Chicago feminists critical of Obama, conflicted over Trump

Community gathers at Women & Children First for ACTIVISM series
Community members await the activist leaders at Women and Children First bookstore's first ACTIVISM series event. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

By Ritu Prasad

For many involved with grassroots feminism in Chicago, Barack Obama’s presidency wasn’t all it was promised to be. Feminist leaders now look to the  Donald Trump administration with a conflicting sense of apprehension and tentative hope.

At the Women & Children First bookstore, seated beneath a colorful collection of children’s books with titles like “A is for Activism” and “Happy in Our Skin,” organizers from the LGBT/women-focused Masjid al-Rabia and FURIE, or Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation,  discussed their ongoing work and future goals in light of Trump’s victory

Zaynab Shahar of Masjid al-Rabia wanted her fellow social activists to do more than just talk about their fears of what could happen under President-Elect Trump.

“If people are really scared about what’s going to happen, then this isn’t the time to live in that ideology of fear solely,” Shahar said. “You still see Muslim women bearing the brunt of hate crimes and interpersonal violence on the street, and people just standing there like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”

The plight of Muslim-American women and other marginalized groups, Shahar noted, has not been easy under Obama either.

“I would prefer it not be transitioning into Trump but I’m not gonna lie, I’m happy it’s over,” Shahar said. “There’s no disagreement as to how anybody feels about Trump. …People don’t feel the need to be polite about his incoming presidency in a way that they felt the need to [with Obama], which really inhibited people being honest about the flaws.”

Shahar cited Obama’s unique status as the first black president coupled with his ability to spin beautiful rhetoric as a key part of the problem with his presidency.

“For me, it’s a double-edged sword,” Shahar said. “So many of my family members were a part of the civil rights movement in Chicago and possibly did not think they would live to see a black president in office. … That’s significant and I can’t diminish that, but by the same token, I also think one of the things that the left has struggled with is how you hold this new representation of power accountable for his policies.”

Chelsey Sprengeler, an organizer for FURIE, criticized higher funding of the prison system, the bank bailout, and the Obama administration’s war policies as reasons why she believes Obama was a “terrible president.”

“We focus on rhetoric instead of seeing we’re being gutted…under nice words,” Sprengeler said. “The worst-case scenario [with Trump] is that he acts just like Obama, who acted just like Bush. …As terrible as Trump is, there is something to be said for the anomaly of him being outside the establishment. Now granted, he’s a billionaire, and he’s terrible, and he’s racist…But we can’t go back. We shouldn’t strive to go back to comforting words.”

Some of Obama’s policies certainly have been widely debated. Under his administration, the government signed away $20 million per month for four years to a private prison company. According to The Washington Post, under Obama, the United States went from 100 beds to over 3,000 for family detention, and the Pew Research Center reported a record number of deportations during Obama’s presidency.

Ten times more drone strikes have occurred under Obama than his predecessors. His executive order attempted to add transparency to these strikes, but the administration’s defense of air strikes outside active conflict zones by calling terrorist conflicts “non-international” has raised questions and concerns.

While there are over 400 banks that have not yet repaid their loans, the Treasury Department reported that $266.7 billion has been received—$21.5 billion more than the bailout dispensed, thanks to interest and other revenue.

The owners of Women & Children First feel justified in providing a platform for criticisms, but they also hope the anger inspired by President-Elect Trump will continue to increase momentum for the many social justice and feminist movements in and around the city.

Sarah Hollenbeck, one of the co-owners, is no stranger to fighting for women’s rights. In 2004, she marched in Washington, D.C. with the March for Women’s Lives.

“The day after the [Trump] election, the bookstore felt like a wake,” Hollenbeck said. “By showcasing different social justice organizations, we hope to demonstrate to folks that their voices matter–that there are direct ways right in our own neighborhood to become more politically and socially aware and engaged.”

Women & Children First has served as a space for marginalized voices in Chicago since its founding in 1979. Hollenbeck hopes the series will help continue the co-founders’ mission.

“My goal is that each person leaves the event with one action item–one tangible thing that they will do in response to an issue that they learned about during the event,” Hollenbeck said. “I want attendees to not just ‘feel’ like they’re making a difference. I want them to leave armed with the tools to take action.”

Community members await the activist leaders at Women & Children First bookstore’s first ACTIVISM series event in Chicago’s Andersonville. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)