Thoughts on the Women’s March From Under My Pink Pussy Hat

January 2017

barry-and-me-at-womens-march

Barry and me at the Women’s March

 

I’m not a natural activist or marcher, but on January 21, 2017 I went to the Women’s March on Washington on the National Mall. There was no question about going. I had to go – to protest not just Trump’s misogynistic, “pussy-grabbing,” sexually predatory approach to women, but all the many other things about him that threaten to turn our country into a dystopian nightmare. Not going was not a moral option for me.

It’s not as if it required a long journey; I live just outside of Washington, D.C. A short hop on the D.C. Metro, and a longish walk, and we were there – my husband Barry, a couple of dear friends who did make a long trek to get here from North Carolina, and me.

We met up with a large contingent of people from the Washington Ethical Society (WES) that Barry and I are members of, and a variety of Unitarian Universalist churches that are “standing on the side of love.” After some waiting for everyone to show up and some picture-taking, the WES contingent set out in search of a good place from which to hear the speakers

This proved to be more of a challenge than we’d anticipated. Actually, just walking proved to be a big challenge. The National Mall was one huge sea of people – hundreds of thousands of women and men, many with pink pussy hats, holding signs expressing all sorts of sentiments dear to my heart. Two posters I later saw on Facebook particularly resonated with me: one showed an older woman holding a sign that read, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.” The other showed a sign that read, “So bad, even introverts are here.” Yep.

We inched our way along, often holding onto each other’s jackets or hands to stay together. We eventually stopped, however, because there was just nowhere to move. The National Mall was full; the avenues were full; marching was impossible. Rumors circulated about how many people were there; at one point someone told us that Fox News had estimated about 700,000. I later heard it was about half a million.

At a certain point we realized that it was well past 10:00 am, when the speeches were supposed to begin, and we’d heard nothing. We never did hear any of the speeches or any music, if there was any. We never got close enough to the stage, wherever it was. But somehow that didn’t matter. We were there. We were part of the sea of people, their pink pussy hats dotting the surface like so many whitecaps (or pinkcaps) on the ocean. We were there letting the country and the world know that we are not going to accept the kind of country that Donald Trump envisions. We are going to resist.

It’s hard to avoid the overwhelming “feel good” feeling of resistance in the midst of a rally or march with so many people holding up signs expressing what you think – especially a rally of the historic size and significance of the Women’s March. And especially one that was accompanied by so many marches and rallies in solidarity around the country and the world! There were marches in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and many, many other locations around the United States. There were marches or rallies in Amsterdam, Paris, and London; in Sidney, Australia; in Nairobi, Kenya; in Kolkata, India; in Erbil, Iraq; and in many, many other places around the world. Even in Antarctica there were people holding signs of solidarity with us.[1]

Surely with all these millions of people all around the country and the world standing in solidarity against an impending onslaught of authoritarianism, of racism and misogyny, of attacks on science and on truth itself from the incoming Trump administration – surely we will win!

Really?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since the Women’s March, along the lines of: where do we go from here? How do we bring about the kind of change we want?

There’s no question that the march sent a loud and clear message that millions of people care deeply about respect for human dignity and the rights and freedoms and democratic norms – to say nothing of a basic respect for truth – that we all feel are threatened by the Trump administration (and our fears are being borne out on a daily basis since Trump was sworn in as our new president[2]).

But marches – even large, historic marches – generally do not, in and of themselves, produce change. As Micah White notes in The Guardian:

“Without a clear path from march to power, the protest is destined to be an ineffective feelgood spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats.

 “It is exciting when a protest meme leaps from social networks to the streets, capturing the imagination of millions, … But it is all too easy to succumb to the false hope that a big splash is a transformative tsunami. Don’t be fooled. It is not. …

 “Today’s social activists have succumbed to one of the most enduring myths of contemporary American protest: the comforting belief that if you can get enough people into the streets from diverse demographics, largely unified behind a clear message, then our representatives will be forced to heed the crowd’s wishes.”

David Brooks writes in the same vein[3]:

“Sometimes social change happens through grass-roots movements … But most of the time change happens through political parties: The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution. Change happens when people run for office, amass coalitions of interest groups, engage in the messy practice of politics.

 Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. They have a social experience with a lot of people and fool themselves into thinking they are members of a coherent and demanding community. …

 It’s significant that as marching and movements have risen, the actual power of the parties has collapsed. Marching is a seductive substitute for action in an antipolitical era, and leaves the field open for a rogue like Trump.”

You might counter that marching is action, but I think Brooks and White are probably right – it’s not the kind of action that will alone result in change. For that we need a path to actual political power to effect that change.

Of course, the Women’s March was never intended to be the first and final step towards the kind of change we want to see. In fact the above-mentioned article in The Guardian starts off with an admission of a concern by one of the co-creators of the Women’s March: “’I’m not that interested in the march itself but in what comes afterwards,” Fontaine Pearson confided to the author of the article.[4]

Jen Psaki, White House Communications Director in the Obama administration, expressed a related concern a couple days before the march:

“… I have a sinking feeling in my stomach about the march. Not because I am worried about the cold or the chaos. But because I worry it will give too many people license to congratulate themselves for their activism and move on with their daily lives. … The march shouldn’t be a moment to rest and celebrate. It should be a warm up.”

I must confess that, being an introvert and not being a natural activist, my initial reaction to the Women’s March – and, in particular, my participation in it – was, “Good. Glad I did it and glad it’s over. I did my part.”

But after a short while I found myself wondering, “So what now? How are we going to get to where we need to be?”

I suspect that different people will have different ideas about “where we need to be” – i.e., of what success would look like. My idea of where we need to be politically is, in many ways, quite similar to where we used to be several decades ago, back before the rise of the conservative right – and before the point at which the Republican Party started going off the rails.

For me, where we need to be politically is a place (1) in which there is enough political compromise to get stuff done, (2) where money is not allowed undue influence on our political system, (3) where the pillars of a democratic system are strong – without gerrymandered districts, without voter suppression laws, and possibly without the electoral college, and (4) where facts, science, and evidence-based thinking are respected both outside of and within government. As you might have noticed, this place is now far away from where we currently are.

More broadly, we need to be in a place where there truly is equal opportunity and respect for all people, regardless of their race or gender or religious beliefs (or lack of them) or sexual orientation or any other determinant of identity. This isn’t just about making political changes (although those will help); it’s about changing hearts and minds. That, I suspect, is a lot harder.

So how do we get from here to there? There are those who advocate for revolution, but I’m not one of them. We are where we are, politically at least, in large part because the Republican Party – for all its loathsome ideology and tactics – has been much better than the Democratic Party at winning at all levels of government, from local and state-level governors and legislatures all the way up to our Congress and, now, the presidency. They have been willing to trash Democratic norms (e.g., abusing the filibuster and simply refusing to consider President Obama’s pick for Supreme Court justice to fill the slot created by Antonin Scalia’s death); and they have used various anti-democratic methods (like voter suppression laws and extreme gerrymandering) to do this. I am not advocating we follow their lead in this, but they have been remarkably successful. The country is now heavily Republican at all levels of government. If that doesn’t change, the kind of political change we want to see is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Marches with pink pussy hats are fun and energizing; a 50-state strategy[5] is not. But I believe that’s what we need – and not just every four years during presidential campaigns. Simply put, unless we’re into completely overthrowing the whole system – and I’m not – we need to greatly increase the number of our elected representatives, at all levels of government, who share our views. This may sound boring and unexciting (sounds that way to me), but I think it’s basically correct.

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks this (no surprise there). As I was driving to meet a couple of friends for coffee recently, I caught part of an interview of Ai-Jen Poo[6] on NPR in which she said something very similar. And I’m sure there are others. It’s not a brilliant new idea; it’s an old chestnut. Howard Dean advocated a 50-state strategy several years back. He was right then; I believe he’s still right.

Sigh. When I think about actually doing the hard (and tedious!) work of getting people elected whose ideas and attitudes I like – people who would have the power to push this country in the direction of the kinds of changes all of us pussy-hat-wearing types want to see … – whoa! I’m exhausted just thinking about it. If I haven’t mentioned it before, although I’m a political junkie when it comes to reading and commenting on politics, the thought of actually getting involved in politics is enough to put me in my grave. Just the thought.

I recently read that scientists are planning to run for political office to try to combat, from within, the horrifying anti-science attitudes that have become increasingly prominent in our (Republican-controlled) government.[7] I imagine many – probably most – of them share my feelings about getting personally involved in politics. And yet they’re stepping up to the plate. Kudos to them!

I’m not yet willing to run for a political office (and, given who I am, I would be terrible at it). But there are other things I – we – can do. One very positive consequence of the Women’s March on Washington is that it showed us just how many people care deeply about these issues, just how many of us there are – in this country and around the world. It was truly inspirational – and it has in fact inspired folks to find and share ways that ordinary citizens can push for change, even if we don’t run for office ourselves.

We can make ourselves available to help a Democratic 50-state strategy by signing up for new organizations that have popped up in response to Trump’s win. I recently signed up for SwingLeft[8], an organization devoted to helping turn swing districts blue, and I’m sure there are others. Ai-Jen Poo talked about groups of women organizing locally to encourage and help women who have never run for office consider doing just that. These are exciting (albeit scary) times!

So I think the unsexy 50-state strategy approach is necessary. If Democrats would just bestir themselves to vote in all elections – not just presidential elections – we would be in much better shape. Figuring out how to encourage that is a challenge. But at least we don’t have to argue with them about what kind of society we want; we don’t have to change their hearts and minds. We just have to change their willingness to go vote.

But what about everyone else? As horrifying as I find Trump’s win, I am equally – and perhaps more – horrified by how many Americans voted for him – how many for whom his stunning narcissism, his racism, his misogyny, his pathological lying, and his obvious disdain for democratic norms (to say nothing of his ignorance about both domestic and foreign policy) were insufficient to disqualify him for the highest office in the land.

And many of those who voted for Trump voted for Republicans all the way down the ticket – for the same Republicans who keep pushing for tax cuts for the rich and want to repeal Obamacare with nothing to replace it. The same Republicans who have done so much to pave the way for a demagogue like Trump. Is there any way at all to reach those folks? Or is it just not worth trying in even one state, let alone all 50?

We really do seem to be two very different cultures – largely rural versus urban – with very different values and preferences and attitudes. Is there any way to change the hearts and minds of those who are “on the other side”? Those whose “information universe” does not overlap at all with mine? And is it all just their fault? Is there anything that we on the left are doing to exacerbate the problem? More to ponder – and perhaps consider in another essay – well after I’ve put my pink pussy hat away.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/21/world/womens-march-pictures.html?_r=0

[2] See, for example: http://variety.com/2017/digital/news/white-house-switchboard-facebook-messenger-1201967138/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/environmental-protection-grants-staff_us_5886825be4b0e3a7356b575f?pon75akll8ei5dn29

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/24/trump-gives-green-light-to-dakota-access-keystone-xl-oil-pipelines/?hpid=hp_rhp-top-table-main_xlpipeline-1130a%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.797366cf15c8

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/us/politics/wall-border-trump.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

[3] I don’t agree with all of the Brooks piece (although I don’t think it deserved the scathing and snarky review it got from Slate): http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/01/24/david_brooks_women_s_marches_column_not_good.html ). However, I do think the main point I highlight here is well worth considering.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/19/womens-march-washington-occupy-protest

[5] A 50-state strategy is a political strategy to push for votes (in this case, for Democrats) in all 50 states.

[6] Ai-Jen Poo is an American activist and the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai-jen_Poo

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/thanks-to-trump-scientists-are-planning-to-run-for-office/514229/?utm_source=atlfb

[8] https://swingleft.org/

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