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#Feminism: Gender & the 2020 Election

The 2020 Symposium was reimagined as an online event for Friday, October 30, 2020. All panels were recorded and can be viewed below.

#Feminism: Gender & the 2020 Election

The Seventh Annual Women’s History Month Symposium

Friday, October 30, 2020
10:00 am – 4:15 pm EST
Recordings of the event can be found embedded below.

Presented by the Northeastern Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program
Sponsored by the Northeastern Humanities Center

About the Symposium

Here we are: 100 years after women gained the right to vote and decades after second wave feminism exploded on the scene, and still sexist double standards are applied to candidates, still nowhere near equal representation in local and national government, and still no woman president. Feminism is seemingly everywhere – from the Women’s Marches to the righteous rage of #MeToo and #TimesUp – and yet gender inequity and hate continue to pervade civic life.

This upcoming election is arguably the most consequential in recent memory. Following on the heels of the election of Trump and his reign of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. Basic civil rights are on the ballot as, indeed, is the future of democratic governance and the rule of law.  But there are signs of hope amidst the wreckage: the 2018 midterm elections ushered in the most diverse group of congresspeople in US history, and strides were made in local races across the country. On-the-ground activism is energized, and women are leading the resistance: registering voters, running candidates, fighting voter suppression, knocking on doors, and tweeting up a firestorm of protest. Social media itself has been both a site of subversion (e.g. digital feminist hashtags) and a tool of authority (e.g. Trump’s tweets).

Expert panelists and participants in this interdisciplinary symposium will consider how gender and feminist activism should inform our thinking about the upcoming elections. We will look at how feminists might engage social movements, digital spaces, and broader communities in trying to effect social change. Panels will invite conversations about new forms of media in the hands of feminist activists, historical perspectives on gender and electoral politics (in celebration of the anniversary of suffrage), mainstream media coverage of elections through the lens of gender, and leveraging the unprecedented visibility of women (particularly women of color) in both electoral and grassroots politics. Throughout the day, we will promote an active dialogue among scholars, activists, journalists, and community organizers in a broad discussion of both the limitations and potentials of electoral politics for enacting substantive feminist transformations.

This is the seventh annual Women’s History Month Symposium presented by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, supported by the Northeastern Humanities Center. We have re-imagined the event to an online format with all the original panelists involved.


Zerlina Maxwell, MSNBC commentator, Senior Director of Political Programming at Sirius XM, co-host of the Sirius XM show Signal Boost, and host of her own show on Peacock Network), presented the keynote address to kick off the day.

Zerlina Maxwell looks to camera, wearing a red dress in front of a blue background.
Zerlina Maxwell, political commentator

Other panelists included:

All panelists’ bios can be found here.

10:00 am – 11:45 am EST
Keynote Address
“The Reckoning”, Zerlina Maxwell

Zerlina Maxwell will walk through the ways race and gender will be exploited or utilized in the upcoming presidential election. A Q&A will follow, to be moderated by WGSS program director Suzanna Walters.

“The Reckoning”, Zerlina Maxwell (pictured above L to R: Professor Suzanna Walters and Zerlina Maxwell)

1:00 pm – 2:15 pm EST
#MakingFeminisms: Organizing Resistance Online and In Real Life
Moderator: Moya Bailey, Northeastern University

The internet has forever changed the way that feminists organize both online and IRL. In the wake of the misleading poll numbers of the 2016 presidential election, how can we balance the possibilities of digital media with the realities of organizing for feminist electoral politics? Our panelists are experts in the rise of digital media making and fomenting feminist resistance. In this panel, we dive deeply into the way #MakingFeminisms can expand networks, educate communities on important issues, and shape our democracy both on and offline. We consider the promise and limitations of digital and IRL feminist organizing for the 2020 election and beyond.

The Patriarchy is Not Inevitable: Winning Depends on Us Believing In Possibility “, Katherine Grainger (Civitas Public Affairs Group, SuperMajority)
Power shifts when the oppressed believe that an oppressive system is no longer legitimate or inevitable. Women have been organizing for centuries to gain full gender equity and while we have made important strides, the patriarchy remains present in all aspects of life. That said, we are also at a feminist tipping point. From the Women’s March to #metoo to the Kavanaugh hearing to the record numbers of women running for office, we are at a moment where with the right mobilization we can start to transform power in this country. For this talk, Katherine Grainger will explore how we use this moment in history to create an organizing framework to reject patriarchal systems on a political and personal level, taking on the rules of patriarchy and the systems that punish people for stepping out of the patriarchal construct. In doing so, she will pull on lessons learned from her work on the marriage equality movement around building both political clout and cultural possibility. We will then brainstorm around what it will take crack open the patriarchy once in for all – beginning first with people, especially women believing it is possible.

“Listen to Black Women: Virtue Signaling, Rhetoric, and Digital Black Feminism”
, Catherine Knight Steele (UMD College Park)
Following the election of the 45th president polling and survey data indicated that black women, more than any other demographic group rejected Donald Trump at the ballot box. Throughout his presidency, black women continue to have the least favorable opinion of his presidency. The phrase “listen to black women” has been adopted by activists, allies, and journalists attempting to point to black women’s voting patterns. However, as many hashtaggable lines do, “listen to black women” has largely become a rhetorical move that signals awareness without a requirement of follow-through in terms of black feminist praxis or principles. In this talk, Catherine Knight Steele first considers the phrase “listen to black women” as a rhetorical strategy that allows some progressives and liberals online to publicly signal an alliance with black women. She then introduces the concept of digital black feminism and the five principles and rhetorical strategies of black feminists online as a way to actually listen to and partner with black women in this election cycle and beyond.

Community-Building as Movement-Building: Harnessing the Power of Digital Space for a Feminist Future“, Carmen Rios (Feminist Media-Maker)
COVID-19 forced the 2020 election to unfold almost exclusively in digital space—but the right has been rising online since much earlier than the campaign kick-offs. Platforms like 4chan are providing white supremacist and Men’s Rights Activists opportunities to organize. Disinformation campaigns boosting far-right leaders in critical elections around the world are being waged on Facebook. Online harassment targeting women and people of color—and attempting to force them into silence—are being instigated by robots and built by algorithms. Concerns about the corporate ownership of our digital data also persist, with good reason, as do concerns about screen time. But digital space can be a powerful antidote in this political moment, and it’s a resource more critical to the feminist movement than ever. In this talk, Rios will examine the revolutionary power that comes from building feminist communities online, pulling from her own experiences as a digital organizer and media-maker, and from the groundswell of feminist activism we’ve seen online in the lead-up to 2020—and make a case for sustaining these digital spaces far beyond the end of the election year.

3:00 pm – 4:15 pm EST
#StillWePersist: Organizing Resistance in the Streets and On the Hill
Moderator: Aziza Ahmed, Northeastern University

What is unique about this historical political juncture, and what—crucially—must we bear in mind in order to rise to its challenges as feminists?  For our final panel, we bring together three ideally suited speakers to guide us through this current moment with the benefit of deep historical understanding.  The resistance has been led, indeed created, by women, especially women of color, who have organized and run for office at every level.  How can we build on these achievements to ensure an inclusive and sustained feminist force, whether we win or lose elections in 2020?  What have we learned about mobilization and resistance?  What might we have neglected or forgotten?  What should we appreciate about the relationship between local and national politics, between issue organizing and electoral action?  What have been the best practices, and what have been the blind spots, of undertakings such as #metoo, #timesup, and the women’s marches?  How can we support feminist candidates and marshal the feminist vote?

“Recognizing and Countering Racism and Misogyny in Electoral Politics”, Tamar Carroll (Rochester Institute of Technology)
In this talk, Carroll will identify racist and misogynistic tropes used by Donald Trump to denigrate women who oppose him or question his authority. She will draw on historical examples of how black women leaders have countered similar attacks on them in the past and discuss how their examples can inform current efforts to elect women of color to office.

“Reclaiming our Time: Black Feminist Politics in the Trump Era”, Duchess Harris (Macalester College)
Professor Harris will discuss contemporary Black feminist political stars like Rep. Maxine Waters and the transformative influence of Black feminist political strategy and principles in mainstream U.S. politics, especially in the 2016 U.S. election.   In the current moment, whether Waters holding Steve Mnuchin’s feet to the fire, or Kamala Harris grilling Trump appointees during congressional hearings, Black women are always seen as the keepers of our democratic integrity. And then those on the far left use this same labor that we do to save democracy to argue that we are too deeply invested in the establishment.  In fact, the entire left has a Black-woman problem. In May 2017, a group of Black women wrote an open letter to DNC Chairman Tom Perez requesting that he meet with Black women politicians and policy makers. The letter noted that the 115th Congress has “20 Black women—the largest number in history” and reminded Perez that in 2008 and 2012, Black women were the party’s most loyal voting bloc. The DNC refused to even give black women an official response to the letter. This talk will highlight that even in a climate of hostility,  Black women are reclaiming our time.

“Women and Women of Color Are Not Waiting for Anyone Anymore“, Amanda Renteria (Code for America)
This talk will focus on the last 3 years and what it means as we move to run, win, and now govern.

Support for the Symposium

The Symposium is presented by the Northeastern University Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Northeastern Humanities Center. We appreciate the support of our generous co-sponsors: College of Arts, Media, & Design; School of Law; School of Public Policy & Administration; John D. O’Bryant African American Institute; Programs in Africana Studies, Human Services, and Politics, Philosophy, & Ethics; Departments of Communication, English, History, Journalism, Political Science, and Sociology & Anthropology