Five years after the Women’s March, it’s hard to remember how much changed in 2016: politics, seemingly overnight, became the most popular entertainment of the day.
It’s not that there hadn’t been things for Leftists to protest. But even as a war raged in Afghanistan and the economy nearly collapsed, in the days before Trump, one generally talked of other things at dinner: Mad Men and Breaking Bad, or sometimes Beyoncé. It was the Golden Age of Television, and it seemed that you only heard about the president at BDS meetings or in garages, where the late Rush Limbaugh was always playing from one radio or another.
Then things became very, very strange. Hillary Clinton was the Democratic frontrunner, even though she was the most hated woman in America (no woman is more disdained than the cuckquean that takes him back). The youth candidate was Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist from the state with the second smallest population.
The Republican field, meanwhile, was a rat-race-style menagerie of over a dozen buffoons, outcasts, and idiots: a Christian brain surgeon, a discount-pizza mogul, an office-supply executive, the producer of The Christmas Candle (21% on Rotten Tomatoes). Jeb Bush was giving out toy turtles at his rallies, calling himself a “joyful tortoise” who would “slow and steady win the race”. Rand Paul was advocating Medicare cuts, saying, “it’s your grandparents’ fault for having too many damn kids”.
And then there was Trump. He was a quintessential American huckster. He was a loud, cartoonish comedian. Obama had been good on TV too, but good for exactly the opposite reasons: he was handsome and charming, but ultimately, a level-headed technocrat following the facts.
Trump was chaotic, intense, irreverent. It was hard to tell what was serious, or how seriously to take him. Of Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Of the refugee crisis: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Of his own racism: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” Of his own power: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
The election, of course, became about women. Obama had been an unequivocal, mainstream feminist; in the August of the election year, he was profiled in a Glamour article titled, “This is What A Feminist Looks Like.” It was a popular T-shirt slogan. And of course, Hillary was supposed to make history as the first female president, a job she’d been groomed for since her days as a Goldwater girl.
But rather than play up his feminist bona fides, Trump went all in: Of a woman who’d won Miss Universe while he owned it: “She was the winner and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” Of Hillary Clinton: “Well, I think the only card she has is the woman’s card.” Also of Hillary Clinton: “Such a nasty woman.” Also of Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up.” Of women in general: “I cherish women. I want to help women. I’m going to be able to do things for women that no other candidate would be able to do.”
And of course, also of women, as revealed in the Access Hollywood tapes, gloating to Billy Bush in a bus on the way to set: “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything”.
But Trump won. It was against all efforts (the Clinton campaign flogged a $5 “Woman’s Card”) and against all predictions (the New York Times’s infamous “Hillary Clinton Has a 91% Chance to Win”). The Clinton campaign had been sure she would “break the glass ceiling”, but in the wee hours of November 9, her victory party under the transparent ceiling of the Javits Center in Manhattan turned into a scene of confused despair. The next few days felt surreal; there were calls for recounts. There were petitions for the Electoral College to revolt. My feminist mentors started warning me that a fascist coup was coming, and urging me to stock up on abortion pills.
And then there was the Women’s March.
The day after the election, a retired lawyer in Maui started a Facebook event inviting friends to march on Washington in protest. More pages popped up, for allied marches across the US. Within days, thousands had RSVP’d. Black, Latina, and Arab women were brought onto the leadership. Planned Parenthood became a partner. Indeed, hundreds of organisations became partners. Women coordinated marches in Norway, Canada, Australia, the UK, and France. There was even a march in the smaller European city I was living in at the time, though we were mostly drowned out by PKK protestors across the plaza. All told, half a million protestors descended on D.C. that January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, and three or four million across the country, and up to five million across the globe.
But what was the Women’s March about? When the organisers released a policy platform on January 12, it wasn’t just about so-called women’s issues: it covered reproductive freedom (government-funded reproductive healthcare, HIV/AIDS care and prevention, medically accurate sexually education, and access to affordable abortion and birth control), but also immigration reform, healthcare reform, prison reform, Islamophobia, worker’s rights, and even environmental rights. Borrowing Hillary Clinton’s tagline, the “guiding vision” document for “#WHYWEMARCH” stated that “We believe that Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights”. It also stated that “Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice” and that “LGBTQIA Rights are Human Rights”.
As many noted, though, the icon of the Women’s March was far less inclusive: it was the famous “Pussy Hat”. On the one side, there were the bright red MAGA hats; on the other side, there were the hot pink beanies with ears. Even today, you can find nearly a thousand Pussyhats on Etsy.
Every protest movement needs symbols, however cringe those symbols might be. And every protest movement, at an essential level, is symbolic. But perhaps the Women’s March, more than most, was a blurry call to action in pursuit of vague policy goals and in defence of a nebulous “democracy” that, as any reasonable political observer had noticed, had long been incapable, even under Obama, of achieving those aims. As speaker Gloria Steinem said, it was about “working for a democracy in which we are linked as human beings, not ranked by race or gender or class or any other label”. As the actress America Ferrera declaimed from the podium, it was about “saving the soul of our country”.
The Women’s March was supposed to set off a political movement. According to Scarlett Johansson, the tragedy of Trump’s election offered a chance “to get involved with and stay active in our communities. Let this weight not drag you down, but help to get your heels stuck in”. And in a sense, that happened. The next four years were ones of absolutely inescapable political divide. Holidays became unbelievably fraught; campuses were riven; social media became a fiery crucible of political memes, semi-accurate news, and open war. Protest movements were larger and more disruptive than ever — Kavanaugh was protested, George Floyd was avenged; it became normal, even de rigueur, to solicit donations to non-profits from your Instagram.
But did it work? The Trump Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stopped collecting pay data (which the Biden administration has stated it will resume). The Trump Department of Education narrowed the definition of campus sexual harassment and heightened the burden of proof in those cases (a move Biden is expected to undo in April). The Trump Department of Health and Human services implemented a domestic gag rule, preventing clinics receiving Title X family planning funding from offering or issuing referrals for abortions (which has since been reversed by the Biden administration). And in the largest, most enduring blow to the Women’s March agenda, Trump succeeded in installing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court – ironically, aided by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s much-celebrated refusal to retire under Obama. That last Trump achievement is harder to undo.
But did the Women’s March work? Their greatest hope was with the Kavanaugh protests, in many ways a redux of January 21, but one whose failure was harder to deny and thus more painful to endure.
Five years on, those early days seem like a strange dream. The energy and vitriol of the early Trump years have been largely buried, replaced with fatigue and resignation. It’s hard to find a Hillary fan these days, and the word “girlboss” has travelled from the proud “#girlboss” to the caustic mantra “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss”. The Red Scare podcast has popularised a certain insouciant anti-feminism among fashionable young women. “Trad” Twitter is bigger than ever. The new Sex and the City is more a punchline than a triumph. Kamala Harris, whose approval ratings plummeted to 28% last year, is far from the girl power icon many hoped her to be.
Perhaps the Women’s March was the forerunner to the January 6 insurrection, marking the beginning of a four-year insurrection against reality. The parade of pussyhats was a protest against as-yet imagined evils, and the January 6 insurrection was a coup by an opposition so bumbling as to be borderline imaginary. Ultimately, women’s access to abortion, at least, seems about as delicate as it’s always been; and Americans are surely still ranked by race, class, and gender. Sadly, it seems, the symbol was not enough.