The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s time to drop the vagina as a protest symbol

What really unites all women is the presumption of incompetence.

No more “pussy hats,” please. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

On April 22, dozens of letters protesting President Trump written by women around the country will arrive at the White House in a giant envelope (of sorts) in the shape of a vulva, courtesy of female-oriented platform Mogul. The campaign, called #ReadMyLips, is a reference not to George H.W. Bush’s fateful 1988 campaign promise, but to female anatomy. And so the anti-Trump vagina protest motif has moved from the abstract and craft-centric (that is, the pussy hat) to the branded and literal.

Vaginally oriented resistance wasn’t born in response to Trumpism. Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues,” as much a remonstration against women’s oppression as an ode to the pudenda, first appeared in 1996. The current, ubiquitous incarnation is a reference to Trump’s notorious 2005 “Grab them by the p – – – y” remark, the recording of which made waves during (but evidently didn’t decide) the 2016 presidential campaign. But it also evokes the accusation, made against women who supported Hillary Clinton, that they were voting with their vaginas. All of that “vagina” talk was demeaning and insulting, and thus a prime target for a reclamation campaign. Clearly The Vagina was posing some sort of threat, so what could be more delightful than rubbing it in oppressors’ faces? (Metaphorically, of course.)

The vagina protest also offers an opportunity for large-scale solidarity, at a time when feminism appeared in need of unity. Had Clinton lost because of an insufficiently intersectional approach — that is, because of a focus on middle-class white women? Or was her mistake failing to win over, well, middle-class white women? What if both were true? A New York Times headline on Dec. 30 that read, “Feminism Lost. Now What?” seemed to sum up the state of the women’s movement writ large.

If women couldn’t agree on a moderate Democrat to become the nation’s first female president, what was left? Well, there were vaginas. The visual provided by that sea of Women’s March pink pussy hats served as a cathartically necessary moment of solidarity, a pause in the ongoing contentious debates over where, precisely, the feminist movement’s boundaries should be drawn.

But that a gesture of solidarity was necessary to unite a fractured movement doesn’t mean it’s the appropriate way forward. The obvious problem with vagina-motif protest is that it leaves out some women — namely, trans women. Not all women have vaginas, and not all vagina-havers identify as women. A rhetorical strategy whose goal is universality falls short if it excludes some of the most marginalized women.

And an anatomical focus also erases women’s experiences. Women are a caste within society, not the owners of a particular body part. The vast majority of women do indeed have vaginas, but they aren’t preoccupied by that fact day to day. Vagina possession doesn’t explain why Mary voices an idea in a meeting but the boss listens only when Jim repeats it. When Kate does the dishes again, it isn’t because Bob’s genitalia prevented him from loading the dishwasher. Yes, reproduction and child-care-related issues, not to mention sexual assault and domestic abuse, disproportionately affect women, and often involve women’s genitals. But even the women’s issues with some relationship to female anatomy aren’t really about vaginas.

Subversive though it can be, vagina protest reinforces the very phenomenon it’s meant to mock. The claim that women voting for Clinton were voting with their vaginas was off-putting because it implied that preferring a female candidate wasn’t a political choice, but rather an irrational animalistic imperative. Sending the president protest letters housed in a vagina-shaped envelope doesn’t change the terms of the debate. The medium overpowers the message.

And the message — that women are humans — is important. Concrete changes are needed at the policy level to help women fully realize their rights, but perhaps more immediately, we need changes at the level of public opinion. We need (and we need general societal support for) paid parental leave, a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care, and a whole slew of structural changes that would disproportionately benefit women. A society that doesn’t laugh off sexual harassment, let alone assault, would also be fantastic, if more challenging to legislate.

These goals, however, are remote and don’t exhaust the vision of feminism. There’s also a legitimate visceral need to speak out, as women, about the situation of women as a caste — which is, I think, what vagina protest is gesturing at, but which could be accomplished more effectively.

One approach far more effective than I would have imagined: A recent Twitter thread on the phenomenon of “mansplaining,” in which men explain women’s areas of expertise to them. The thread began with a tweet by journalist Tracy Clayton, asking, “women, what’s the most infuriating thing you’ve had mansplained to you?”

The expression “mansplaining” had long struck me as clever but a bit limited. It assumes a woman who’s an expert in a cool field. A woman who can — as in Rebecca Solnit’s famous essay “Men Explain Things To Me” — counter (or have a friend remind) that she wrote the book some dude is telling her about: a feminism for the confident and professionally accomplished.

But the thread Clayton’s tweet launched was anything but a narrow focus on the (real, but finite) plight of elite professional women. It includes anecdotes about women (and others who don’t identify as men) having everything from obscure academic subjects to the use of a water bottle, from “consent” to “bike-related things” mansplained to them. The thread got at the complex mix of social interactions, workplace dynamics and biology that can enter into life as women experience it, in a way that was refreshingly inclusive and frank.

Perhaps the universal women’s experience, inasmuch as one exists, involves facing the presumption — all too often internalized — of incompetence. All I know is, I happened upon the mansplaining thread at one of those moments when I’d had one of those interactions that left me feeling like a woman whose ideas would never be good enough for male gatekeepers. The thread had me cheering, while the 3-D vagina, alas, left me cold.