Last weekend’s women’s marches drew millions of protesters from all 50 states and many countries around the world. Some social scientists estimated that it was the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Demands included action on such issues as women’s safety and reproductive rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, disability, minimum wage, immigration, climate change and religious discrimination.
How can social science illuminate the forces behind such a historic event? Are this past weekend’s protests consistent with what we know about when women protest?
Our research has involved gathering information on more than 50,000 women’s protests around the world since 1990. From this, we can report that the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington and its counterparts across the country were no aberration. The factors that brought out the crowds are largely consistent with what has spurred protests by women and about gendered issues (like freedom from sexual violence or an end to workplace discrimination) throughout the world. Many of these factors aren’t unique to women’s protests; they drive a great deal of collective action.
And they’re still in play. Here are five reasons we should expect more action soon.
1. Women are more likely to take to the streets where governments don’t recognize or don’t enforce women’s internationally recognized rights.
In 1975, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women began holding conferences on women’s rights at least once a decade, conferences that raised expectations about women’s economic and political equality — and became vehicles for organizing back home. Those expectations especially took off after the high-profile Beijing conference in 1995, at which then-first lady Hillary Clinton declared that women’s rights were human rights.
Women’s protests are not always coordinated global events — but we found many examples of coordinated protests. For example, on International Women’s Day in 2012, Bosnian women took to the street to demand equal representation in politics; Spanish and Mauritanian women marched for expanded economic rights; and Tunisian and Egyptian women voiced concerns about whether women’s rights were included in their countries’ new constitutions.
Women’s marches can be small, like the dozens of women that took to the streets in Afghanistan in 2011 with signs that read, “We won’t stand insults anymore.” They also can be large, like the thousands of women who marched in Togo’s capital in 2012 to demand political reforms.
In keeping with these, many U.S. women explained that the way candidate Donald Trump talked about and treated women outraged them. They went into the streets because of fear that his administration would roll back women’s gains.
2. Social networks and organizations made the Women’s March more likely.
Women are more likely to protest publicly when they have plenty of connections to groups with enough resources to organize action. A women’s wing of the Let’s Save Togo umbrella organization helped organize Togo’s September 2012 protests. In Afghanistan in 2011, it was the organization Young Women for Change that helped get women into the street. Without these organizations, women’s rights concerns can remain something that is just talked about in private.
That such groups as Planned Parenthood, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Human Rights Watch were already involved during the U.S. marches means we can expect more protests. Organizations like these can plan and coordinate events, send their members calls to action, and even, in some cases, make it easy to take action by offering resources such as mobile phones (or mobile phone apps), chartered buses and online or printed materials that spread the word about possible actions.
3. Women in wealthy countries protest more frequently.
Women in wealthy societies are more likely to have necessary resources — such as access to computers and office space — at their disposal to mobilize collective action. Taking off work and traveling to protests can be costly; these costs can be too high for women in poorer countries. For example, according to our data, a wealthy country like Belgium had four times the women’s protests of the poorer Belarus in the past two decades.
4. Women’s protests depend on a favorable political environment.
Women must have some confidence that their protest might succeed and that the government will tolerate nonviolent dissent. As a result, women’s protests are more likely in more democratic, open political systems. We find fewer protests in Kazakhstan and Burma (Myanmar), for instance, than in semi-open systems such as Nigeria and Pakistan.
Interestingly, though, an open system puts an upper limit on protests. Because protesting is a costly and irregular political activity, in political systems where women can take somewhat more convenient action, such as writing letters or contacting representatives directly, women are less inclined to take to the streets than in countries such as Zimbabwe and Russia where protests may be the only way to be heard.
In other words, for women to protest, the political climate has to be not too restrictive or not too open. Women have to feel that protest is the best and possibly only way to influence politics — as they may feel under Trump, considering how he campaigned.
5. Forecasting statistical models indicates that the United States is especially “at risk” for future high-intensity women’s protests.
In a working paper with Sam Bell of Kansas State University, we find that the United States leads the world as the country most “at risk” for future high-intensity women’s protests before 2020. Building on our team’s earlier work predicting insurgency, we used our statistical model of the factors associated with women’s protest to identify countries where there are fewer and less intense protests than these underlying factors would suggest.
We first calibrated our statistical model by assessing how well we could predict current protests based on historical information. We then used this model to create a list of countries where protests are most likely to increase in the future. We ranked countries based on how much their historical environment indicates that they should be experiencing more high-intensity protests than they are now.
Across our statistical models, the United States shows up consistently as the country where the underlying factors predict the largest increase in future women’s protests.
Other countries where we should expect more women’s protests include Egypt, Yemen, France and Pakistan. Even before the 2016 election, the unique organizational and political factors in the United States made the country ripe for future women’s protests.
Dursun Peksen is associate professor of political science at the University of Memphis, specializing in foreign policy and human rights.
Amanda Murdie is the Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations and a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, specializing in nonstate actors and human security.