Whether you’re in favor of or against the message of the Women’s March, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably at least heard of it. On Jan. 21, millions of people across the United States and across the world joined together to make a statement, reaffirming a commitment to equality that should exist regardless of who the president is. The world gave Trump a chance to speak during his inaugural address, and gave the Women’s March a chance to respond the next day. Even if your reaction to the march is negative, the fact that you are responding at all means that the protesters have been heard. Given the historic size and the global resonance of the protest, it’s worth it to break down what the impact of the march may be going forward, and the history of political demonstration in general.
The most common criticism I have seen of the Women’s March is that participants should “do something” instead of organizing in the streets. I think separating protest from other forms of civic engagement is a mistake. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and one can engage in protest as well as other avenues of activism. Moreover, showing up to march is “doing something.” Physically standing in solidarity with others and marching for an issue is one of the oldest and most sacred political acts in our country to date. Besides, if anyone should understand the importance of showing up, it’s Trump and his Press Secretary, who had plenty of things to talk about this weekend but kept landing on the subject of crowds. If the size of a celebratory inaugural audience is important enough to warrant so much attention from the White House, the size of a dissenting audience is important too.
Then there are those who question the effectiveness of protests more generally, which is not a new or original criticism. But if anyone knows about how long and complicated the gap between political activism and actual results is, it’s those who are out there protesting. Most people who participated in the demonstrations hold a pretty realistic understanding of what a protest can and cannot accomplish in the short-term. And still, despite that gap between action and change, millions of people showed up, which will be good in the long-run if history repeats itself. The response to the AIDS crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the movement for peace during the Vietnam War were all undoubtedly shaped by domestic public opinion, which was informed in large part by protest.
As of Jan. 20, Donald Trump is our new president whether we like it or not. But we are his new constituents and he works for all of us now — Republicans, Democrats, Independents and the apolitical. The women’s march wasn’t an attempt to impeach or threaten Trump, but rather a chance to show him how many people to whom he has to show respect if he has any hope of unifying this deeply divided country. Any close presidential race guarantees that about half the voters don’t vote for the winner, meaning that most presidents have to work towards unification when they take office. The peaceful transition of power is one of the most important practices in our democracy, but so is reassurance from each new president — to all people — that he or she will work for everyone. The march fits into this equation by providing Trump (and the world) with a visual of just how much work he has to do. Fundamentally, the march was about equality; it’s that simple. Those who were deeply offended or angered by it may not have been paying close enough attention.
I couldn’t make it to the march on Washington, D.C., so I attended one of the sister marches abroad. I expected a few hundred women to show, and was met by an estimated 100,000. Women, men, and children in London marched for the rights of women in the U.S., themselves, and the next generation. The world is watching, but it is also participating — on behalf of those within the U.S., and the billions of other people who live in countries that are impacted by our political and economic policies. On Sunday, the organization behind the Women’s March posted a quote, reminding everyone that, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” That said, I have a feeling that the demonstrations on Jan. 21 were just a good stretch.