The Beginning of a Movement: Who Was This Past Weekend’s Women’s March for?

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Was it for Donald Trump? Other legislators across the country, especially Republican members of Congress? Ourselves?

By Seth Masket


A view of protestors at the women’s march in Los Angeles on January 21st, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Millions of Americans took to the streets Saturday in an event collectively known as the Women’s March. It was a very public event with many messages, including support for reproductive freedoms, opposition to violence against women, and, more generally, opposition to many of Donald Trump’s statements and governing agenda. But who, exactly, was the audience for this march? Just whom was this for?

A glance at many of the marchers’ signs would suggest that the target was Trump himself, either to refute his claims, oppose his stances, insult him, or goad him into an undignified response. There’s little chance, of course, that Trump will actually see any of those signs or care to, and even less that one would cause him to rethink his beliefs. Yes, Trump is clearly obsessed with crowd size, so anyone trying to irritate him could do far worse than producing a rally with more people than attended his inauguration. But even if he’s the content of many signs and chants, he’s just not seriously the target of the march.

One important target is the media. March organizers, and the broader networks of liberals and Democrats, were eager to change political news coverage and make it about something other than Trump. They wanted to show that the left is not just demoralized from the November election, that they have energy and enthusiasm on their side, and that they can produce impressive turnout when they are threatened. The marches definitely gave reporters something to cover.

Another important target: legislators across the country, especially Republican members of Congress. While Republicans control Congress and most statehouses, the value of their party brand is currently in the hands of Trump. This puts them in a tricky position — they have a great deal of power right now, but it’s not clear just how far they can push it. And they’ve already given up quite a few ideological commitments in order to stand behind Trump. At least in the 2016 election, that proved a worthwhile gamble. But he entered office last week astonishingly unpopular. If Republican legislators see his brand as potentially damaging to them, and see Democrats as willing to turn out in extraordinary numbers to oppose him, it could signal to them that standing by Trump is not in their career interests. Indeed, they might want to oppose some of his agenda to lessen the pushback from voters.

Relatedly, Saturday’s crowds provided a lesson for Democratic politicians, particularly more moderate ones. They were reminded that, even if they’re in the minority in most places, they’d be wise not to retreat on abortion access and other issues of import to Democratic women. Those voters will show up in primaries and general elections, they’ll make phone calls, they’ll donate money, they’ll volunteer, and so forth. They can make an officeholder’s work a lot more difficult if they’re dissatisfied.

And finally, to no small extent, the marchers’ audience was themselves. Politically, this past election season was a devastating one for liberal women, who found themselves having to fight battles for wars thought won decades ago. (Yes, we had a national debate in 2016 about whether it’s OK for a presidential candidate to brag about sexual assault.) The march was a way for millions to find their voice again and to see that they have allies all over the world.

But it’s also a reminder of the work that lies ahead for the marchers and their supporters. It is one thing for people to show up and march on a Saturday while their minds are fixated on the inauguration of a president they despise. It is quite another to keep those same people engaged in politics over the next two or four years, to get them to call or write their elected officials, to offer their time and labor, or even to run for office themselves. That work will determine whether Saturday was the beginning of a movement or a pleasant walk through downtown.