The scale of today’s Women’s March is probably unprecedented in the US and perhaps also as a global event. What I tell my students when we talk about historical protests is to think about what is involved in traveling, taking time away from other obligations, enduring physical discomfort and strain, and accepting some degree of risk, in order to go out and participate in a protest event. Protesting is a lot harder than voting, and much harder still than sharing a post on Facebook, signing a petition, or re-tweeting. Attending a protest is a statement, and a fairly big one as statements go, no matter what the scale of the protest or what it’s about.
In a “safe” society with guaranteed rights of protest, you’ll get smallish numbers of people out to protest many issues, many times a year. Those kinds of protests tell historians what kinds of issues people care about, and are an essential function of democracy, because they also help to inform public debate about what matters to ordinary citizens.
When protests are bigger than that, they tell us that the issue driving them is a real stand-out, motivating people far more than other, competing issues. But even with fairly large protests in orderly democratic countries, we generally expect protesters to be the kind of people who are most invested in activism, so while their actions are certainly meaningful, and tell us where activism is directed in a society, they are just one kind of voice historians look for in trying to understand a whole society.
It’s a different thing when people protest in regimes where just walking the streets with a sign can expose you to serious legal penalties (not just a temporary arrest) or even direct violence. Those are protests that tell us an issue is so important that large numbers of people are willing to die for it. Those kinds have protests tend to change history, though the direction of change is wildly unpredictable.
What happened today recalls other historical events, most notably the March on Washington of 1963, as well as others around the world and across time. The numbers were simply astronomical, as we can see from the photos of crowds and the number of locations where these kinds of crowds came out. It’s too early to rank it precisely, but it was huge, broad, diverse, and peaceful. We can say that these protests happened in places where the cost of protesting was relatively low, but it is worth noting that in the US today the possible costs of protesting were perhaps less predictable than they have ever been in our entire history of democratic protest. We know that violence is possible here, because it has happened before, and we know violence was implied this time, and we have a leadership that has signaled in various ways that it is both hostile to opposition and open to unprecedented acts. Yet people came out anyway. We can also say that when this many people buy train and plane tickets, take time away from work and family, and pack for a day of marching without reliable access to food, water, or other necessities, that these people are serious and highly motivated, and that the sheer scale of it indicates a significant event in American history.
We’ve had other really important protests. But this isn’t a repeat of any of those, it’s a new one in the series of really important protests of American history.
What happened today was also much bigger than American history, because it happened all over the world. The fact that people who are not American citizens took a day of their lives and put up with a lot of expense and discomfort in order to make a statement indicates both that the rest of the world is deeply worried about how the recent US presidential election might affect them, but also that what happened in the US is part of a larger global phenomenon that is worrisome to people all over the world.
What is the message being sent by these protests around the world? The way historians would teach it to students a hundred years later is to say: look at the evidence. What do the participants say? What are they responding to? Who are they?
What even the least prepared undergraduate would be able to say a hundred years from now is that the protest was organized by and for women, in response to Trump’s inauguration as US president. And that Trump’s presidency represents such a threat to women that unprecedented numbers of them came out to be heard — far more than the number of people who came out to celebrate Trump’s inauguration (precise numbers are not yet available as I write this, but the photographic evidence is abundant enough to be undeniable).
What some future instructor will try to tease out of those students is context: what was happening to American women that made Trump such a threat? Students would point out that American women in 2017 had it pretty good, especially compared to women in other parts of the globe at that time, or pretty much any women who had ever lived previously.
But with a little prodding, those students might also remember how very recently American women had fought even for the right to work at all, or to get an education, to control their own bodies, to make their own choices in life as adults despite being born female. They will remember how those battles were still not complete in 2015, and that when Trump appeared on the scene in a serious way in 2016, it was on a platform of explicitly turning back the clock and reversing those hard-won battles. Every privilege that is thrown in the face of the women protesting on January 21, 2017 to undermine her right to protest is exactly what she is out there to defend for herself, for her daughters and mothers and sisters, and for women around the world.
Students may also be prodded to note that part of people’s fears in 2017 was the rise of an American neo-fascism. Having seen this before, relatively recently, and knowing that it was perhaps the single most costly calamity that humanity has ever wrought on itself, many people are jumping to resist it before it can take firm hold simply because they have learned the lessons of history.
This is usually the point where the instructor tells students to look more closely at the images of the protest, and really ask who is there, beyond the people indicated by the name of the event. Students will see men, and children, and the fact that the people depicted represent the full range of religious and ethnic diversity of the populations they sprang from. Students will note that this protest is more diverse than earlier feminist actions. At the same time, the dominance of women in the organization and message recalls revolutionary women’s bread riots of earlier centuries.
Putting all this evidence together, we can see that this protest is unique, and making history in its own way.
Perhaps some advanced students, in their essays, might go even further and explore some of the “rhetoric” or “reception” surrounding this event (profs love rhetoric and reception). They might note the theme of cynicism running through the commentary even of people who are on the same political side as the protestors: while unprecedented numbers march all over the globe, others wonder whether the march means anything, whether it’s enough, whether it’s really what it seems, and whether it will be followed by further “engagement,” totally missing the fact that this is already the biggest show of engagement of this kind ever seen, and is in itself already a difference. A student might write a really interesting essay on this interplay between renewed political activism and still-prevalent cynicism hanging on from an earlier period, but we don’t know where that essay will go because right now we are still living these events.
Another student might look at the bizarre unreality of the opposing party and partisan or confused media commentary on the protests, noting that they denied abundant evidence of the scale of the event and attempted to undermine its message by demeaning and ridiculing participants, often lying to make their points. Hopefully a hundred years from now we’ll be in a world where factual reality is acknowledged and accepted, and students will marvel that what we are seeing in conventional and social media today was ever possible. Their professor will work really hard to try to make them understand the power of confirmation bias and how deeply many ordinary people had confused cause and effect, so that they actually railed at their fellow victims instead of their persecutors.
But who knows.
We can’t even know if history will still be written and taught a hundred years from now. Not long ago it would have been hard to imagine that practices common to our culture for centuries could disappear so quickly, but the Information Age is still in its infancy, and these early growth pains are both ugly and astonishingly strong. Truth, facts, reality, evidence, common sense, and “universal” morality cannot currently be taken for granted in the very cultures that have defined themselves (with infamous hypocrisy) as the cradle of civilization. That is something we have seen before in slightly different form, and precisely because we have seen it before and know where it can lead, many are determined to stand up and say they do not consent from the start.