giving the impression to readers that the “we” in these statements are the members of the Women’s March coalition. Finally, the “About this Document” section lists 23 contributors (and recognizes unlisted contributors) that collaboratively shaped this “agenda” for coalitional action.
  5. The Unity Principles statement Ladau refers to reads, “We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work—caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities—is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society”
    (Women’s March on Washington).
  6. 501 (c)(4) organizations are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt, as long as the organization adheres to the guidelines for political activity within promoting social welfare. While this status does not allow organizations to directly participate or intervene in political campaigns, it does allow them to “engage in some political activities, as long as that is not their primary activity” (“Social Welfare Organizations”).
  7. If a marcher chose to submit their photos or videos, they granted the Sister March team a “perpetual, nonexclusive, world-wide, royalty-free, sub-licensable license to the submissions,” meaning that these records could be shared and commercialized for future use (“Terms and Conditions”). By submitting to the Sister March archive, a marcher acknowledges that their content “may be edited, removed modified, published, transmitted, and displayed by the Sister March team.” Indeed, the Terms and Conditions state that as a contributor, “you waive any rights you may have in having the material altered or changed in a manner not agreeable to you” (“Terms and Conditions”).

Works Cited

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