Image by Vlad Tchompalov
Image by Vlad Tchompalov
When the Pussyhat Comes Off
The Women’s March started a movement of resistance, while simultaneously pointing to white feminism’s inherent flaws. One year later, organizers and followers are planning a fresh attack.
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On January 21, 2017, I was one of nearly half a million people attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. That day, under a sea of pussyhats in every shade of pink, I saw faces a mix of elation at our massive showing and deflation over the realities of a Donald Trump presidency quickly taking shape. Throughout the day we checked our phones to track sister marches big and small around the country, nay around the world. This felt significant, this felt massive, but one question hung over us all: Were we all just shouting into the void, or could our voices propel us out of this fresh hell?
In 2018 we will find out.
For participants who stepped off the march route as galvanized members of a resistance–armed with poster board and congressional phone numbers–we got to put our new arsenal to use a few days later when Trump signed Executive Order 13769, the so-called travel ban. For the Women’s March’s four national co-chairs, Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland, the task has since become capturing that momentum and recasting the march, from historical rallying point to bona fide movement. Now one year later and in a highly anticipated midterm election year, the Women’s March is ready to celebrate its first anniversary by proving that it can be an upending force in national politics.
“We had a big impact on just setting the tone for what organizing would look like in 2017,” reflects Bland, an entrepreneur and founder of the fashion incubator Manufacture New York, who emphasizes that she herself was new to political organizing when she co-founded the Women’s March. If things were nebulous as the march first began to take shape in the emotional days following the election, organizers quickly began receiving messages from women around the country interested in having local sister marches. “As soon as that started happening it became clear, at least to me, that this was going to build a lot of grassroots infrastructure on the ground in states where people had mobilized their communities for the march. It wouldn’t make sense to just allow that all to fall apart after the march, because it would be a great female-led community that could localize on all sorts of issues.”
And all sorts of issues there were. In its undercutting of progressive policies on health care, immigration, LGBTQIA rights, taxes, reproductive rights, and the environment, the Trump administration provided ample opportunities for the Women’s March to tap its newfound network and suss out their guiding Unity Principles. In turn, the organization and its co-chairs seemed ubiquitous last year, on the front lines of protests and magazine covers alike.
The Women’s March has taken its licks too, both from Twitter trolls and would-be allies. The feminist movement’s fissures along racial lines on full display during the election months were not quick to coalesce afterward against a shared adversary. Many women of color saw in the resistance a continuation of the white feminism that has kept them on the periphery of the movement for decades. As such, women such as writer/editor Ijeoma Oluo opted to skip the march after wondering where was all that unity the previous year when Black Lives Matter needed it. Co-founder Sarsour, an anti-Zionist activist, was criticized for speaking on a panel about anti-Semitism. And while the Women’s March didn’t include Hillary Clinton as an official honoree, Bernie Sanders was given a featured speaker slot at the October Women’s Convention in Detroit (a speech which never came to be), which had critics asking, just whose movement is this?
It’s everyone’s movement, countered march co-president Mallory in a series of tweets, who has even argued that Trump’s divisive rhetoric has forged feminist cohesion more than ever. If the Women’s March has found itself on the defensive at times, the critiques have ultimately been highly educational for the organization and formative for its agenda. The march’s panel of diverse co-chairs spent the last year ensuring that race stood side by side on their platform with issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay. “There’s a lot of nuance to all of these issues because women are not a monolith, people of color are not a monolith, none of the communities that we work with are monolithic,” says Bland, who now points to signs that the march’s brand of intersectional feminism has proven to be a mobilizing force. “EMILY’s List had 24,000 people say that they wanted to run in 2017 versus 400 the previous year, and they directly credit the Women’s March for that interest.”
There’s been no inertia for the March co-chairs. After spending 2017 traversing the country, laying the groundwork with state chapters and more than 5,400 hyper local “huddles”, and developing a youth empowerment initiative for the next generation of the resistance, they’ll be in Nevada on the march’s one-year anniversary to roll out their election-year Power to the Polls campaign.
“Our message to marchers is if you marched on January 21 last year is, it’s time to take your collective power from the streets into the ballot box. If you were mobilizing busses last year to the march in Washington, this year mobilize transportation in your own community for low-income groups to be able to get to the polls. If you were phone banking for healthcare this summer, then now it’s time to be calling people and making sure that they’re going to vote and inform them on the issues,” says Bland, who is confident that “we’re gonna flip the House and Senate.”
Let’s say Democrats do regain control of Congress and wipe out the Trump administration’s super majority – then what? If the Obama years taught us nothing else, it’s that congressional domain comes and goes, and with it too often a paucity of legislative victories. To that end, the Women’s March needs to look beyond this year–at how to keep us marching and the long arc bending toward justice–and to what happens when the pussyhats come off.
“It’s less about the organization and it’s more about the women who march. The Women’s March isn’t about us building a new institution, that’s not what we’re interested in at all,” says Bland, cognizant that she traverses well-blazed trails. “Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, shouldn’t have had to tirelessly work for 10 years before she even got her work recognized, but it was all about coalescing this female outrage into this moment and I think that you’re just going to continue to see women being their best warrior selves in 2018 and beyond.”
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