Democracy Dies in Darkness

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The Women’s March needs passion and purpose, not pink pussycat hats

By Petula Dvorak

January 12, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Krista Suh, 29, left, and Jayna Zweiman, 38, who live in California, have crocheted pink “pussyhats” as symbols of protest for the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington. (Kat Coyle)

Please, sisters, back away from the pink.

Pink pussycat hats, sparkly signs, color-coordinated street theater — all of it is gleefully in the works for the upcoming Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21.

And that scares me a little. Because all of this well-intentioned, she-power frippery can make this thing more Lilith Fair than Lilly Ledbetter. And the Women’s March of 2017 will be remembered as an unruly river of Pepto-Bismol roiling through the streets of the capital rather than a long overdue civil rights march.

This is serious stuff.

It’s about human rights. It’s about the way 51 percent of our nation’s population still gets less pay, less representation in elected office and in corporate corner offices, less access to health care, less safety and less respect that the other 49 percent of our deeply divided nation.

Watch more!
'Women’s March on Washington’ organizer Bob Bland speaks with The Washington Post's social change reporter, Sandhya Somashekhar, about the rally planned for the day after Donald Trump's inauguration. (The Washington Post)

The Women’s March needs grit, not gimmicks.

Related: From lab to Olympic podium to White House, accomplished women are still dismissed

Case in point?

Bra burning. That’s the trope that folks have been using to dismiss feminists for nearly half a century.

In fact, no bra was burned at Miss America protests in 1968 and 1969. Feminists threw false eyelashes, mops, pans, Playboy magazines, girdles, bras and other symbolic “instruments of female torture” into a trash can. But the Atlantic City municipal code didn’t allow them to set it on fire.

Yet because the idea of a burning bra was so lurid, it eclipsed the fact that in the 1960s, women couldn’t get a credit card without a husband’s signature, couldn’t serve on juries in all 50 states, weren’t allowed to study at some of the nation’s Ivy League schools, couldn’t get a prescription for birth control pills if they were unmarried, were paid 59 cents for every dollar that men earned and could easily be fired from a job if they got pregnant. Among other outrages.

Feminists were people who fought those inequalities. But thanks to a stunt, they’ve been called bra-burners for decades. Even Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” and mother of the movement, objected to what she called the “bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school” of feminism.

Sorry, knitters. I know the pink hats with pussycat ears y’all are knitting for next week’s march are totally clever and cute and fun. They’re a smart and snarky middle finger to the incoming predator in chief, who somehow managed to win the presidency despite openly bragging about grabbing women by their genitals.

But it also undercuts the message that the march is trying to send.

Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, has been studying protests and political action for nearly two decades. And when she was in deep on climate change protests, she saw a hard-to-miss family: They all had mohawks, even the kid.

And despite the scientists, environmentalists and students trying to make serious points at the protests, all the cameras focused on the mohawk family. Everyone remembered the mohawk family.

But mohawks are fun! So were all those drummers during the globalization protests outside the World Bank and International Monetary Fund more than a decade ago, and the puppets and street musicians at the anti-Iraq War marches.

Occupy Wall Street was totally right. But their goofy protests, tent cities, body piercings, chants are what folks remembered. Meanwhile, Wall Street plundered the rest of America.

“It’s a difficult line,” Fisher explained. Because there’s the temptation to make the protest fun, enjoyable, to give it a street-fair feeling and draw more people. Crowds amplify a message and get attention. It’s especially tempting for the Women’s March, which plenty of children are expected to attend.

Related: Pink hats, pins, petitions: What’s the point of these anti-Trump protests?

Protests are successful and effective when they have a clear message, a clear mission. That’s part of what made the 1913 march by the suffragettes seeking the right to vote so memorable and the 1963 Martin Luther King Jr.-led March on Washington so powerful.

They are unsuccessful when they are simply a stage for venting.

So what are women trying to say when they gather the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration?

“I’m seeing the New York State Nurses Association, Planned Parenthood, Free the Nipple? I don’t even know what that is,” Fisher said, as we both looked at the partner coalition page for the upcoming Women’s March. “It’s just wacky.”

Planners are predicting 150,000 women at the march — a gathering that could deliver a strong warning to Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

But we can’t make a difference with goofy hats, cheeky signs and silly songs. This is our chance to stand up, to remind the world how powerful we are and demand to be heard. On equal pay and opportunity, on sexual assault, on reproductive rights, on respect. We need to be remembered for our passion and purpose, not our pink pussycat hats.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

Fear among federal workers as they face a hostile Trump presidency

A smokescreen for bigotry: Disguising anti-Muslim bias with land-use objections

In liberal D.C., the arrival of Donald Trump is triggering an identity crisis

An epidemic of lies: Our country’s cultural plague just keeps getting worse


Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.

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