If there’s one thing that people spanning the ideological spectrum can agree upon, it is that the 2016 presidential election has made individuals more vocal about politics. The Women’s Marches that swept the country last week were a particularly notable example. Some political scientists believe that it was the single largest day of demonstrations in American history, with at least 3.3 million participants. Two questions come to mind when reflecting on the purpose and nature of these marches. First, what does it mean to be “pro-woman” in the modern age? Second, how can the Women’s March inform us about 21st century political activism?
To the first inquiry, it is worth examining the march’s official platform and selected speakers. The organizers expressed a desire to send the message that “women’s rights are human rights.” This, of course, follows logically as women are human. The specific “rights” under consideration are the crucial piece, however. According to the four-page platform, these rights include “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion for all people” and “the power to control our bodies and be free from gender norms, expectations and stereotypes,” among many others.
Organizers also proffered their own view of constitutional government, that it “establishes a framework to provide and expand rights and freedoms” as opposed to the traditional understanding that government exists to protect pre-existing rights and freedoms. Those who instituted our government certainly subscribed to the latter view, believing that all human beings have rights qua human beings that precede the existence of the state. Ironically, it is only when we think that our “rights” derive from government, as do the Women’s March organizers, that we begin to fear that government could take them away.
Must one subscribe to this particular distortion of constitutional government and the pro-choice platform to be “pro-woman” according to the march’s organizers? It appears so. After originally granting partnership status to New Wave Feminists, a pro-life group based in Texas, organizers eventually removed the group from its website. They said in a statement that “the Women’s March’s platform is pro-choice and that has been our stance from day one. The anti-choice organization in question is not a partner of the Women’s March on Washington. We apologize for this error.”
Another group, Students for Life, was not granted partnership status, but marched anyway. Whether or not you agree with them, pro-life groups should also be included among those who support women’s and human rights. Moreover, I am certain they agree with the march’s organizers that verbal and physical violence against women is not acceptable, and that equal pay for equal work is fundamentally fair. Interestingly, despite the platform’s stance against objectification of women, a sex workers (a.k.a. prostitution) alliance was included as a partner.
This said, what has activism come to mean in the 21st century? A New York Times piece published after the march noted that this “bitter rift among women’s organizations” is “raising thorny question about what it means to be a feminist in 2017.” If the Women’s March is any indication, pro-woman activism means emphasizing inclusion, but only for those who subscribe to certain values and views about the role of government. Pro-woman activism means wearing pink “pussy hats” and waving signs featuring reproductive organs. Pro-woman activism means, as CNN put it, “marveling at the massive turnout and the dirty, wicked puns that colored the festivities.”
Whether or not you subscribe to the pro-choice or pro-life viewpoints, this particular brand of “pro-woman” activism leaves something to be desired. Protesting objectification of women through provocative signage and partnership with a pornography sex workers alliance—arguably the industry that demeans and abuses women the most—strikes me as extremely ironic. A woman is more than the sum of her parts. I hope that our future engagement in the political sphere will be guided by the sharpness of our intellect, the determination of our spirit, and an abiding respect for ourselves and others.
Kate Hardiman is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program. She welcomes feedback on this article—contact her at email@example.com.