The weather was slightly cloudy, but surprisingly pleasant for January. Throngs of women of varying ages clustered around, carrying a homemade signs with a variety of slogans: “The future is female”. “Respect my existence or expect resistance”. “Keep your tiny hands off women’s rights” It was the second year of the Women’s March–this version called “March on the Polls”–and as before, women had come from around the country to participate and protest, even in the midst of a government shutdown. The atmosphere was somewhat different from the inaugural march, though. Where the first Women’s March felt like a massive outpouring of anger, pain, and mutual support (with some humor thrown in), this second iteration was determined, clear-eyed, and focused. The goal? Turning the electoral tide in the midterm elections, and electing more women to office.
The Women’s March first came out of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. His election–and his admitted sexual assault–angered many women. In response, a woman in Hawaii named Teresa Shook posted in the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group the suggestion that like-minded individuals march on Washington in protest of the then president-elect and his policies. In a prime example of social media virality, the post grew in popularity to the point that a panel came together to organize a formal event, scheduled to take place the day after the inauguration.
The 2018 march featured a diverse range of speakers, though not all of them were audible from the far reaches of the gathered crowds. The list of speakers included disability rights activist Judith Heumann, Fairfax County NAACP President Kofi Annan, and Senator and former Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine (D-VA), among others. Largely, the speeches hit similar notes: the work doesn’t end here. Focus on the midterm elections. Make the movement inclusive. Run for office. Following the speakers, the throng marched down Independence Avenue towards the White House.
In the scholarly literature on resistance to authoritarian movements, marches play one role in the broader pushback. Part of what makes the Women’s March different is that there is still wide disagreement about the extent of democratic backsliding that has followed the most recent presidential election, as well as regarding its causality. In their book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt lay out their guidelines for such an assessment: when a politician
- Rejects the rules of democracy
- Delegitimizes their opposition
- Tolerates or encourages violence, or
- Shows a willingness to limit the civil liberties of opponents, including the media
It’s a cause for genuine concern about the state of democracy. The men and women who marched were similarly concerned, and decided that marching on Washington–or participating in one of the many sister marches around the country–was a good start.
Some of them have even decided to run for office. According to estimates from the Associated Press, more women than ever are running for positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, with an estimated total of 309. This does not include the number of women running for other positions around the country, whether they are running to become the governors of Georgia or New York, or running for their local city council. Many of these women have been inspired by the most recent presidential election, deciding that things won’t change for women’s rights if women aren’t, as the song says, in the room where it happens. Political action committee Emily’s List, which is dedicated to electing pro-choice women to office, has seen those increases firsthand, as the number of inquiries for their campaign trainings spiked in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
As the Women’s March entered its second year, there was an important marker of growth: from the beginning, it was deliberately intersectional. Concerns about whitewashing the resistance movement were part of the nascent march organization for 2017; the initial board of organizers was entirely white, and after voting results showed that 53% of white women voters chose Donald Trump, there were many activists of color who did not trust that this march would lead to meaningful change in outcomes for ethnic minorities, as well as for people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, and other marginalized identity groups. For 2018, diverse representation among various axes was included from the beginning, showing how the movement has grown in the intervening months.
It remains to be seen how much events like the Women’s March will impact results at the polls, particularly given the state of issues like partisan redistricting, voter suppression, and garden-variety enthusiasm to turn out on Election Day. Still, part of what journalists and observers are noting is that the Women’s March isn’t only the march day. There are signs of community building among march participants: people are getting involved at the local level, running for office, supporting candidates they care about, and organizing around policy platforms rather than personalities. Even without winning every race under contestation, that continued, sustained engagement is a positive sign in the fight against democratic backsliding.
Photo Credit: Mobilus in Mobili, Creative Commons License