Neulich war ich eingeladen, mit Ihnen einige Gedanken über der Stand der US-Politik aus soziologisch-feministischen Sicht mitzuteilen. I’ve decided that I am less likely to mislead if I pick my words carefully in English rather than venture off in my sometimes miserable German. Aber es wird mich sehr freuen, wenn Sie etwas dazu zu schreiben möchten, entweder auf deutsch oder englisch, wie auch Sie wollen.
The “women’s march” brought an astonishingly large number of people into the streets, but was also criticized rather a lot in the US press as well as in some sociological reflections that it “lacked a focus” and “failed to present specific demands.” Moreover, it was seem as obvious that the millions marching would not all claim the label feminist for themselves, though a considerable number (often sporting pink “pussy hats”) would. The handful of women who initially started the call for a protest – one that to their amazement went viral in just a few days – were both white women and inexperienced as organizers, and after a few challenges to their supposed “leadership” the nascent organization of the march was put in the hands of women of color who had learned the ropes in the months of protests after Ferguson. Thus there was an organizational history connecting the march to #BlackLivesMatter as well as to the various on-line groups that had mobilized in response to candidate Trump’s insults to Hillary Clinton, #NastyWomen and #PantsuitNation. Neither race nor gender as such, however, formed an explicit agenda for the march, and this was often portrayed as a weakness.
I understand why some commentators in and outside the academy were disappointed not to see a set of demands put forward when there were so many protestors out on the street to put their weight behind them. But I think this misunderstands movement dynamics. Social movement scholars, among whom I count myself, have repeatedly found that movements make their demands effective by getting them taken up by insider allies, typically in political parties and elective offices. But this moment was not one where proactive demands were about to have any influence in steering (or putting brakes on) the Trump-Republican alliance that had just been elected. While social movement scholars might classify this as a classically “reactive” movement, simply trying to stop the powerholders from acting, I think this is also not quite right.
While a few passionate opponents were committed to calling for impeachment or otherwise overturning the election, the anger that brought people on the street was simultaneously diffuse in its objectives and specific in its focus on resistance to attacks on those who are seen as among the most vulnerable to harassment and worse: immigrants, Hispanic and Muslim citizens, LGBTQ teenagers, racially profiled people of color, the homeless and hungry, women seeking contraception or abortion services.
My hypothesis is that this action was a “women’s march” less for its feminism as such – though feminists were highly visible and outspoken among those turning out on the streets in the US – than for its specific form of defensive anger that I am (provisionally) calling a “protection movement.” As women’s self-defense experts have long noted, women are slow to fight even in direct self-defense, and popular wisdom defines women as unable to be effective in physically defending themselves from male assailants. But the actual research findings suggest that women who do fight are effective in protecting themselves and that training adds substantially to their capacity for self-defense. But one of the hardest tasks for self-defense instructors appears to be convincing women they are powerful enough to even try to protect themselves. They inspire women to shout louder, kick harder and hit more strategically by encouraging them to imagine they are not protecting themselves but a child or a puppy. Women’s strength is aroused in practice by framing it as defending those whom they see as needing their protection.
The women’s march is quite possibly best explained by this stirring of the impulse to protect, which is itself a response to Trump’s own belligerent attacking style of discourse as well as to policy initiatives that are seen as especially endangering those with few options for self-defense. The ideology that defines mothers as subordinate and confined to politically irrelevant domesticity has one major exception built into it: the enraged lioness protecting her cubs is accepted as being a “good mother.”
The language of “protection” had already been widely mobilized in the US around the protest actions against the North Dakota pipeline that was seen as violating a treaty giving Sioux people special usage rights to the land around the “reservation” lands over which they had sovereignty, endangering a water supply particularly important to this adjacent Sioux reservation, and expressing a corporate disregard for environmental risk. The protestors claimed the name “water protectors” and the protection language both mobilized supporters and enflamed opponents, who saw this as one more action demanding “special rights” for “minorities” at the (purported) expense of economic development for “real Americans.”
A “woman’s march” was thus an ideal format in which to carry forward the protection-centered way of talking politics mobilized in the Black Lives Matter, Water Protector and Sanctuary City protests that had already happened under Obama. The focus on the gender message that was at the forefront of this mobilization was a sensible form for this multi-pronged resistance to the new administration because Trump himself had, as a candidate, made his campaign all about unfettered masculinity: equating physical strength/weakness with political power; openly celebrating winning wealth and power as the greatest good; overt celebration of heterosexual aggression and conquest; refusal to ever retreat or apologize as showing he was “not intimidated” or weak; dividing the world into winners and losers, where a display of fearlessness in the face of risk is sign of power. In Trumpworld, the role of women is to adorn the winner and mirror back men “at twice their normal size” as Virginia Woolf had described gender relations a century ago. Trump had no sympathy for vulnerability, need or weakness (these being traits he needed to constantly repress in order to affirm his masculinity and power). So the social role of protecting those who are weak or threatened, conventionally ascribed to women, could be re-signified as a public political role in which women’s strength and even anger are socially approved.
Trump – and his “chief strategist” Steve Bannon – thus can be seen as provoking the gendered framing of resistance to the white power/economic nationalist agenda of the new administration by making their own claims so frankly masculinist. By uniting under the banner of “women” and for the broad objective of “protection” (of the earth, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ rights, etc) the march crystalized the opposition between the masculinist understanding of power and the feminist understanding of motherhood as a strength rather than weakness of women. So while “feminism” as movement distinct from all others was not what the mobilization was ever about, the underlying frame of protection is highly resonant with both conventional thinking about women and feminist understandings of intersectional social justice as a political commitment. By rejecting the winner/loser, strong/weak, work/care, male/female, citizen/alien, white/other binaries, the anti-Trump resistance has found a source of surprising strength in angered womanhood.