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Women Divided Over March's Deliberate Exclusion of Them

By Marlene Cimons
Los Angeles Times

Cheryl McCrimmon of Washington heard Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's message for women to stay home, but chose to ignore it, feeling that her 9-year-old son, Ray, had to be here - because his father wasn't.

"Somebody had to bring him," she said, squinting into the bright sunshine of a brisk fall morning. "I don't know where his father is," she added, shrugging her shoulders. "But isn't that what all this is about? Black men taking responsibility for their families?"

McCrimmon said she deliberately brought Ray, a fourth-grader, in order to expose him to a positive image of the black man - different from the only one he knew.

Although a number of women were sharply critical of the march's deliberate exclusion of them, others were more understanding - and even supportive - of the approach. Black men are confronting a staggering, painful array of problems - from crime, drugs and violence, to unemployment and hopelessness - and must find the strength within themselves to overcome them, many of the women said. And the long common struggle against racism always has had more immediacy within the black community than other battles, such as sexism.

"America and the world needs to see our men assert their unity, strength and commitment to their families," said C. Delores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women. "The present social, economic and spiritual crisis in black urban America demands that we put aside our ideological and political differences.

"This is a cause which I hope will be turned into a hurricane force to rid our communities of denigrating music, violence, drugs and crime," she added. "The world needs to see black men standing straight, marching tall and dedicated to assuming their rightful place in this nation and the world."

But if Tucker - a veteran civil rights activist and feminist - could transcend the exclusionary vision laid out by Farrakhan and his supporters for the event, other prominent women's leaders could not.

Critics - among them Angela Davis, former Black Panther and now college professor, and Marcia Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Ms. Magazine - denounced the march as degrading to women.

"The call of this march was a call that was blatantly sexist," Gillespie said. "Listen carefully to what the leaders of this event are saying: we've been bad masters, now we're going to be good ones.' Many women have said to me: C'mon girlfriend, don't rock the boat. This is a start.' But I also think there are great numbers of women who have been made profoundly uncomfortable by this march."

And Davis said: "No march, movement or agenda that defines manhood in the narrowest terms and seeks to make women lesser partners in this quest for equality can be considered a positive step. There are ways of understanding black masculinity that do not rely on subjugating women."

At the Mall, however, many of the women who came did so not to protest Farrakhan's edict, but to show an unusual display of solidarity with the men.

"I don't feel excluded at all," said one woman, who refused to identify herself. "This is something by the men and for the men - something they need to do."

Lisa Powell, a graduate student at George Washington University, said she came to support the opportunity presented by the march to enable black men to come together in an atmosphere of warmth and love that could help dispel negative images long held of them by white America.

"This is the time for them to say: we're not like this, and we don't want to be thought of like this, as violent, or drug adicts or thieves,' " she said. "This is a unification of all African-American men, for them to take their rightful place in our community as well as in society. The message to America is that we are human - just like everyone else."