The Women’s March on Washington was cheerful, courteous, and energetic. Across five hours on Saturday afternoon, I saw marchers maneuver conscientiously around parents with strollers and grown-up children pushing wheelchairs. They seemed to share a sense of community emerging from the sheer relief of being surrounded by countless others who had the same thoughts and feelings about Donald Trump.
For those who didn’t have the same thoughts and feelings, the March may have appeared vulgar and hostile. The marchers I saw were unfailingly polite, but this was not a safe space for anyone with a positive view of the president, nor even for those who merely chafe at the anatomically explicit mockery of a man whose presidency is just beginning.
To be fair, the marchers owed nothing to the president and his supporters. As a candidate, Trump never hesitated to mock his rivals and critics in the most personal and insulting terms. Even committed supporters had to fight back their own revulsion at the language caught on tape by Access Hollywood. Why, then, should anyone care if one pair of marchers held aloft a five-foot-wide banner proclaiming, “You have a shithead for president” along with a helpful illustration of a massive brown turd atop the White House?
The Diversity Dilemma
The answer to this question goes to the heart of the March’s uncertain purpose. Was it a march for women or against Trump? For the marchers I saw, this was a distinction without a difference. In their view, being for women meant being against Trump. Yet the March’s organizers clearly understood the dilemma. Read through the official website, www.womensmarch.com, and you won’t find a single reference to the president, even in the lengthy statement entitled “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.” After all, tens of millions of women voted for Trump, including an overwhelming majority of white women without a college education. To define them as deplorable is to surrender the claim that the March sought to advance the rights and well-being of all American women.
In practice, however, the organizers struggled with questions of inclusiveness. From the outset, they faced pressure to ensure that the Women’s March did not become a white women’s march. Media coverage focused on simmering tensions between minority women who felt their concerns were being marginalized and white marchers who resented being lectured about the need to check their privilege. While it is hard to disentangle the many threads of the March’s evolution, the result of this tension seems to have been a concerted program of coalition-building focused on the progressive Left at the expense of the many conservatives who were disturbed by the president’s history of groping and adultery.
Was it a march for women or against Trump? For the marchers I saw, this was a distinction without a difference.
From what I saw, the organizers’ efforts to achieve diversity fell short. First and foremost, the whiteness of the crowd was overwhelming. In fact, Asian-American and Indian-American marchers were far more noticeable than blacks or Latinos. This was a telltale sign that the crowd lacked economic and ethnic diversity.
The absence of African-American marchers was especially noteworthy in a city whose population is more than half black. Public transportation in the capital is plagued by malfunctions, yet it proved more than adequate to ferry hundreds of thousands of protesters to the National Mall. Why did so few of the city’s black residents seem to avail themselves of the opportunity? On a Saturday, there was limited competition from either work or church. Had I simply wandered by happenstance from one light-complected contingent to another?
The lead photograph on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times showed a sea of white faces. That is also what I saw when I had the chance to climb a fence at the corner of Ninth Street and Independence Avenue SW. Yet according to the Times, tensions about diversity “did not deter a multiracial, multigenerational turnout.” Online, the Times posted a short video focusing on the experience of one black family in Washington, led by an ebullient mother of three young girls who also drove her own mother to the March. They represented “three generations of awesomeness fighting for uterus rights,” in the words of the girls’ mother. Interestingly, when her family is shown mixing in the crowd, there is once again a noticeable lack of diversity.
There was a second important gap between the major papers’ coverage of the March and my personal experience: The signs and banners they depicted were almost all of the inspirational or clever variety.
In its lead story, the Times reported on signs that read “Hate does not make America great” and “I will not go back quietly to the 1950s.” I also saw many like that. My favorite was carried by girl who looked to be about ten years old: “Girls with dreams become women with vision,” it read. Yet signs of a more distasteful variety were also ubiquitous. One theme was Trump’s alleged interest in “golden showers,” as described in the opposition-research dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer and published by Buzzfeed. “Stop pissing on women,” one sign read. References to Trump’s “little hands” were also quite common. Many signs were hostile without being scatological. They read, “Trump is a joke — human rights are not” or “Stomp the cheeto.” There were also a number of signs demanding that Trump stop using Twitter, which seemed unusual at such a massive exercise of free speech.
As the columnist Byron York has noted, female genitalia were the most common leitmotif. At the end of the day, there is simply no way to describe the marchers, their hats, and their signs without extensive use of the word “pussy.” The most common assertion by marchers was “This pussy grabs back.” York’s collection of photos demonstrates that fairly explicit drawings of female genitalia were quite common. (Marchers who preferred not to use the p-word often substituted photos or drawings of cats.)
Since the president himself engages in plenty of locker-room talk, it certainly isn’t fair to hold individual marchers to a higher standard of propriety. At the same time, the frequent chant, “When they go low, we go high” was not consistent with many marchers’ behavior. And if the vulgarity of so many signs was not somewhat embarrassing, why would the mainstream media exclude them so pointedly?
The real issue with such signs is not that they are intrinsically offensive, but that they send a message of hostility to those conservatives and Trump voters who want to show that they, too, expect better from the president. The legions of Christian conservatives who opposed Trump in the Republican primary might well have been prepared to march for women’s dignity and against sexual harassment. Yet their path was blocked well before the March, when its organizers made clear that pro-life groups were not welcome. In the words of national co-chair Linda Sarsour, “If you want to come to the march you are coming with the understanding that you respect a woman’s right to choose.”
The price of reaching out to conservatives might have been the imposition of higher standards of civility. The benefit of this outreach would have been the amplification of the March’s political impact. Imagine the prospect of a dignified and truly inclusive march that demonstrated to the president that Americans across the political spectrum — including those on whom he will rely for reelection — refuse to tolerate the demeaning of women. Imagine Republican senators addressing the crowd alongside their Democratic counterparts and the usual cadre of aging radicals. Imagine Evangelical leaders sharing a stage with Madonna and Scarlett Johansson.
Perhaps this is just a fantasy. Perhaps conservatives would never have turned out for a march that competed with the inauguration of a Republican president, regardless of how civil and dignified the proceedings might have been. In a polarized climate, it is not hard to see why progressive marchers would’ve considered such restraints on their self-expression to be intolerable. The March offered an extraordinary moment of catharsis to a demoralized and fearful progressive base. To surrender that experience would’ve been to let go of the bird in one’s hand in order to chase two birds in the bush. Ultimately, a choice had to be made between organizing a march for women and organizing a march against Trump.