As academics and civilians, ROLSI readers and writers are sometimes party to momentous events on the political and cultural stage. I’m proud and delighted to host a guest blog by ethnographer, friend, and distinguished ex-Editor of ROLSI, Kristine Muñoz, on her participation in the January 21, 2017, Women’s March on Washington.
On January 20, shortly after the Presidential inauguration, I got on a chartered bus in Iowa City along with 112 others, almost all women, for a 20-hour drive to Washington DC (it was only supposed to be 16 hours but the bus driver got lost somewhere in Virginia). To take part in the Women’s March on Washington was to experience an oasis of peaceful, happy faces, of thousands of individuals who for once, had no bone to pick with one another. So different from the despair after Election Day in November, more different still from the days that have followed the inauguration, it is one that may bear some ethnographic description.
The most noticeable forms of language use were on the signs. Few were manufactured, hand-out-by-the-dozen kind you see at some political events, with logos, eye-catching and chant-worthy slogans. Most were homemade, and predictably varied in their expressions of the common themes of the day. Held or carried by: a small girl on a woman’s shoulders: Future President; a man in his early 20’s: You think I’m pissed, you should see my mom and sister; women in their 50’s – 60’s (the predominant demographic): You’re pro-choice for 20 weeks, I’m pro-choice for 4,000 weeks (“76 years, average lifespan,” it explained on the reverse); Proud pro-choice MOM; We are the 99% of Catholic women who use birth control (in chatting with the women holding this sign, one of them told me the other was a nun – “and my biological sister too!” she grinned); White women elected Donald Trump (the bearer was African American); Marching proud with my Muslim daughter in law; women in their 70’s and older: Why am I still marching for equality?
We chanted as we marched, perhaps nothing very original. Chants have to sound familiar enough to a large group of people, most of whom do not know each other, all of whom are moving en masse through an unfamiliar space, to pick up and repeat in call-response format:
- Show me what democracy looks like! THIS is what democracy looks like!
- Show me what diversity looks like! THIS is what diversity looks like!
- (Women) My body, my choice! (Men) Her body, her choice!
As the river of people flowed past the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, a different chant started: SHAME ON YOU! SHAME ON YOU! Or simply, SHAME, SHAME, SHAME, SHAME … just the cadence to match the marchers’ pace. This was near the end of the two-mile route, and the chanting had become softer and more intermittent, but at this point it grew back to a roar. Instead of starting and stopping, it passed back along the line of marchers as they came close enough to see the building with the distinctive gold five-foot lettering over the front door. It was constant for at least the 45 minutes I waited across the street for someone separated from my group to come back and find us.
The most pervasive statement came in the form of pink knitted hats worn by easily half the women involved in the march, maybe two thirds. The signature headwear was named pussy hats both to rhyme with “pussycat” – they form ears on top of the wearers’ heads – and to appropriate a sometimes derogatory word for female genitalia. The latter issue was discussed with fascinating delicacy in the original call to action, befitting the sensibilities of the target demographic, i.e. me. Up close, many of the hats were exquisite variations on the basic model, with intricate designs, funny faces, subtle rainbow colors that looked pink from a distance. Standing back to watch the marchers go by or looking at pictures from sister marches around the world, all connected by this symbolic and practical celebration of women’s handiwork, was electric.
The question all day and on the bus ride home (only 17 hours) was: How many people do you think were there? Estimates from Los Angeles, Chicago, London, even Iowa City, were devoured as they came over the Internet. Crowd experts became high priests, especially after the number of people attending the inauguration was the first recorded “alternative fact” (a term sure to live long and prosper). We heard everything from 250,000 to 1.2 million in DC, with the most reliable I read being 500,000. All I need to know, now and forever, is that this ethnographer was one of them.