Most of the signs at the Women’s March on Washington on 21 January were hand-lettered, idiosyncratic, fierce, personal and often very funny. Hats off to the folks who thought up ‘Hell Toupée’, or the junior doctor type carrying a clinical description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or the bearer of the Magritte pipe with Trump’s face superimposed (‘Ceci n’est pas un président’), or the assorted Mary Poppins fans: ‘super-callous-fascist-racist-extra-braggadocios’, ‘super-shallow-fragile-ego-Trump-UR-atrocious’.
I have to confess I didn’t have a sign. It was all I could do to get to Washington, and I only managed that because a friend had reserved a block of seats. My bus left from a daycare centre on the Upper West Side, and unsurprisingly (have you met people who run daycare centres?) was faultlessly organised. We left on time, loaded with water, clear plastic backpacks and the adult equivalent of goldfish crackers, and rolled up in DC with hours to spare.
If I didn’t have a sign with me, I had a daughter – just like another several hundred thousand women in this street equivalent of ‘Take Our Daughters to Work’ day. ‘I march for my daughter’ was a common sign, not to mention: ‘Now you’ve pissed off Grandma.’ There were men, the ‘allies’, proclaiming: ‘I’m with her, and her, and her, and her.’ Parents put pussy hats on their infants, packed the diaper bag, and came along.
I hear that plenty of famous feminists spoke at the rally on the Mall that was supposed to kick off the march, but neither I nor anyone near me (and we were fairly near the plinth) could see or hear them. Being women, we waited patiently from around 10.30 a.m. until nearly 2 p.m., waving our signs (‘Excuse the inconvenience, we’re trying to save our country’) and occasionally chanting (towards the end, those chants were ‘Let’s march, let’s march’) as, somewhere, someone eloquently defended feminism and our rights. When it finally came time to move out, the crowd was so huge that it couldn’t possibly progress in any single direction at all. ‘Where should we go?’ we asked a few lithe spirits perched in trees. Just move towards the Washington Monument by whatever route you can find, came the answer.
So my daughter and I found ourselves in a mass heading across the Mall, up 7th Street, and down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House. We kept up the most popular responsive chant (‘Tell me what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like’), paused to cheer a portrait of Frederick Douglass, paused again to groan, boo and shout ‘shame, shame, shame’ at the Trump Hotel. The chants roamed freely, from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to ‘No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here’ to (my personal favourite) ‘Science is real.’ I bet you never thought you’d be chanting that.
But the chants, just like the signs, kept coming back to Our President, Donald Trump himself. It’s impossible to underestimate the personal revulsion expressed, individually and collectively, for this man. This is remarkable, for when one thinks of, say, reproductive rights, Mike Pence is certainly as much of a threat as Donald Trump – who, until basically yesterday, didn’t much care what women did with their vaginas as long as plenty were available to him. But on 23 January, Trump happily signed the global gag rule barring USAID to any organisation that even discusses abortion – the first of what will probably be a long list of gifts to the anti-choice right and a sign of Trump’s eagerness to punish anyone, especially uppity women, who cross him. And it is Trump’s character – his crassness, his vindictiveness, his grotesque penis-waving narcissism – that got under women’s skin like nothing else has done. ‘He wouldn’t be president if he grabbed men’s crotches,’ one sign proclaimed. ‘Yuuuuuge protest! Millions of Nasty Women!’ mocked another. ‘We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter,’ women chanted. Or, to hit the nail on the head: ‘You’re orange. You’re gross. You lost the popular vote.’
It is this revulsion against the person of Trump that bears watching and that, if we are honest with ourselves, divides us. Remember that 53 per cent of white women voted for him. In the days after the election, lots of those women expressed surprise at the outrage his election unleashed and anger at those who assumed that – just because they welcomed his economic message – they were ignorant or blind to his flaws. Female Trump voters, I wager, have a much, much, lower opinion of men than women who find him intolerable; they just think misogyny is as normal as the weather. Who are these sheltered women, they ask, who don’t know how men talk about women? Of course men talk like that. It’s how men are, and all these privileged coastal feminists are naive to think otherwise.
But I don’t think the outrage Trump evoked was based on naivety, or that the women who expressed it had never encountered a man like Trump before. Every woman has met that guy before. This is the guy whose hands move to your butt in a crowded subway, the guy you hope won’t be with you in the elevator when the doors close, the guy you have to placate and be nice to because you know he can turn nasty in a minute, the guy you never meet alone or live to regret it if you do. Every woman knows that guy. No woman thinks he’ll ever go away. But we hold to two beliefs nevertheless. All Men Are Not That Guy. And: That Guy Doesn’t Get to Be President.
That visceral and above all bodily outrage was everywhere at the march: on individual signs like ‘Sex Crime Survivor: Jen’s Body, Jen’s Choice’, witty signs like ‘Not My Daughter! – Molly Weasley’, the ubiquitous ‘This Pussy Grabs Back’, the hundreds of thousands of pink pussy hats. Women of all ages, stripes and colours chanted: ‘We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants.’ Let’s reflect on that. Second wave feminists marched under the banner: ‘The Personal Is Political.’ This march reversed that slogan. For women, now, the political is personal, as every woman sees in Trump ‘that guy’, the one who saw her, or her daughter, only as so much meat. ‘If you cut off my reproductive rights,’ one sign asked, ‘can I cut off your … ?’
Around 4 p.m., my daughter and I headed back towards our bus. We walked past the Environmental Protection Agency, no longer an organisation that accepts, as one sign put it, ‘There is No Planet B.’ We didn’t figure in the march’s official count because we never went into the subway system (the basis for the city’s estimates of the rally’s size). The friends we intended to meet but couldn’t find were now marching down the way we had come, their group pausing to dump their signs (‘It’s a sad fucking day when you miss George Bush’; ‘If God hates gays, why are we so cute?’; ‘Smash the Patriarchy – Jane Austen Fight Club’) in front of the Trump Hotel.
On the bus home, my daughter ate some crackers and cheese, curled up in her bus seat, and went to sleep; being 19, she can sleep almost anywhere. I sat and watched the New Jersey towns fall away, thinking about women’s marches. This had been a good one, but my favourite women’s march happened more than a century ago, in Britain in the summer of 1913. It was the doldrums of the suffrage movement. The Conciliation Bill, a painfully crafted compromise that would add about a million women to a parliamentary electorate of six million men, had failed. The prime minister’s grudging alternative proposal – to allow a women’s suffrage amendment to a bill to enfranchise more men – had been ruled constitutionally out of bounds. There wasn’t a breath of hope for women’s suffrage anywhere, and the militant movement’s actions – its leaders in hiding, its activists torching country houses or planting the odd bomb – were the measure of that impasse.
But the non-militant suffrage movement was still growing, reaching into local trade unions and co-operative guilds, and that summer it mounted its most ambitious public event. Contingents of suffrage ‘pilgrims’ started from a dozen or more towns far from London (Carlisle, Newcastle, Plymouth); sister delegations from Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and everywhere else joined as the pilgrimage swept through. Women wore stout boots under their long skirts; they carried signs proclaiming their law-abiding intent. Local ‘roughs’ (as the newspapers called them) sometimes shied manure at them or raided their night-time encampments. Local sympathisers cleaned them up, and they marched on. After up to a month on the road, the pilgrims reached London, where they rallied for their rights and then caught their trains for home.
What did it all mean, many wondered in the following days. In the days after the Women’s March too, columnists were quick to tell women they had wasted their time. Why are women still fixated on ‘identity politics’, was the usual question – as if women aren’t still poorer than men, aren’t workers and voters like men, as if (white) men’s various concerns are somehow universal while women’s multifarious concerns are particular and private, hardly worth discussing at all. ‘Feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings,’ one sign at the protest said. Unfortunately, this is still a radical, and to many people unfathomable, claim.
On Facebook, at least the particular slice I very occasionally inhabit, the tone was a bit different. There were plenty of people posting rally pictures, but also plenty of carping and what the Germans call, inimitably and untranslatably, Besserwisserei. Where were these women before the election? Why didn’t they turn out to protest against Obama’s drones? Male academics, true to form, published manifestos and advertised where we could next hear them speak. But when one wrote to outline exactly what the resistance must imperatively do next, he was curtly slapped down. This was a women’s march, one woman replied. While it was nice to have allies, women would decide that for themselves. It’s hard to know just what will happen – though ‘Today we march, Tomorrow we run for office’ was one good sign. Or as my group chanted, making its way to the White House: ‘We’re here. We won’t go away. Welcome to your very first day.’