Hints of the Coming of the Women’s Marches

By Jo Reger, Oakland University

As someone who studies the contemporary U.S. feminist movement, I should not have been surprised by the global outpouring of protests on January 21, 2017. After all, you could feel the rumblings coming during the Clinton-Trump campaign. The outright misogyny of Donald Trump’s casual evaluation of women, in contrast to the empowered women rhetoric of Hillary Clinton. Emotions were running high, insults were being flung, and once agreeable neighbors began to argue with each other’s choice of yard signs.

But stepping back from the heat of those moments, there were seeds planted for the global spread of women’s marches long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton threw their hats in the electoral ring.  Drawing on the old adage “hindsight is twenty-twenty,” I offer a few examples that offered hints of the women’s marches to come:

  • The reclamation of feminist as a positive identity label: From a movement declared repeatedly dead in the 1920s, 1970s and 1990s, U.S. feminism began to morph and gain a more positive glow in the 21st One indication was the explosion of feminist-oriented blogs, websites, Instagram accounts, and podcasts signaling the movement of feminism into the world of social media and digital communication. (See Alison Dahl Crossley’s new book Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution from NYU Press). Another indication was a growing number of celebrity feminists who began to identify in ways that illustrated their conviction. In the 1990s, actor Ashley Judd often seemed isolated in her activist convictions. In the 21st century, she was joined by an array of feminist-identifying celebs from Emma Watson to Beyoncé to Benedict Cumberbatch. While we can quibble with the depth and longevity of their commitment, they do serve as indicators of a cultural shift that has Barack Obama declaring in 2016, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
  • The ubiquity of “pussy hats” as a symbol of resistance at the march: The hats were a multi-faceted reclamation vehicle taking back “pussy” as insult, knitting as only for old ladies, and pink as a color that belonged to little girls. For those of us studying 21st century U.S. feminism (with subscriptions to Bust magazine), we saw this one coming with the rise of knitting as a feminist endeavor. Crafting as a way of reclaiming feminine handiwork found its home in feminist magazines such as Bust, books like Stitch ‘n Bitch by Debbie Stoller, and in knitting clubs that brought feminist women and men together to create and commune. (See Maura Kelly’s 2014 article “Knitting as a Feminist Project?”) Combined with the imagery of the Russian feminist-punk group Pussy Riot covering their faces with torn balaclavas and the horribly casual referral to women as nothing more than “pussies,” the pussy hat was born.
  • The sheer numbers of people who took to the streets: The last decade has been one of social movements and revolutions around the globe. The year of 2011 brought us Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Slut Walks. Following these were student-led protests on student debt, institutionalized racism, and sexual assault on campus, to name a few. For scholars of women’s movements, the 2011 Slut Walks that briefly swept the globe were astounding in that they were spurred by a commonplace adage that “if women want to avoid rape, they shouldn’t dress like sluts.” Set in a world of digital communication and social media, these anti-sexual violence and pro-sexuality marches flourished in Canada, the United States and around the world. While these marches did not continue on a regular basis, what they left behind are networks, organizations and coalitions connected to each other creating a source of mass (feminist) mobilization. The last decade has also been watching marginalized communities fight back through public protest. Occupy movements swept the globe and endorsed a range of issues from income inequality to police brutality to a range of human rights. (I need to note that these issues returned on the signs of the women’s marches.) Standing Rock saw indigenous people fighting and winning rights that had been eroded for generations. Black Lives Matter took on police brutality and created a hashtag movement that will continue to influence other protests. All of these movements, situated so completely in the social media world of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, set the stage for the women’s marches drawing lines of connection between millions of people.

Borrowing the wise insights of Verta Taylor in a recent interview, three factors make mass protest probable: threat, pre-existing groups and networks, and the formation of coalitions. It is clear that Donald Trump served as a threat to many activists (and not-yet activists) who were concerned with women’s rights, immigration, the environment, LGBT protections, police brutality, and the list goes on. Women’s movement scholars have been documenting for decades the national, international, and transnational women’s groups, conferences, and networks being formed around the world. (It is noteworthy that Jo Freeman, studying the women’s movement at a time when it was not seen as worthy of study, noted the importance of pre-existing networks for all movements formation.) In a time of digital communication, the formation of coalitions is no longer hindered by proximity, allowing for quick connections and message and goal cohesion.

In sum, to social movement scholars, the Women’s Marches of January 21st offer an opportunity to look closely at the ways in which long-lived movements and ideologies such as women’s movements and feminism survive, maintain, and in key movements thrive with mass mobilizations. As we look back at their formation and the whys of individuals’ participation, there is also much to be discovered in what this means to the future. At the very least they encourage us to ask, “Is the Future Female” or is it at least feminist?