Wearing White is Not Enough: A Conversation with Cherisse Scott of SisterReach

Democrat women wearing white to President Trump's joint address to Congress

Last night during President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress, all of the women Democrats dressed in white to signify the suffrage movement and to signal to the president that they’ll be watching how he navigates gender equality.

Without getting into the whole mess of how wearing white actually hearkens to a very racist and exclusionary history within the 19th-century suffragist movement, it looks like for all the Dems’ effort, Trump barely mentioned women’s issues. He briefly touched on empowering women entrepreneurs, and on the one salient issue women across the country marched for about a month ago, he had but one throwaway line, a vague promise to “invest in women’s health.”

This is belied by everything his administration has done in just the past few weeks to dismantle Obamacare, to take away contraception coverage and, most egregiously, to make it harder for low-income women to access abortion care by making the Hyde Amendment permanent. Wearing some white power suits (pun intended) isn’t stopping this.

RD contacted Cherisse Scott, the founder of a Memphis nonprofit called SisterReach, which advocates for the reproductive autonomy of marginalized groups. We talked to her about what we can expect for reproductive justice under Trump.


RD: Just a few weeks ago, a Republican House voted to make the Hyde Amendment permanent. A few weeks before that, Speaker Paul Ryan said that one of his goals would be defunding Planned Parenthood. In the wake of all of these things that are happening to reproductive rights just at the start of Trump’s presidency, what do you think this means for the future of repealing the Hyde Amendment?

Cherisse Scott: What we’re dealing with is a dictatorship that has posed itself as Christian love, but is as far away from Christ as the East is from the West. We’re trying to figure out where the compassion is for women’s lives and the lived experiences that we have—regardless of race, class, or gender, social economic status, or even sexual orientation. None of those things seem to matter to this administration. The only thing that seems to matter to them is undoing some of the very important work that was done during the Obama administration to ensure that women and girls have access to the health services that we need.

Our autonomy is an afterthought. Our self-determination hasn’t even entered into the conversation here. It doesn’t seem to matter on the local level, the state level, or the federal level. For me, this isn’t even about women. This is about the Republican Party getting a win that they have wanted for so long. It is quite cowardly.

Democrats have abortions. Republicans have abortions too. Democrats need contraceptive access, and Republican women also need contraceptive access. Everybody needs access to sexual health information. It doesn’t matter our party. What we need is a government that is willing to step back and listen to not just the women that are their direct constituents, but the women that they serve across this country who have a difference of opinion when it comes to access and when it comes to being able to make healthcare decisions.

This is what we knew would happen in the event that Trump was elected, and this is why black women came out in droves to vote. We are very clear in the black community. We’re very clear as black women. Our votes have shown what our values are, and that includes reproductive rights. What’s happening is definitely a slap in the face for black women, the black community, and women of faith in general.

It’s disheartening to know that there’s a possibility we may not be able to change what Hyde looks like for low-income women. There have been years of work put into trying to make sure that the Hyde Amendment is changed so that all women—especially poor women, disenfranchised women—have access to abortion through Medicaid or Medicare. I just don’t see how this administration is interested in the lives of poor people at all, and that’s even [including] working-class families.

You mentioned how the vast majority of black women voted for Hillary, and that was actually going to be my next question. Ninety-four percent of black women voted for Hillary as opposed to 53 percent of white women voting for Trump.

I feel like black women along with other marginalized groups have always played the role of canaries in the coal mine. We know when something isn’t right before the rest of society recognizes an obvious threat, like Trump. This led to a lot of women of color being critical of the historic Women’s March and the mobilization that has taken place post-election. Why does it take so much for other groups to get involved with these issues, whereas women of color have been doing this same type of work for decades—to little or no fanfare?

Absolutely, absolutely. We weren’t even out there [at the Women’s March]. We didn’t support the march with our logo, we didn’t support the march with our bodies. We didn’t put down the march, per se, but we didn’t support the march either. Only because of what you just said. Black women have been doing this work. Period. We already knew that when it came down to Hillary Clinton [as the nominee], that black women would be disappointed. However, we didn’t have an option that was more strategic than her, so we voted for her. We voted for her strategically.

Since the majority of the women who participated in that march were white, where were the white women on November 8th? Now you want to march? You should have marched to the polls!

We marched to the polls. We cast our vote. We voted our values.

We didn’t even think the Women’s March was going to be that big, but how big it became only further shows that folks seem to be more interested in the emotionalism surrounding it, while not realizing that marching is just a tool. It is not the goal. It can’t ever be the goal. If it’s going to be the goal, we know it’s not going to be a sustainable one. The popularity of the march is just a telltale sign that some are far more concerned about the form and fashion of justice, instead of actually doing justice.

We have got to get out there, and we have to work. Black women groups, like SisterReach, have been on the frontline of this movement since it began. We see our white counterparts get it eventually, but it always comes late, and it’s always at our expense. Black women showed up in order to make sure that what ultimately happened wouldn’t happen, and again, we were left hanging.

Black and brown women, low-income poor white women, undocumented women, children, young people, disabled folks, seniors—those are the people who will be hurt by this administration the most and who we’re fighting for. We’re looking out for the most vulnerable people in our society, not the 53 percent. We still need to have a strategic vote in place for our community.

So yeah, I don’t have time to march. I got work to do and plans to make.

Do you feel like Trump being elected will kind of cause more coalition-building among the religious left, which could in turn further the goals of SisterReach?

I would hope that Trump being elected would force the religious left to understand that it has no choice but to finally center the poor people that sit in the pews of their churches on a day-to-day basis. We had one of our clergy partners urging other faith leaders to speak with their congregants and tap into those congregants with a call specific to their values, specific to some of the policies that are being voted on here locally.

When it comes to the black church—at least some black preachers who jumped at the opportunity to just have an audience with Trump, just to walk away from that meeting without even so much as an ask—I’m concerned. I’m concerned about what it looks like when wheelers and dealers try to deal with the black church, when wheelers and dealers try to deal with the religious left. I hope that we would remember what the bigger goal is.

I’m also hoping this will be what finally motivates the religious left to reclaim this narrative around the Lord, because the current moral narrative is not only incorrect, it’s very white. It’s not an inclusive spiritual voice. It is a voice that seems to speak prosperity before it speaks inclusiveness, to judge before it even is honest about the social conditions that create poverty or create “baby mamas” or create crime.

These are people’s lives that we’re going to have to be serious about. The religious left will have to think about the sacredness of women’s bodies, and the fact that we are absolutely unprotected even by our faith leaders. We need our faith leaders to stand up for us and not stand with folks who seem to have plenty of energy to demonize us, but never enough energy to invest in our lives.

We appreciate all of the partners, faith leaders and congregations that stand with us, but we are quite concerned about what unity is going to look like—especially for vulnerable churches, especially for churches that are experiencing some level of financial strain. We’ve seen the white evangelical right infiltrate those spaces, and use that vulnerability to tip folks against women and girls. We hope that won’t happen again.

I want the religious left to push back on a narrative that is so anti-Jesus, so anti-compassion, so anti-love. I want them to stand against this kind of misogynistic gospel that’s being pushed out here as if it is truly liberating and something that God wants for all people. We want people to take another look at some old-school biblical stories, possibly add a woman’s lens to those stories and think about them from a liberating point of view. We’re looking forward to being a part of those conversations.

In this new Trump era where anti-choice evangelicalism has reached these terrifying new heights, what are the next steps for your organization? How will you be mobilizing, how can people support you?

What we’re hoping is that we are able to not only work with clergy across the country, but that we’re also able to work with advocates across the country who are interested in mobilizing faith communities or working alongside progressive organizations. We would want to grow and build this power, both secular and non-secular power. It’s all one big world after all, right?

All of us coming together is imperative. We hope clergy will take positions on social justice issues, and be empowered with the information to change the communities in which they’re situated. The whole idea is to be able to push back on policy, and to educate folks with a different way of understanding biblical scripture.

We hope to encourage churches to want to center social justice work—understanding that this, too, is a calling of the church. I think the conservative right has it down when it comes to commitment, so I would like to see progressives also be as enthusiastic when it comes to doing justice from that faith position. They need to understand how powerful it is to be speaking on behalf of the people, as opposed to on behalf of the policy—which is what we’re seeing the Republicans do.

You can reach RD’s pre-election interview with SisterReach here.