“Rather than opposing Trump, the marches sent him an ultimatum: We too are the people, and we cannot go ignored. We will hold him accountable to a higher standard than his campaign rhetoric. We will accept his electoral victory but will not allow him to set a national example in which grabbing women by the pussy is just locker room talk. We are moving forward, and we are grabbing back.”
These were the final words in my reaction to last year’s Women’s March, which took place on Jan. 21, 2017. After the march, many speculated that the majority of attendees would be quick to lose interest. The marchers, especially those who are least vulnerable to Trump’s agenda, would recycle their signs, put their pink pussy hats back on their shelves and stop paying attention. Regarding some individuals, these skeptics’ predictions were likely accurate: I’d imagine there were tens of thousands of Women’s March attendees who posted on Instagram and then reverted to indifference. Many critics have commented on the performative nature of the marches, their superficial commitment to intersectionality and their trans-exclusive imagery – all of which are legitimate grievances. Nevertheless, I believe that the primary legacy of the first annual Women’s March transcends its imperfections. It energized people of all generations, created new coalitions and sparked a formidable year of resistance.
From the repeated blows to “repeal and replace” to the courageous voices in the #MeToo movement, I maintain that 2017 lived up to the “move forward, grab back” orientation that I described last January. The first Women’s March was an amalgamation of priorities and principles, articulated in chants and colorful bubble letters, that its attendees were dedicated to defending. For the most part, these activists and allies lived up to their commitment throughout the year. If the second Women’s March is any indication, they show few signs of subsiding in 2018.
At the San Francisco march last weekend, I spent a long time reflecting on the differences between the original Women’s March and its second iteration. Even before the march, while making my poster, I realized how those of us who were new to activism – including myself – had gained confidence and insight through a year of experience. Little things, like outlining bubble letters in black Sharpie to make them easier to read at a distance, were second nature at this point. On a more substantive level, many of us had grown and matured as feminists. There were noticeably fewer pink pussy hats on the train and in the crowd, perhaps because more of us have recognized the transphobia of equating womanhood with female body parts. (For more thoughts on the complex meaning of the pussy hats, read this powerful New York Times feature of current and former hat-wearers’ perspectives.)
The 2018 Women’s March felt less viscerally emotional than its 2017 counterpart. Since last year’s march took place the day after Trump’s inauguration, we were still digesting the nauseating reality of his presidency. Now, keeping up with White House craziness is part of our daily routines; the absurdity of his administration is no less dangerous but far more mundane. Prior to January 2017, I had rarely paid attention to congressional action, written political opinion pieces, phone-banked for candidates or contacted my legislators. Now that these activities are part of my daily life, heading to San Francisco for a march did not feel particularly noteworthy. The 2018 Women’s March was just one event in an ongoing stream of opportunities for political action. I say this as a testament to the march’s success, not to downplay its significance. By galvanizing greater political engagement throughout the rest of the year, the Women’s March has made itself a less exceptional event for its most committed attendees.
Last year’s marches were largely aspirational, yearning for a country where equality and diversity are considered pillars of strength. This year, the dominant messaging was far more action-oriented. At the rally, the speakers talked about going beyond resisting – voting, running for office, knocking on doors. Local organizations collected signatures for petitions, distributed information about healthcare and offered voter registration opportunities. A large portion of signs were overtly political, focusing on the potential for a “blue wave” in November 2018. (I was proud to bring some creativity to this category with my own sign, which read “Grab Them By The Ballot.”) With the opportunity to take back Congress on the horizon, the marches’ newfound focus on political action is appropriate, perhaps even imperative. After all, the “blue wave” will only take place if those who showed up at the Women’s March also show up at the polls (and mobilize their communities to do so as well).
So, if the Democrats succeed in taking back Congress, what will the Women’s March look like in January 2019? What is the role of an annual Women’s March in a future where the legislative branch fulfills its constitutional role and effectively checks the White House’s hostile agenda?
As I analyzed last year, the Women’s March is not primarily a protest against Trump’s presidency. Most people did not show up to call for Trump’s removal, but rather to express an alternative, inclusive aspiration for our national identity. Similarly, the Women’s March has the potential to strengthen its proactive stance at the movement level. It should emphasize a vision that goes deeper than resisting Trump’s policies and electing progressives. Otherwise, it may be destined to dissolve as soon as a Democratic Congress comes into power and acts as a stable roadblock to Trump’s most damaging agenda items.
Regardless of the outcome in November, the Women’s March should lead the charge for a reinvigorated democracy that better serves all people – especially those who have been the backbone of grassroots progressive activism. Beyond expressing gratitude for their consistently blue votes, it should do far more for women of color: center their voices, fulfill their policy priorities and empower them to run for office. It should amplify our national conversations about gerrymandering, voter suppression and disenfranchisement – systems that diminish the political influence of some of the most marginalized voices. The Women’s March has the potential to evolve into a proactive movement that outlasts the frustrating political moment in which it was born. A year from now, I hope to praise the 2019 Women’s March for sustaining momentum, continuing to mobilize millions and meaningfully advancing its inclusive vision for our country.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.