The woman with sandy brown hair was nodding and smiling and crying as she sat behind the wheel of her stationary car on the Southeast Freeway in Washington DC. We made our black-clad way through the rows of quiet vehicles while chanting and clapping and smiling at those we had inconvenienced for a half hour. Her tearful nods of approval mirrored my own emotional state as I marched down the freeway in my very first protest. I smiled back as I responded “This is what democracy looks like” to the sing-song call “Tell me what democracy looks like” echoing across six lanes and a concrete median.
This is what the Disrupt J20 protest looked like for many of those who marched and, I like to hope, for many of the people witnessing it—inaugural visitors and pink pussyhat wearers alike. We were people of all ages, races, religions, and gender identities carrying signs, stickers, fliers, and children as we chanted our disdain for racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, and fascism. Our march on the highway was part of a much longer route through DC, and was, I assume given the ever-circling presence of a police helicopter, not part of the permitted action. Despite the stories of rioting and vandalizing that dominated the narratives about the Disrupt J20 protests in the national media, the majority of the protesting was peaceful. The only fight I saw was started by a red-hatted man as we neared the parade route and was quickly shut down by the protesters as a national guardsman looked on.
We arrived on the Southeast Freeway around 1 pm, an hour into our well-organized (this the media got correct), three-hour hike through a shockingly empty DC. Hundreds of us—a small bloc of the much larger effort—marched and shouted until we were hoarse. An introvert by nature, I chatted with people I had never met before and felt solidarity with them and the stopped motorists around me. Drivers and passengers stepped outside their cars to film or live-stream our march; they joined us in our chants; they gladly took fliers and stickers that we were passing out; they offered numerous high-fives; and they honked their horns in solidarity as we cheered loudly.
I’m not foolish enough to think that all were pleased by our act of civil disobedience. I’m sure a number of people were irritated. I felt a twinge of guilt knowing that I delayed travel plans for these commuters. But many of the people I marched with, and many of those I passed on the road, have much more to lose from this new administration than a half hour out of their day.
My favorite protest song is a version of “Which Side Are You On?” from the early 1980s. It was written for the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a women-only antinuclear occupation protest in Berkshire, England, that lasted nineteen years. It goes like this:
Are you on the side that don’t like life
Are you on the side of racial strife
Are you on the side that beats your wife
Which side are you on?
Are you on the side who loves to hunt?
Are you on the side of the National Front?
Are you on the side who calls me cunt?
Which side are you on?
It feels good to sing in groups. Churches know it, children know it, peace activists know it. One measure of a crowd’s cohesion is its ability to do it well. Can the assembled sing the same songs? What if the only song they know in common is Beyoncé, and nobody has her range?
There was little singing at the Women’s March in DC, but the few attempts I saw went badly. The first came from a white woman in her sixties marching to my left, who let out a lonely warble of, “Aaaaallll we are saaaaaaaying”—already there were groans from the crowd—“is give peace a chaaaaance.” But peace was not the demand or the mood. On the drive down from New York to DC, I had watched dozens of videos of white supremacist poster-boy Richard Spencer get elbowed in the face by a Black Bloc protester on Inauguration Day, searching for the best remix. I’ve landed only one punch as an adult woman, a weak one, but I know the satisfaction. I was 21 and dancing at a party when a drunk man came up behind me, reached around my waist, and clamped his hand between my legs. When I turned around to swing, I was angry, but also puzzled. Who does that? The President, now, I guess.
The second attempt at singing I heard was a sleepy rendition of “This Land is Your Land” from a group of girls waiting to enter the subway. At the top of the escalator stood two police officers regulating traffic, two of the six I would see all day. I’d watched another pair earlier that morning near the Capitol, zip-tying shut the doors of several overstrained porta-potties that a line of pink-hatted women had been waiting some twenty minutes to use. “You can’t do that!” one cried in agony. One of the cops, crouching by the toilets, winced at the foul liquid pooling near his feet. “Actually we can.” I’d never seen so many people attended by so few police. Over the next few days, people on social media would laud “the women” for “keeping it classy” and “showing the world” how peaceful protest “is done.” But it should be obvious by now that the peacefulness of the DC march—the zero arrests, the orderly conduct—owed more to the lack of police, and the presumed innocence of the mostly white marchers, than to the innate and virtuous pacifism of the female sex.
I’ve argued in the past that women living under patriarchy have at least that much in common: they are women living under patriarchy, and they can constitute a unified class on that basis should the need arise. The Women’s March might be proof of concept, and it’s left us with images of just how large that class can be when the common denominator—opposing President Donald Trump—is so low. The route was full by noon, and our numbers left us nowhere to march. Clusters of people, eager to move, ebbed from the rally into the surrounding streets. I climbed on a friend’s shoulders to see the next available turn, and what I saw made my heart race: every street packed to its vanishing point in all directions. What the view didn’t show was the cost at which this commonality came: the array of histories, loyalties, commitments, even realities, that women had to leave at the door in order to march under the banner of Women.
A total Monet: it looks good from far away, but up close it’s a big old mess. And the mess is old, cycling through the same eternal conflicts over what a broad coalition can and cannot achieve. It’s easier now to remember what the march left wanting than the awe of the crowd, the buzz of potential, the pleasure of reading the signs, in person and online, which were funnier than I anticipated (I’d call you a cunt, but you don’t have any depth or warmth; urine over your head; 3 doors down: lol). It was like seeing part of the internet in the flesh. Here were all the avatars, bearing messages they had optimized for the meme: short, clever copy (Twitter), elaborate displays of craftsmanship yearning to be photographed (Instagram).
How much did I have in common with my fellow marchers? Maybe not much. The demands I did see were good—No DAPL, a $15 minimum wage, clean water for Flint, an end to private prisons and mass incarceration, affordable health care, reproductive rights, and so on—but there were too few of them, lost in the sea of vulvas. Still, never in my life have I seen so many women gathered under any political pretext. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t move me.
Kate and Abby are 13-year-old twins. On Friday, they sat at a dinner table in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with their friend Marley, and talked about religion and rape, school uniforms and their upcoming trip to Washington DC, Michelle Obama memes and cultural appropriation. They talked about the Protect Life Act, sometimes called Let Women Die, and about Vice President Mike Pence.
“You wouldn’t want to have the baby of someone who raped you,” says Abby. “It’s upsetting. But you have to respect his views.”
“I don’t respect them,” says Kate.
A debate starts about what it means to respect an idea. Does it mean you approve of it? That you tolerate it? “Anyone can have any views, but what about when you make your views into something that’s a law?” says Marley.
Kate and Abby know these topics do not directly affect them yet, but they talk as if they will. When Kate interrupts Abby, she shoots back: “You have to listen to other people!” Kate dives under the table. When she emerges, she does a little wiggle, waving her arms like streamers, making us laugh. We forget for a moment why we’re here.
The next morning I am on one of hundreds of buses pulling into the foggy city. The crowd in DC is so large that its size is a contested data point. You can never get a clear look at it. Even the aerial photos seem like one point of view, no better or worse than the photos Inès, 15, takes from our bus’s window. Pictures of signs, of hats, of a faraway woman standing alone on a strip of grass.
Inès is too young to vote, but she followed the election closely. Most memorable to her were Hillary’s public appearances, which she watched on television with friends. “She came out and the whole entire crowd was in awe. I’m playing the image in my head . . .” She trails off. Inès is well-spoken but apologizes constantly for losing her words.
Inès wants to become a curator in a museum. All day, she takes pictures. “All the colors of the signs really burst on the screen,” she recalls the next day. “And people’s smiles lit up. It felt like we were part of this peaceful tribe.”
Why did Clinton lose? She doesn’t know, and responds with questions: “She won by the popular vote? What happened with Russia?” I explain, knowing I don’t have the well-spoken answer she’s looking for.
Juliette, 19, voted for the first time in November. She’s made a sign for today: I didn’t come from your rib. You came from my vagina. She takes pictures with disposable cameras, since police at other protests she’s been to have sometimes confiscated phones.
It was strange to go through “a multi-year, cumulative experience of educating myself about the system we live in and then have the world totally flip,” she says. “That’s where the element of despair comes from.”
One of Juliette’s mom’s friends wants to get to the front of the march to be ahead of the crowd. We follow her, hand in hand, snaking through signs. Eventually we realize we’re looking for something that might not be attainable. “My feet are numb,” reads a nearby sign. “We’re not making any progress,” I overhear. The crowd is packed tight.
The voice of Erika Andiola, an immigration activist and Bernie Sanders’s former press secretary, echoes from a faraway speaker: “A woman who, when she was hit over and over again by my own father, never showed a sign of weakness to us,” she says, of her mother. “The same woman who was in my house when I accidentally opened the door to ICE and was taken.”
A cry of “let’s march” catches on every so often. The chanters, mostly white, drown out Andiola, already hard to hear. A van with a siren approaches. It parts the crowd and packs us even closer together.
Juliette says she needs to take a break. She’s frustrated. “Other marches are inspiring, but I feel less optimistic here than I did this morning,” she says. “It feels like we’re here out of obligation.”
The crowd begins to move. Inès clings to her mom’s backpack. I think she might be frightened, but later, she sets me straight. “My mom and I were hugging each other because we were so happy. I was just overwhelmed with joy.”
Fuck, Shit, Hell reads one sign. Inès laughs.
In another part of the crowd, Coco, 11, sees a sign she doesn’t understand: America drunkenly swiped right. Her sister Eloise, 14, explains it to her. Eloise sees a sign she disagrees with: A real feminist is pro-life.
Gender expectations evolve with age, notes Eloise. “When you’re younger it’s like you have to wear pink, then you get older and you can be a slut.” As an adult, she explains, you behave calmly. “You keep your anger inside you.”
Around mid-afternoon, Kate and Abby find a wall to stand on, from which they can watch other marchers. It’s still one perspective, but it feels like a bigger one, more stuff in their field of vision. There are chants about Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, posters supporting the Affordable Care Act and labor unions, signs attacking Rex Tillerson and Paul Ryan. There are people as far as most people can see marching and yelling. Sometimes the yelling doesn’t include words, it’s just a noise.
The night before the march, I stay with a childhood friend of mine. We are both queer women of color and so we huddle together against the people who want us dead, call our immigrant mothers to reassure them that we’ll make it back alive. She lives on Scott Circle, less than a twenty-minute walk from the Black Bloc action on K Street where police toss stun grenades and canisters of tear gas at protesters. In his inauguration speech, Trump says, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” We google, yet again, “how to deal with pepper spray.” We peer out of her blinds at the people marching by, their movements flurried, meteorological.
We write legal aid phone numbers down on a sheet of paper and tuck them into our boots. I don’t put on lipstick because of the familiar mental calculus: that for people like me—my hair (short, black, curly), my skin (brown), my body (small, dubiously female), my race (other)—there are punishments for being seen.
The group I end up marching with is primarily straight white women I don’t know. They are pretty and smiley and flushed from excitement. Unlike me they are gloriously, blissfully unafraid. They hand us some signs. Mine says, in sparkly block stickers, we will not go back. I’m vaguely amused at the idea of the white ladies earnestly crafting the sign, wondering where exactly the “back” refers to. What history, what homeland—what we?
Throngs of middle-aged white women in pink pussyhats wander by, smiling, laughing, passing out signs and sandwiches. I am shorter than most and so I am bumped periodically by people pushing toward the front, and I think how funny it is that I am marching for women when—caught at the intersection of race, nationality, sexuality, gender, and ability—woman (not to mention pussy) is a word that more often alienates me than not.
But I am also acutely aware of the privilege of moving uninhibited through space. The crowd—pink, dowdy, raucous, enormous—allows me that luxury. And so as we march together up Pennsylvania Avenue, I feel the exhilaration of my feet hitting the road, my arms linked in others’ arms, my voice at the sky, all those perverse freedoms of the body en masse. If you stop after today, then this protest is just a parade, a sign reads. A little girl leads a chant as we walk. “Whose streets? Our streets.” There are so many people I forget my terror for a moment, caught up in a forward surge that’s imperfect but irresistible, neither breath nor burn—not the best thing nor the last thing but something, at least, a necessary little thing, to look up at Trump’s hotel and yell “shame” with our middle fingers up, to scream “We will not go away / Welcome to your first day.”
On Inauguration Day, we marched until around three in the afternoon and then decided we’d had enough. We found a subway stop and descended into the station. A train pulled in, and as the passing windows began to slow down, I waited for a car that didn’t have too many red hats inside. One had a few empty seats amid a cluster of women with signs, which seemed encouraging. The train was brightly lit and extremely new, with flashing electronic displays. Molly, who lives in Washington, said she had never seen one of this type before. We sat down.
A mother and her child, a boy maybe 8 or 9 years old, sat directly across the car from us. Some of the other women tried to say a thing or two to the boy, but he didn’t perk up much in response. I don’t know what they were trying to say to him. I was feeling the warmth come back into my face, and my feet were sore, and the train was rocking back and forth.
Then the mother said, to the women, “I’m sorry. He had a real bad experience with some police.” Now I paid attention. The boy was thin and slightly pale, with brown hair that framed his face. He was making an enormous effort to compose himself. Though no longer crying, there was still a chance the tears would come back, and so he had to inhale sharply and conduct a quick little wrestling match with his face. He wore an anti-Trump sticker. He could feel the increased attention and sympathy being directed toward him by the other women and by us, and this made him more determined to keep it together even as it made the task more difficult. He tried to ignore the people around him so that he could focus on himself. He looked like he was thinking hard. His mother next to him was paying attention to the surroundings in a protective way and also doing some thinking of her own.
Later, Kelley told me that one of the remarks to which the boy had not responded was a compliment about his sticker. Now another woman complimented his beanie, which had the Star Wars logo printed on the folded-up cuff. She said, “One of my friends works on Star Wars, and she’d be very happy to see you wearing it.” At this, the boy’s face lit up, though he immediately became solemn again. I thought, here is one nice thing about the fact that they’re going to make a new Star Wars every year until I die. The mother and the boy got off at our stop, while the other women kept their seats. On my way out, I said, “See you all tomorrow,” by which I think I meant to consolidate feelings of solidarity around our having all just seen this boy’s distress, but nobody heard me. By the time I made it out of the train, the boy and his mother were gone.
Protesting had been a nice way to avoid hearing Trump’s inaugural address as he delivered it, but now that we were back inside with our laptops, it couldn’t be put off any longer. In the notes I wrote down for this piece later in the evening, “put off any longer” is followed by, “[some funny sentence??],” but I don’t have one—I just thought Trump’s speech was awful. After watching it, I spent some time clicking around on Twitter, and after a few minutes, I came across a video that had been taken by a protester.
In the video, police with day-glo jackets, helmets, and shields sent thick gouts of orange and white pepper spray into a crowd of protesters on a sidewalk. A woman in a long green hippie skirt stood doubled over on the sidewalk, clutching her face until people came over to grab her arms and walk her to safety. One officer shot a line of pepper spray directly at the person recording the video, and the camera wobbled. The crowd was now retreating up the street. Then a woman rushed across the screen with a smaller figure in her arms. She yelled, “My child!” and people around her began to call for water. “You maced a child!” a man yelled back at the police. The woman’s back was turned to the camera as she set the kid down on a ledge, but then someone else hoisted him up to move him further down the street, and when his face popped up above the adults’ shoulders I could see that it was the boy from the train. He was sobbing. They set him down again and called for a medic. The camera turned to look back up the street towards the police. A cloud of pink tear gas floated by in the distance, and some masked protesters threw stones. I read later that six cops sustained minor injuries, and maybe some of them were caused by the stones, but none of the injured cops were nine-year-olds in Star Wars hats. Then a tear gas canister landed right near the camera and right near the boy. It exploded with a thunderous crack. There were shrieks, and then the video ended.
“I Will Go Out” was organized as a response to a mass molestation of women that took place in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve. Simultaneous marches were held in thirty cities across the country, demanding the equal access of women to public spaces.
I attended one of the two marches in Delhi, from Barakhamba Road to Jantar Mantar. It was very successful—a few hundred people marched, women raised slogans, chanting “no means no,” “ab kehti hai har ek nari, din bhi hamara, raat bhi hamari” (every woman says, the day is ours, the night is ours), and singing feminist songs. Journalists wove through the crowd, taking pictures, asking people why they were there. Because everyone has a right to public spaces, one man replied. The organizers’ framing of the issue undoubtedly resonated with many.
At Jantar Mantar, we gathered for more sloganeering and speeches. The organizers spoke, thanking us for coming and informing us that the I Will Go Out collective would continue to raise issues of access, and that this was not an end but a beginning. Many young women spoke of how good it was to see so many women come together.
There are of course questions of the event’s links with a broader feminist politics, including how people were mobilized, who came, and which issues were raised. I’m not sure how I would score it on that count. The organizers had announced in their official statement that they stood in solidarity with Soni Sori, Jisha, Manorama, Jyoti Pandey and other women victims and survivors of sexual violence. Yet it seems inadequate and cursory to ascribe what these women have faced and in some cases continue to face to gendered public spaces and misogynistic mindsets. No references were made to these women during the course of the program. Recent events, too, went unmentioned: there was no reference, for instance, to Radhika Vemula, detained by the police just five days previously, while attempting to enter the University of Hyderabad to visit her son Rohith’s memorial on the first anniversary of his death.
Marches and demonstrations depend on people coming together and connecting with one another. It isn’t a question of numbers, but of the meaning of being together, the creation of a dynamic where the line between organizer and organized is blurred. There’s an attempt to evolve an “us” from the disparate groups and individuals who have come together.
Maybe I will be accused of romanticizing protest politics. I certainly don’t want to gloss over the challenges of bringing people together, the work that goes into forging alliances despite conflicting interests, mistrust, miscommunication, thoughtlessness, prejudice, and so much else. But the organizers’ “thank you for coming” rankle. It’s what one might say to a guest at a wedding or a dinner party, and somewhat belies their statement that we would come together as one. Nothing could have communicated better the distance between me and them, even if they were very happy to see me at their event.
I Will Go Out was clearly very meaningful for many women. Several people said that they were happy to see so many women together, that it gave them strength. Hopefully they took some of that strength with them when they left.
On a map, Market Street is an arrow that cuts diagonally across the center of San Francisco, ending at the bay. It’s an obvious choice for parades. At Gay Pride and Chinese New Year, I cheered from the other side of the guard rail. But at the Women’s March, there wasn’t a guard rail.
We walked in the rain, in the encroaching dark. Those of us in hooded jackets pulled our hoods over our heads, so that from the back it was almost impossible to distinguish your friends from the rest of the crowd. Someone gave me a glowstick to light my way, or perhaps to illuminate myself. I balanced a sign a friend handed me—Pussies Against the Patriarchy—in one hand, my umbrella in the other.
A minor celebrity dressed in a Pepto-Bismol-pink trench came up from behind. I heard gasps and turned back. She studied my sign. “Yeah!” she yelled. “Yeah!” I yelled back. The minor celebrity scampered off, deeper into the crowd. A man whose sole job was to hold her umbrella chased after her, trying to predict her next step.
Someone let out a yell, and the rest of us answered. In waves, we screamed. Like we were cheering on a performance—but we were also the stage.
“Look!” A friend pointed to poster of a fallopian tube (a raised arm) ending in an ovary (a clenched fist). I plainly loved the anatomical drawings. The personified labias, the cartoon uteruses dancing before me—this, after a lifetime of cheap shots. Vaginas, we are told, are gross. Vaginas are necessarily hidden. Each physical aspect of vaginas is curious, even appalling: the texture, the dampness, the smells, the hairs.
I barely noticed the police. They were gathered in small groups, hands off. “Because white women are precious,” a friend said to me later.
I understood the tension that simmered in her sentence. Just the night before, on the other side of San Francisco Bay, helicopters circled the skies in Oakland. “How are you getting home?” my colleagues and I asked each other. “We better leave. We might get stuck.”
BART may shut down. The freeway may shut down. Police in riot gear blocked off part of Broadway already. My coworkers sent around an evacuation plan. Oakland was prepared for smashed storefronts, trash fires, and tear gas.
But in the hours after Trump was sworn in, after the Obamas had left the White House, I didn’t see any violence. I saw crowds of Berkeley High and UC students streaming down Telegraph Avenue. On my afternoon coffee break, I was swept up in their march. They chanted, “The people united will never be divided.” A group stopped outside Oakland School of the Arts and shouted up to the art students to join them. A few painters perched out the window and waved, but they stayed in their studio.
On Monday, we were recounting our favorite memes. “Did you see the sign that said, I’ll See You Nice White Ladies at the Next #BlackLivesMatter March, Right?”
“How is that helpful?”
“What about trans women? Are we excluding trans women?”
I’m still not sure whether this dialogue is productive. But I do believe that we are hardest on the people who are trying to get it right. We scrutinize the would-be heroes that fall short. The ones who get close, but not quite.
Somewhere beneath Columbia Heights, waiting for our Metro car to move, my protest group watched a reunion take place: two women who hadn’t seen each other in three decades, not since high school, and now here they were. They greeted each other with disbelief, and no one within earshot bothered to pretend not to listen their conversation. The women talked about a mutual friend whom one of them had fallen out of touch with, about their jobs, about their children and adopted grandchildren—all the while implicitly discussing only one thing: the paths that had taken one of them to Oklahoma, had kept one of them in Takoma Park, and that now brought them both to the Women’s March on Washington.
The most striking thing about the marchers was their age. At most of the protests I’d attended in the past, the participants were usually under 30 or 35. Here there were crowds of women my mother’s age, and some older than my grandmother. The Obama generation turned out too, of course. There were signs about how socialism is the only cure, and plenty of meme-based content. The Women’s March was likely the first protest to feature a sign accusing its antagonist of liking Nickelback.
Yet—at least in our corner of the thick mass of protesters—the march seemed to belong to women who had seen an atavism congealed into the form of Donald Trump, a reminder of decades of discrimination, of casual brutality from bosses and husbands. They embroidered their coats with slogans that cut more deeply when delivered by women who had already heard it all. I was deeply moved by the sight of mothers marching with daughters, grandmothers marching with granddaughters, by all the posters that declared that women were marching for one another. Terry Castle once wrote that she was troubled by the way the kids today keep in close touch with their parents—that this was so different from her own post-adolescent autonomy. But even if the clichés about over-parenting are true, close ties could become politically generative.
Will it work? This wrong question was asked immediately, predictably, even in the midst of the march itself. Yes, it will work. Most of the marchers won’t donate to Planned Parenthood, or call their senators and representatives, or run for local races, or attend marches for the climate and Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights and economic justice, or even go to smaller future women’s marches that will hopefully transform the Trump era into a time of intense and persistent activism. But the numbers on Saturday were so large that enough of them will. Many will be older women galvanized by the election of this vile administration and its adjutants in Congress, all of them emissaries from the past. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I don’t think it will be for long.
I was late buying my tickets for the Women’s March. By the time I looked at Amtrak’s website, toward the end of December, every train leaving New York the day before the march was sold out. I ended up making a reservation on a 1 am Greyhound bus. When I got to the Port Authority, there was a crowd of several hundred people: mostly women, mostly white, many of them dressed in pink. What I was most struck by was the number of girls in their teens or early twenties traveling alone or in pairs. Some of them were clearly students from colleges around the city; others were in the jeans and knee-high boot combo that signaled they had come in from commuter towns in Westchester and New Jersey. I grew up in the suburbs outside New York, and I remember taking long bus trips with my female friends in high school—we once went to Florida for spring break—and, later, accompanying my college boyfriend to protest marches, but I had never seen so many teenage girls going to a political demonstration together before.
When we arrived at Union Station in DC at four-thirty in the morning, the line for the women’s bathroom was half an hour long. Here, too, there was a sea of pink: pink T-shirts, pink sneakers, the floppy-eared pink hats I learned later that women had hand-knit for the march. In the bathroom, women were cheerfully brushing their teeth and applying mascara, asking each other how to get to Independence Avenue. Outside, in the station’s entrance hall, dozens of people were sleeping with their heads on each other’s shoulders on the marble floor.
I went to the march with my mom and brother, who live in DC, and two of my brother’s friends who had driven in from Austin. My mother, always well-organized, had already bought cardstock earlier in the week, before supplies began to run out. When I arrived at her apartment, she handed me a sign and a selection of three scarves in different shades of pink, telling me to choose one. I objected—I hate wearing pink, and I hate my mother trying to dress me—but my brother, who had rooted around in his closet for his only pink button-down, rolled his eyes and explained patiently, “It’s like being a sports fan. You have to show support for your team.”
We moved slowly, at one point coming to a complete halt. At every intersection, we met other columns of marchers, seemingly just as long as ours, and a plethora of signs: Black Lives Matter, rainbow flags, Stop Gun Violence. Some signs were explicitly anti-Trump (Omg he’s nuts). Others were pussy-themed (Born with claws) or expressed support for reproductive rights. A common refrain had to do with the raising of voices that previously been subdued (I will not go quietly back to the 1950s; When even introverts are protesting, you know something’s wrong; I can no longer remain silent; I won’t be quiet anymore).
Since Trump won, I’ve kept thinking back to a question a man I know asked me eighteen months ago, as the election was just beginning. “Don’t you think,” he said, “that we’ve already more or less achieved gender equality among, well, people like us?,” by “people like us” meaning the white liberal middle class. At the time, I agreed with him. The past year has made me realize this was not the case. I was not equal, had never been equal, and, without a radical transformation of our political and economic system, would never be equal. Saturday’s march suggested that there are many other middle-class white women who, like me, are beginning to understand this for the first time.
Before I describe my experience at the Women’s March in New York, a little background. I spent one of the first nights following the election at a wine-fueled dinner with friends. Whistling (shrilly) in the dark, I made a sardonic toast to Russia, congratulating them on their long game in winning the cold war (I may have even said “na zdorovye!”). I didn’t know at that point how accurate my instinct was. I’m not a Russia hawk, but I grew up in Cuba in the ’80s and early ’90s and am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. My first serious job after college was with an organization that pursued accountability for mass atrocity and human rights abuses; my academic training and current work are about scrutinizing the mechanics and strategy of language and spectacle. I recognize wonky elections, dictator rhetoric, racist fascism, and disinformation when I see them.
As people started talking about the Women’s March—registering for buses, gathering enthusiasm and motivation—I felt a growing sense of dread. Trump, as scholars of the topic have repeatedly and convincingly argued, has displayed a fascistic obsession with spectacle and dominance. He has empowered misogynists and white nationalists and the Klan and every wannabe William Wallace with a ski mask and a Bushmaster XM15-E2S. To face him on his first full day in power with a demonstration of defiance designed to rebut his own spectacle of dominance seemed to me like a tactical mistake: a powder keg of a kind of repressive violence most Americans can neither anticipate nor fully conceive. Where my friends envisioned Bolotnaya Square, or Tahrir, I remembered only the bloodied streets that followed.
As I spoke to these friends—mostly white, highly educated women, many of them mothers—about their determination to attend, I heard myself sounding crazy. I was that person, the person Masha Gessen has described as “the hysteric in the room.” I could feel people backing away from me, and I considered my position.
I decided, ultimately, that I must protest, even if my gender, skin color, Jewishness—even my profession—have put a target on my back. That didn’t mean I had to go to DC, but I would put my body in a place of solidarity—in New York, where I live, where I know what noise is a bad noise, what movement in a crowd is off, what my escape routes are. I did not approach the Women’s March as a moment of transcendent joy or as a protest with an achievable end. I approached it solely as an action that took all my courage: a refusal to cede my First Amendment right to peaceable assembly before it was forcibly taken from me.
After the march, I thought about my premises: it had been peaceful, there had been zero arrests, everything had gone wonderfully. For a moment, the situation felt livable, manageable. Then I thought about what would have happened if that march had been a massive demonstration for Black Lives Matter—if, instead of hundreds of thousands of white women in pink hats in the streets to face down Trump, it had been a sea of black and brown men in hoodies. I didn’t have to imagine: I could look at the images from Ferguson, of the Oath Keepers paramilitary “volunteers” patrolling the roofs with automatic weapons trained on people marching with the simple, heartbreaking insistence that our lives matter. I can look at our next attorney general and know that he shares the same false chivalry that enables men to protect white women as property and turn fire hoses on black men, women, and children. If it’s that chivalry that the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump continue to rely on, then the march, joyful as it may have been, also solidified the stratification of citizenship in our country—the unequal valuation of human life on which Trump rode to power, and which he will now attempt to entrench in law and practice.
The day before I left for DC, I learned to my dismay that I might run into my therapist at the rally. I’ve always thought it unserious to turn political rallies into venues for self-expression, and the fear of running into one’s therapist at an historic collective moment felt particularly self-involved. Merging your voice with the crowd allows for a break from inner noise, but certain concerns will unavoidably disconnect you from the crowd. What should I wear? What should I put on my sign? Is it okay if this is my first rally? Am I coming for the right reasons?
And at every political event, no matter how unified, lingering questions as to whether folks are on the same page about the struggle, about their respective roles in that struggle. When any injustice is called out on a larger scale, the question remains. Why today? This is especially true for those who have suffered the most by that injustice (a distinction we do not always agree on). Where were you yesterday? How can I trust that you will be here tomorrow, considering that when you leave you’ll return to the same environment that previously enabled your complacency? These are the politics of “showing up,” and they can kill the otherwise intoxicating buzz of being one of many.
In the run-up to the Women’s March, its organizers contended with the obstacles of cross-hatching race and gender over a number of issues. I thought they handled it pretty well. They owned up to the divides. The ultimate goal of such a movement, in any case, is to seed organizations. Organizations aren’t only practical—they are therapeutic. The tensions between the disparate wings of whatever comes next will not go away. Ideally this friction will not be wasted on the rhetoric of where one fits, of personal authenticity. I suspect that the injunction to live your politics in every moment is something that hangs in the backdrop of every movement, but that is magical thinking. Rallies are moments.
And the romance of political organizations is that they connect each moment, moderating what makes the search for insurgent unity both exhilarating and discomfiting. An organization (dare I say, a party) lowers the stakes of personal involvement in political events, providing a bulwark against the inward-looking guilt and insecurity that may haunt political engagement in uncertain times.
My father is a member of a political organization. I once asked him if he ever experienced the anxiety of showing up to a political event. He admitted: yes, but it helps to know that some comrade will be there, even if I’m not.
The day of the inauguration, I went to go see Mastry, the Kerry James Marshall retrospective at the Met Breuer. Marshall’s paintings are monumental in size and theme, though often depicting “ordinary” scenes—a living room slow dance, a July 4 barbecue, a beauty salon—populated exclusively by black people, rendered in a very dark, flat black. I spent a long time studying the faces of Marshall’s women, each an indescribable calculus of pride, anger, knowingness, and pleasure. They’re often looking right at you, as if posing for a portrait or anticipating being spoken to. The effect is something I can only describe as equal parts punishing and sustaining, like being explicitly debarred from—but nonetheless still tacitly permitted to be present at—whatever fantasy, joy and ordinariness, they had made for themselves.
The next day I marched in New York—or, in truth, spent a lot of time standing—in what felt like a very long hallway at a very white party. This is not to say that I’m not glad that I was there, among the hundreds of thousands who were, like me, trying to feel good. It’s that I recognized this experience as one more in a life trajectory dominated by the disappointment of ending up in white rooms, white houses, white institutions, well-meaning spaces now trying to do better. Much of this history is my own failing. But it was difficult not to be wary of even the most well-intentioned, who will do their best to ensure that their subjectivities continue to be the center and the source of the narrative: we must learn to understand and empathize with them, we should engage in better debate, let’s not resort to violence. Who is we and them and us? What looks like virtue can also be a familiar maneuver to control the commons; for all its good intentions, the optimism of the march was coercive (and amnesiac) too, in its way: this is what belongingness feels like, this is what a beginning looks like.
Everyone is trying to feel good, to feel like they matter. Trump makes his supporters feel like they matter, however impoverished and violent the fantasy that sustains this feeling. Five days in, I’m unshakably afraid. I don’t know what will happen. Still, I want to say: not knowing is good. Trying is good. Coming up against different ideas of what is good often leads to disappointment, if not defensiveness and foreclosure. But feeling bad or ambivalent or confused in the same space, even more than feeling good together, is the necessary precondition for figuring out what matters to each of us, and how to matter to each other.
A notice on Twitter: remember to save your hats and signs to give to historical archives.
Brief panic as I see a woman on the 6 with printed-out tickets. Did I need tickets?
At the corner of 42nd and Park: A woman in a neon yellow vest trying to goad people into using their voices: “If you believe it, shout it!” Another woman nearby tells us, “I’m not much of a yeller.” The woman in the neon vest: “So whisper, then!”
Whisper—or paint signs and crochet hats. Two tall women in their thirties admire a sign written in silver glitter with loopy handwriting; there are giggles at Cheeto-in-Chief; and solemn appreciation for the Audre Lorde quote: I am not free while any woman is unfree. In fact, there is a lot of conspicuous admiring of signs (signs taken for wonders)—for being clever, for being blunt, for having an image of a vagina, for understating.
Woman in fifties, wearing hot pink athleisure, prominent calves, leading the most forceful chant I’ve heard all day. “When they go low, we go high!” for about a minute. When it’s over, she turns to her husband and says, “Well, that was OK.” He says: “You did great, honey.”
I wonder how things are going in DC. “I’m carrying a Black Lives Matter sign,” my boyfriend texts me. “A Trump supporter just came up and said, ‘No they don’t.’”
On my Facebook feed: “Just high-fived Chuck Schumer.”
A faraway drumbeat, a few men diffidently chanting, “Her body, her rights!” Joined by a woman also shouting, “Her body, her rights” before switching to “My body, my rights!” The men’s chants subside.
Guy wearing a fuzzy, shrimp-colored coat, Andy Warhol’s signature tattooed on inner left wrist, mirrored glasses (possibly Snapchat spectacles). He’s carrying a sign that reads Silence=Death, but not saying anything.
The flow of people stops at 53rd. I mentally compare the Women’s March to the protest I’d been to the day after the election on the same street. The march up 5th Avenue had felt different then: nighttime; raining; a man ecstatically jumping on the roof of his car, shouting “Fuck Donald Trump!”; the loud, low honking of supportive truck drivers; the hoarseness of everyone’s voices; crustpunks hanging off scaffolding.
This march was different: conducted in the light. I haven’t seen any Trump supporters. The sea of crocheted pink hats makes an accumulated, visual statement, not an aural one—no accident, when solidarity is shared primarily on social media, recorded in images for posterity’s sake.
(A day later, Hillary Clinton would tweet: “Scrolling through images of the #womensmarch is awe-inspiring. Hope it brought joy to others as it did to me.”)
I cross town to meet up with two friends. Standing at 53rd and 3rd, a woman crosses the street, and excitedly addresses us: “We’re fucking up New York, I can’t believe it! It’s amazing! We’re just fucking it up!” We stare at her blankly. “You guys don’t speak English, do you?” she says.
We meet up with my friend’s mom, who had been pooping in the designated bathrooms. We stand outside eating pizza and a calzone in the sunlight. Napkins keep flying off the tray. “Mom, what should we be doing?” Having conversations with people about issues for which the stakes are lower, she says, so people aren’t immediately up in arms. Like fracking in upstate New York.
I leave them to get on the subway as the fog is rolling in. My friend’s mom stops me as I’m walking away: “Don’t be sad, be mad.” They say that depression is repressed aggression.
The phallus, symbol of patriarchal power, is by definition tall, rigid, and indestructible. Its fleshly enforcer, the penis, can do a lot of damage. But the penis is also, literally, thin-skinned, vulnerable. Erect or flaccid, the penis casts a shadow of doubt on the unimpeachable phallus.
Standing sentry between the symbolic phallus and the biological penis is the prick. Puffed up and truculent, the prick is forever whipping it out, defending its honor, picking a fight. “To display the penis (or any of its surrogates),” Freud wrote, “is to say: ‘I am not afraid of you. I defy you.’”
Donald Trump is the epitome of the prick. He now swings the biggest phallus in the universe.
But there’s one thing that reliably wilts the prick: It cannot take a joke.
Enter the pussyhat, fuzzy G-rated sex symbol, suitable for wear by biological or transgender female, female identifier, or fellow traveler of any sex, sexuality, or gender, including all or none of the above; available in shades from Neonate Vagina to Neon Va Va Voom; in wool, polyester, fleece, or muslin (a pink wool shortage reportedly hit the US by mid-January); sizes customized for any human or canine head—extra-extra-small fits Boston Common duckling statues.
The pussyhat represents the time-honored tactic of disarming the denigrator by coopting his epithet—queer, nigger, fairy, dyke. A pussy, of course, isn’t just the thing you grab when your animal appetites require feeding. It’s the ultimate feminizing putdown. Appropriate pussy the word, the insult, the victimized object, and the Trumpian grotesquerie, add feminist pride—and voila! “Pussy grabs back!”
The pussyhat makes war. It also makes love. It is a late-feminist proclamation of women’s sexual liberation, self-love, and self-respect. When “My body, my choice!” becomes “My pussy, my choice,” it demands both reproductive rights, to have a baby, an IUD, or an abortion (and tax-free tampons, according to a few protesters) when you want and also the freedom to rub genitals with those, and only those, you want. This is not how I like to be fucked, read one woman’s placard. She likes to be fucked—just not by these creeps and their policies.
The feeder march my friends and I fell into—one of many that willy-nillied around DC on Saturday—made its way to the far west end of the Mall, swung around the back side of the Lincoln Memorial and hung a left to head east on Independence Avenue. Later, the aerial photos proved what I felt at that moment: We’d engulfed the Washington Monument, Our Nation’s Phallus, in pink.
All day, I’d caught only one This pussy bites back poster. There were undoubtedly others. Still, who needs that tired old male fantasy: the vagina dentata? Our pussies don’t have to bite. We can squeeze the patriarchy into submission with a massive orgasmic Kegel muscular contraction.
Provisional President Donald J. Trump: We will resist you in the streets, the courts, the voting booth, the unions, the clinics, the press, the art studios, theaters, and schools. We will fight you in city, suburb, and rural village, in the heartland, at the borders, and from across the seas. But we also will kick you where you can’t defend yourself.
Donald the Tiny Handed: Pussy laughs back.