On January 21, 2017, people around the world took part in the Women’s March, an international protest that has since been labeled as having been the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. The protests took place the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, intended to send a message to Trump, his administration, and other leaders that “women’s rights are human rights,” as well as to bring attention to many other human rights issues. Somewhere between a half a million to one million people participated in the Washington, DC March, and over 1% of the total U.S. population showed up for marches around the nation. I myself marched in the one that took place in Westfield, New Jersey, along with my husband and some of my close friends (please excuse my lack of creative capabilities, which would make a kindergartener laugh!)
On that day, I noticed that people at the various protests were wearing the pink “pussyhats” that have since become synonymous with the Women’s March. At the time, I didn’t think much of them, as neither I nor anyone I knew had worn one. Its creator and the people that wore the hats claimed that the hats were meant to symbolize the power of women and their allies and the relevance of the human rights issues they were trying to bring attention to, as well as being a dig at Donald Trump’s infamous “grab them by the —–” comments to Access Hollywood. In the months following the protests, I noticed that these hats had been appropriated by the right-wing to trivialize the Women’s March and its associated causes. As Zeynep Tufekci writes, “what appears to empower one group can also empower its adversaries and introduce novel twists to many dynamics.” What had been intended to empower supporters of the March and bring attention to the issues its participants were concerned about had been turned into a joke that the opposition was using to ridicule the protesters and their concerns.
In addition to the way that conservatives have warped the “signals” being sent out by the protesters, the protesters themselves failed to recognize the fact that the signal they were sending with the pussyhats was not inclusive of all women. Although the hat was created with a positive, empowering message in mind, many aspects of its signals were offensive and exclusionary for trans and queer women, women of color, and other marginalized groups. Rather than uniting women in the interest of common causes, it was dividing them.
Tufekci explains that social movements are characterized by “capacities” (abilities) and “signals,” which indicate a movement’s capability to sustain itself. Her examples of the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements and her comments about “outcomes” not always being representative of success put me in mind of the Women’s March. Even though the protests garnered attendance in record numbers and brought attention to a strong opposition to Donald Trump and his policies, the conservative right still managed to maintain their hold on the Senate in the midterm elections. The taking of the House by the Democrats suggests that some change has indeed been achieved, but the number of protesters that showed up for the Women’s Marches doesn’t seem to have translated into the kind of electoral change many expected considering those “outcomes.” One has to assume that the mixed “signals” it’s sent out, the trivialization of those signals by the conservative right, and the speed with which the movement was organized (a hazard much warned against by Tufekci) all have something to do with that.