Women's March against Donald Trump: Successful movements can't rest on the only ideal of 'pantsuit nation'

At 10 am on 21 January, the energy on the streets was palpable. Women were everywhere, spilling onto the sidewalks and on the stairs of public buildings. A sea of pink drowned out individual faces and clever signs were hoisted with pride.

Mike Pence likes Nickelback!
Free Melania!

Chants broke out periodically; a popular refrain was a rhyme about tiny hands and underpants.

While millions of women – and men – took to the streets in all fifty states, on all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica), Donald J Trump was busy hanging his garish gold curtains on the White House windows.

Since Saturday, media outlets have been in awe over the sheer number of protesters who took to the streets following the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America, and the breadth of the seemingly unified action, spanning the globe. Comparisons between the march and the inauguration itself, which saw a fraction of the estimated millions of marchers, have already led to new contentions between the media and the notoriously reactive Chief of State. Hailed as a major success, the Women’s March on Washington is the Internet’s darling.

But what exactly was it?

If the march served one overarching purpose, it was catharsis. Yelling, chanting, and singing in the streets, wearing pussies on their heads and greeting each other with calls of Nasty Woman! Temporarily liberated women in a way that is not possible in most people’s daily lives. In a world where being a woman is often more of a hindrance than a help, the Women’s March brought people together to celebrate and bring to light issues that aren’t normally part of polite conversation. The pride of woman-ness and the indefatigable spirit of women in the face of oppression resonated around the globe and the result was a spirited mixture of general pro-women, anti-Trump rhetoric with a dash of environmental and racial justice thrown in.

 Womens March against Donald Trump: Successful movements cant rest on the only ideal of pantsuit nation

Protest signs from the women's march. Photo: Instagram/womensmarch

But once the streets had cleared and even the most ardent marchers had hung up their pink pussy hats, there was only question on everyone’s mind. Where do we go from here?

Many people are rightfully asking themselves, what now? What steps can we collectively take to make our ideas stick? Where do we go from here, as a group? These questions are important, and they’ll need to be answered. But they skip over several equally pressing questions that don’t seem to be asked. First and foremost, who are “we”? It’s no secret that the march itself was fraught with internal controversy. Race issues plagued the organisation of the marches from the beginning, with many women of colour feeling appropriated or excluded. To anyone who attended the marches, it’s not hard to see why. White was as ubiquitous as pink, and oversized pictures of uteri far outnumbered Black Lives Matter posters. A few posters held messages in languages other than English, but immigrant women were largely left out of the conversation. For a protest called the “Women’s March”, it seemed to leave out not only many the world’s women, but many women’s rights issues as well. “Equal Pay” is a great message, but it leaves out a whole world of economic inequalities that plague women. Reproductive rights are critical, but so are environmental rights, immigration policy, housing discrimination, police brutality, and criminal justice reform. To be fair, many of these issues were supported by the March’s organisers, whose principles encompassed a broader range of issues than what was seen on the ground.

Still, the question remains. Aside from hand-knitted caps purchased on Etsy and Instagram-worthy protest signs, what have these protestors brought to the table? Is this the beginning of a powerful, connected movement to promote equality and prosperity for all Americans or will the masses move on as soon as there emerges something that promises more “likes”? The question is a purposely cynical one.

Trump himself weighed in on his favorite medium, tweeting “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?”

His point, though irritating, was for once, salient (even if accidentally so). While he lost the popular election by nearly 3 million votes, a fact that often seems to slip his mind, the question stands – where were we? More importantly, where were we before Trump was elected? How many of those women who donned pins and sashes marched through their own communities in the months leading up to the election, knocking on doors and engaging their neighbors in serious discussions about women’s health issues, or any issues?

If that’s a criticism, it’s a mild one. Now is not the time to look back with regret, but to use past shortcomings to build a stronger movement going forward. As Trump blasts through his first week in the office, developing coherent platforms and effective organisation of resources is becoming increasingly pressing. To do this, women will need to focus on expanding their understanding of women’s issues and reach out to leaders in a variety of communities. Women of colour, disabled woman, trans women, poor women, Native women, Muslim women, and immigrant women will need to be at the forefront of these movements. No successful and encompassing women’s movement can be built on the ideal of a “pantsuit nation”. Nor can comprehensive and strategic political goals be met by simply showing up in a snarky t-shirt.

Just two days after the already-historic march, Donald Trump dealt a powerful blow to women across the world by re-instating the Mexico City Policy. Known as the “Global Gag Rule”, the policy prevents recipients of USAID and other types of US funding from “perform[ing] or actively promot[ing] abortion” in their health and family planning services. This ban covers the entire organisation that receives funding, meaning that these organisations are not allowed to use their own, non-US funding to provide informational, counselling, or treatment services relating to abortion. First instituted by Reagan, the Mexico City Policy effectively allows the United States to interfere with foreign healthcare services that predominantly affect women.

It is worth noting that every Republican president since Reagan has reinstated this policy, while Democratic presidents have rescinded it, making it a dynamic but ultimately predictable policy change. Additionally, various Amendments to the Foreign Assistant Act restrict use of funds for abortion as a family planning method and lobbying independently of the Mexico City Policy.

How the reinstatement of the Mexico policy will impact worldwide abortion and healthcare over the next four years is yet to be seen. However, research done during the 2002-2006 Bush Administration, when the policy was in effect, showed that several key health NGOs chose to forgo US funding altogether rather than comply with the requirements of the policy, resulting in significantly reduced funding and a lower level of access to care for rural communities in several African countries. Subsequent studies have shown a correlation between exposure to the Mexico City Policy and higher abortion rates in Sun-Saharan Africa.

Since news broke of Trump’s reinstatement of the controversial policy, many women have taken to social media to express their concern about their reproductive rights, seemingly not understanding the actual implications of the policy. Once the confusion clears and they realise that it’s “only” foreign women, often marginalized, often poor; the “other”, will their outrage hold? Will these women who organise so well for themselves reach out to their senators and congress people, their representatives, their friends, to protest the further disadvantaging of women so far away?

Will they protest just as fiercely for the women (for everyone) at Standing Rock, now that Trump has authorised construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline? If Trump revokes DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival), putting millions of immigrant women at risk, will women across the country take to the streets?

Hope says yes, but history suggests no. Women’s movements in the United States have always been centered around the needs of a certain type of woman (read: white, financially stable) and a specific right, such as the right to vote or better wages. Historically, there hasn’t been much space for diverse voices, particularly outside of racial diversity. An overcrowding of one voice combined with the nebulous goals of “equality” and “women’s rights” risks turning momentum and enthusiasm into a confused mess of undirected discontent with too many internal disagreements to be mobilized in any meaningful way. Five days’ post-march, it’s still too early to tell whether the Women’s March on Washington will evolve into a formidable political force or collapse under its own weight. The bones are there, but there’s still much work to be done.

The Women’s March on Washington has brought to light far more questions than its organizers or participants could have anticipated, and now is the time to answer them. Actually, years ago would have been a better time, but hindsight is 20/20.

Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 17:24:36 IST