Since the January 21, 2017, Women’s March in Washington, DC, I have been actively engaged as a street art anthropologist, collecting photographs of signs from mass demonstrations in response to the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, an ongoing wake-up call for the future of American democracy. Some of these images found their way onto social media feeds for NY Indivisible, through my own platforms and blogs, and into course material generated at the New School, where I teach undergraduate media studies courses. After the election, some of these students asked in all earnestness, “Are we going to be okay?” My response was to provide easily accessible voter registration links, like TurboVote1 and advised them to join the marches, call their representatives, and engage in the democratic process [Image 1].

IMAGE 1.

Ovary Acting (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 1.

Ovary Acting (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

This photo essay draws upon three years of participation in myriad marches in New York City and Washington, DC, along with rallies, panels, call days, postcard writing, and fundraising events, taking note of key linguistic turns of phrase and repeating memes. This exploration tracks the language of the creative resistance that has emerged since the 2016 presidential election, examining the impact of a movement from virtual social media activism directly into the streets. Anyone creating a sign was more than happy to have it photographed, part of the sharing and community-building ethos of this collaborative economy of meaning. “This is what democracy looks like,” a common chant of the movement, also demonstrates the street-side educational elements that emerged as definitions of active citizenship moving beyond just voting to new levels of engagement. The marches provided a space for collective catharsis, part of regenerative dialogues and interconnection in real time, catalyzing action over despair, and a reclaiming of our public spaces, otherwise known as “the commons”: our parks, roads, bridges, and gathering places. Millions since 2016 have been enacting the Constitution by marching, embodying our rights as citizens.

Following that historic march, which I attended with my millennial daughters in Washington, DC, and the Women’s Strike “A Day Without a Woman” events on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2017, I became actively engaged in documenting additional protests. These include the Native American–led protests of the Keystone XL Pipeline and rallies supporting immigrants, as well as the suite of that year’s mass demonstrations: the Tax March, the March for Science, the March for Truth, and the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC.

The collections of hand-inked crayon and magic marker scribblings, slogans, and witticisms that have accompanied every march since the national post-inaugural Women’s Marches serve as a linguistic record of our body politic in an ongoing and sustained phase of awakened activity to preserve our constitutional rights. Ordinarily produced on ephemeral paper, poster board, and cardboard, this form of street art lives on in digital spaces alongside the potency of #MeToo hashtags. In the pre–citizen journalism era, march signage would often disappear from the vernacular unless documented by a news outlet or professional archival photographer, rendering the messaging more one-time than even spray-painted graffiti, sidewalk stencils, or wheat paste poster art plastered to urban walls. Online, these slogans live on as the digital dictionary of a movement, recorded in the archive of social media feeds and mobile phone galleries—an ongoing virtual network of influential messaging [Image 2].

IMAGE 2.

Don’t Tread (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 2.

Don’t Tread (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

Signs of a democracy on red alert have taken the form of literal signs, homemade creations of the myriad individuals and collectives in dialogue with the policy decrees, speeches, news feeds, and twitter streams of a disruptive, divisive 45th President of the United States. These generative response systems have served to channel outrage and despair into creative communities participating in actual physical movements of activism. While taking to the streets has always been an essential part of our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the frequency of these events over the past two years and the sheer number of participants has been unprecedented in recent decades. We are no longer taking these rights for granted. We are walking them, talking them, exercising them. The female body politic in particular has activated in response to an election in which a known “pussy grabber” won through razor thin Electoral College vote margins, despite losing the popular vote by 2.8 million2 [Image 3].

IMAGE 3.

Pink Sea (2017) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 3.

Pink Sea (2017) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

THE PINK WAVE, JANUARY 2017–JANUARY 2019

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration, a pink wave of women’s marches filled the streets of cities and towns across America. This was followed by monthly marches around many issues organized by various political, civil rights, and environmental groups and nonprofits—some new, like Indivisible and Swing Left, joining forces with more established grassroots organizations including MoveOn.org, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council, 350.org, Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, and others. Individuals also launched and supported “Get Out the Vote” door-to-door and postcard campaigns, along with massive small donor fundraising efforts and the greatest number of women running for office and the most ever elected across national, state, and local campaigns, resulting in a “blue wave” sweeping through Congress in November 2018, with the most diverse House of Representatives in history.

Women, including teenage girls, have risen up with a newly energized response, taking leadership roles in movements encompassing gun control, the environment, global warming, education, immigrant rights, LGBTQ+ rights and more, challenging the status quo embedded in the corporate-funded oligarchies of modern patriarchy. Over centuries of American history, the role of women has been pivotal to key social change movements, yet textbooks’ recognition often diminishes or erases the visibility of their role in transformative shifts that have resulted in legislation or constitutional amendments, from abolition to civil rights. The 2017 and 2018 women’s marches, along with the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, have created a definitive shift in female representation. With numbers reaching multitudes in public spaces, and the virality of messaging through virtual digital information systems of shares, views, and retweets, female visibility has shifted to the undeniable. Participation in peaceful marches to the tune of hundreds of thousands, even millions, creates a space for collective possibility. Aerial photography provides the visible proof of the numbers—no Photoshop necessary—and is shared online immediately afterward. The slogan-wielding crowds amplified on social media mark an interplay of virtual bodies transmitting media through laptops and mobile phones and bodies taking up space in real time. The weight of actual bodies, bodies on the line, bodies on the ground, and bodies in the field has been on display repeatedly since November 2016. With women’s leadership a key component of many of these historic gatherings, all have progressed without a single incident of violence.

These mass gatherings have helped transform apathy and cynicism into direct political actions that increased voter turnout in 2018 and elevated knowledge of the democratic process, while putting a spotlight on gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement. One viral New York City sign, “Protest is the New Brunch,” indicated just how rampant the schedule of activism had become. Those who might have previously engaged in “armchair activism” or “clicktivism” found themselves energized to such a degree that they transcended shyness or fear of crowds, bringing children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, colleagues, and friends. One recurring bit of signage even spoke directly to this phenomenon: “It’s So Bad the Introverts Are Here.”

News outlets, trained in finding the dramatic hook, often spotlit angry messages aimed directly at the 45th President: “Keep Your Tiny Hands Off My Rights,” “You Can’t Comb Over the Constitution,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Czar, Putin Put You Where You Are,” and “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” This oppositional emphasis was only part of the conversation. Photographs of the dirigible presidential baby and other grotesque orange-wigged effigies often missed the extraordinary nature of peaceful bodies flowing in cooperation through major cities and towns without clashes with police and with the repeated message: “Make America Kind Again” [Image 4].

IMAGE 4.

Heart Art (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 4.

Heart Art (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

The peaceful, cooperative marches filled with songs and camaraderie liberated many from screen isolation, where they’d been rewinding what was the worst news of their lifetimes: an alleged sexual predator and misogynist elected President of the United States. Taking to the streets in such numbers proved we weren’t crazy, and it was up to us to manifest solutions in an “all hands on deck” moment for our democracy beyond complacency or passive spectatorship, an exhilarating street-side experience of “We the People” affirmations. Some of the most poignant handmade signs were created by toddlers and schoolchildren, scribbling for justice and free speech along with their parents: “Little Girls of Today Become Women of Wisdom,” “Girls Matter,” and “Save Our Planet” [Image 5].

IMAGE 5.

Girl Power (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 5.

Girl Power (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

BLACK BODIES MATTER: #BLACKLIVESMATTER, 2013–PRESENT

Movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti following the vigilante shooting death in Florida of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, contributed to the grassroots efficacy of post-election activism, shedding light on police brutality and institutional racism. Key African American authors, poets, philosophers, and policymakers including Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, Audre Lorde, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Sojourner Truth were evoked at the marches in poster quotes and exquisite original artworks [Image 6].

IMAGE 6.

Rosa (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 6.

Rosa (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

Brought to life in this way, these foremothers and their wisdom often soared above the crowds. Key citations included Lorde’s “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from my own,” and “Your silence will not protect you.” Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “Each time a woman stands up for herself … she stands ups for other women,” was seen on many signs, as were her poetic lines “You may shoot me with your words,/You may cut me with your eyes,/You may kill me with your hatefulness,/But still, like air, I rise.” Michelle Obama’s catchphrase from her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “When they go low, we go high,” was often penned on cardboard along with her image. Pop song references to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and Beyoncé’s “I Slay Like a Girl,” and “Who Run[s] the World? Girls!” appeared with drawings and printed imagery of these icons. Nobel Peace Prize–winner Malala Yousafzai’s quote “We are stronger than fear” resonated, as did references to former president Barack Obama: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” In an overarching acknowledgement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in nonviolent protest, his citations were ubiquitous, including “There is no noise as powerful as the sound of the marching feet of determined people.”

Along with the embodied and reanimated words of these thought leaders came calls to #SayHerName, a hashtag that gained traction on social media following Sandra Bland’s fatal encounter with police in Texas in July 2015, shedding an additional spotlight on racial and gender injustice and calling for increased visibility to women of color, particularly in light of the fact that ninety-four percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, while forty-seven percent of white women voted for Trump3 [Images 7 and 8].

IMAGE 7.

Vote Like a Black Woman (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 7.

Vote Like a Black Woman (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 8.

Trust Women (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 8.

Trust Women (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

THE FEMALE BODY POLITIC WRIT LARGE AND LOUD

While many key components of human rights took to the street signage in this era of protest, this photo essay specifically explores the recurrent themes of the female body in puns, snarky slogans, original drawings and paintings, pop cultural references and riffs in response to the fake news, half-truths, and divisive decrees emanating from the White House. From pussy hats onward, female anatomical references have appeared front and center against the backdrop of literally millions of female bodies in city and town roadways, embodying voices advocating for human rights. Citizen journalists amplified these messages alongside traditional journalism outlets, with female body messages reaching far and wide.

In a fascinating eruption of spontaneous collective brain power, these recurring slogans include many versions of “Pussy Grabs Back,” a sexual assault empowerment meme referencing the infamously leaked 2005 Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump engaged in a lewd discussion with host Billy Bush about how to aggressively seduce women, saying, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Millions, shocked that this scandalous evidence of vulgarity and misogyny did not knock Trump out of the race when the audio went viral, returned post-election with pussy protest vehemence. Depictions of claw and fang-baring kitties proliferated, along with feline costumes and motifs. Variations included “Cunt Touch This,” “Pussies in Formation,” “Hands Off Our Cuntry,” “This Pussy Votes,” “Keep Your Politics off My Pussy,” and “Pussy Power,” as linguistic acts of reclaiming and protecting the boundaries of female space from further invasion, pushing back against GOP support for a serial sexual predator [Image 9].

IMAGE 9.

Pussy Grabs Back (2017) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 9.

Pussy Grabs Back (2017) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

SLAYING THE SHAME MONSTER

The visibility of women’s anatomy in the vivid, colorful, procreative street signage artwork of the resistance marches includes images of uteruses, vaginas, fallopian tubes, torsos, and breasts, elevating female anatomy into emblems of pride and power, rendering internal anatomy external and collectively banning shame, including the intergenerational nod to “Teach Her Pride, Not Shame.” Key recurrences of biological references include “Vulva La Resistance,” “My Uterus is Private Property,” “Shed Walls, Don’t Build Them,” “Public Cervix Announcement,” and “We Need to Talk About the Elephant in the Womb” [Images 10 and 11].

IMAGE 10.

Elephant (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 10.

Elephant (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 11.

Fallopians (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 11.

Fallopians (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

NASTY WOMEN, HEALTHY WOMEN

“Nasty Women” signage riffs, a reference to comments made by Trump about Clinton during the third 2016 presidential debate, included “If I Wanted the Government in My Uterus, I’d Screw a Congressman,” “Don’t Test Me With Your Testes,” “Does My Period Scare You?,” “Keep Your Paws and Your Laws off My Pussy,” and “Grab Patriarchy by the Balls.”

Calls for universal healthcare coincided with a collective response to outrage that attempts were being made by this predominantly white and male cabinet to turn back time on women’s rights, including ongoing challenges to federal funding of Planned Parenthood health services and the Roe v. Wade’s abortion rights determination from 1972. Images of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Star Wars freedom fighter Princess Leia appeared, combined with text reading “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” and “Respect My Existence or Expect My Resistance.” Reclaiming imagery of the female body, and repurposing anti-feminist and anti-abortion rhetoric, these images (and their creators) affirm that advocating for our existence on an imperiled planet is advocating for life [Image 12].

IMAGE 12.

Pro-Life (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 12.

Pro-Life (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

Additional pop cultural references across the marches included references to J.K. Rowling’s female characters from the Harry Potter series—brainiac Hermione Granger (“Without Hermione, Harry Would Have Died in Book One”) and her co-heroine Luna Lovegood—in faux campaign posters (“Granger and Lovegood 2020”). Even Elastigirl from The Incredibles film franchise showed up with “And leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so.” In a literary homage gone to the small screen, women often showed up at events dressed in red costumes and white Puritan-style hats holding placards, “The Handmaid’s Tale is Not an Instruction Manual” and “Season Three of the Handmaid’s Tale Sucks” alluding to the highly viewed HBO series based on Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel from 1985, in which selected women become forcibly bred like livestock in the name of religious patriarchy [Image 13].

IMAGE 13.

Granger/Lovegood (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 13.

Granger/Lovegood (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

PUSSY HATS AND THE PINK WAVE

The day after the presidential election on November 9, 2016, millions of people in the US woke to depression and disbelief. How was this possible? How did Clinton, who won the popular vote, not become President? After the initial shock, thousands and thousands got busy. We cried, we reached out to our friends, and we called voice to voice beyond Facebook to brainstorm and ask each other, “How can we turn this around?” Some efforts, like emailing members of the Electoral College directly, or contributing to Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s calls for recounts proved futile. The first round of protests began small, then grew. It was a time of strategy meetings; ad hoc think tanks; and crash courses in the minutiae of local, state, and federal voting laws; as well as a time of massive activity. Some wrote postcards from bar stools, held interim election fundraisers, organized get-out-the-vote efforts for Senate seats vacated by cabinet appointments, and by January, were participating in one massive march after another.

For some, activism translated into mitigating anxiety by knitting hats. The Pussyhat Project, founded by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, was launched in November 2016 with a website providing patterns designed by Kat Coyle of Little Knittery that were freely downloadable for DIY hat crafting. It became a global movement almost overnight. According to their website, the name was chosen “to de-stigmatize the word ‘pussy’ and transform it into one of empowerment, and to highlight the design of the hat’s ‘pussycat ears,’” as well as to provide warmth to the winter march participants.4 

Knitting circles became opportunities for catharsis, community building, and organizing, a way to include young mothers, the elderly, the disabled, or those with crowd phobia or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Handwork has been scientifically proven to reduce stress;5 is used as a form of meditation to antidote loss, worry, and woes; and can be a tool for problem solving. Those who could not leave home could use yarn and needles to link to the networks of women who marched around the globe, acting in solidarity with those wearing their pink hats in the streets. This latest wave of the women’s movement once again reclaimed handwork, productively weaving stitches as a form of activism. Zweimann has since gone on to address the immigrant crisis with an offshoot, the Welcome Blanket, an ongoing project to connect “lines of yarn” along the US-Mexico border to become “3,500,640 yards of blankets to welcome people in.”6 

PINK HAT MOB: THE WOMEN’S MARCH, WASHINGTON, DC, JANUARY 2017

On January 21, 2017, millions of women arrived in Washington, DC, singing, swaying, chanting, and wearing fuchsia, maroon, electric and pale pink hats—an all-rose spectrum, a pink-red-burgundy rainbow. Joining this growing pink-hatted mob affirmed: We are awake, we are alive, and we are not going away. We know who won the majority vote. Though visually loud, brash, and undeniable, the pink hats also signaled a friendly tribal welcome to all who participated, an affirmation writ large: we are not crazy, we will not go unnoticed, we are in this together. This peaceful uprising of women, girls, their kindreds, families, and partners provided an unexpected uplift of yes-factor to the crushing outcome of November 9.

As I am not a knitter, a Waldorf school mom from Woodstock, New York, who couldn’t attend the event gifted me a pink/rusty maroon calico hat with a pinned note: “Let women lead in ‘rights for all.’ Wear it in renewed health and spirit.” I put it on right away, and became part of something larger than myself. Once we were on site, it was clear this would be bigger than anyone expected. A web of people arrived from all directions, weaving in and out of every possible passageway to downtown Washington, waves of visitors emerging from two-hour delays in the Metro, wearing purplish pinks, lavender pinks, reddish pinks. There were mothers, girlfriends, grandmas, aunties, schoolgirls, teenagers, “Girls [who] just want to have FUNdamental human rights,” calling for “Equality Meow.” Boyfriends, dads, uncles, fathers, brothers, and grandfathers, while in the minority, joined with their own signs: “Men of Quality Respect Women’s Equality,” “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” and “#HeForShe,” a variation on one of Clinton’s campaign slogans, “I’m With Her.”

The overall attitude was a sense of belonging, a girl-centric welcome to a universe of one million women, with millions more gathering simultaneously in cities across the country. Who are you? Where did you come from? All the way from Burlington, Seattle, Buffalo, Roanoke, and Baltimore, and from North Carolina, Iowa, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Oregon, millions gathered in mindfulness, pressed against one another in the crowd. We smiled, admired, and supported each other, the lines of ReSisters holding hands, passing through to the port-a-potties, to get a better view of the speakers on the stage, holding onto each other so we wouldn’t get lost in the throng. The lack of impatience, jostling, shoving, or competition proved remarkable given the numbers of people united in a collective willingness to hold our government accountable. None of us knew for certain it would be peaceful, but fears of weapons, violence, or police brutality fell away as the day progressed in a cooperative collective of “Ladies in Formation” with “Girls to the Front,” the “ReSisterhood.”

The pussy hats provided unleashed collective permission for women and men to go silly beyond fashion, crossing boundaries, not holding back, shouting, singing, carrying placards, chanting, weaving, and collectively addressing what many feared was and is America’s constitutional crisis. Despite the divisive tone of the election season, news outlets, and the emanations from the White House, women came together in unity as librarians, geeks, writers, artists, nurses, doctors, engineers, astronauts, teachers, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, daughters, dancers, musicians, actors, politicians, economists, scientists, analysts, and therapists responding and continuing to respond to an all-out emergency, an epidemic of misogyny, racism, and fossil fuel industry corruption in the White House.

PINK WAVE AS COLLECTIVE IMMUNE RESPONSE

As part of a healthy immune system response after an injury occurs to the body, the skin turns pink, a sign that healthy red blood cells are rushing to the site to begin the healing process. At the same time as the Women’s March in DC, millions of women, girls, and their families, boyfriends, husbands, and supporters took to the streets nationwide in pink hats, an awakened response to the systemic health crisis of our democracy. Had the call been for purple, yellow, green, or blue, aerial photography of the colors would have looked very different, possibly jaundiced or toxic. The aerial photographs revealed it: the pink hats created a kind of roving wave, a visual metaphor of healthy pink blood cells, moving through the arteries of global cities and towns with life force, in response to the corruption and what to many was a “stolen election.” It was as if people took to the streets with an immune response writ large, attempting to heal a country that seemed to have forgotten empathy for immigrants, for families, for women, for people of color. This was not a form of protest chemotherapy, or a war on the body politic—it was a creative force, a palpable human response to evolve toward solution-making, transforming anxiety into action.

“I can’t keep quiet” became the flash mob song of the day. Activated, the streets filled with shouts and murmurs, laughter, and “excuse me” and “I love your sign” and “wow” and “let’s march,” a buzzing in our heads, up Constitution Avenue all the way to the White House lawn. Shouts of “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy look like!” intersected in a cappella choruses, a sonic boom of elation after a season of deep emotional upheaval and psychological stress. So here we were in the streets at last, in broad relief, released from the screens of the laptops, Androids, and iPhones that held us in viral thrall throughout the divisive 2016 election season—as yet unaware of the deliberate psychological propaganda campaign aided by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook algorithms. It was as if we’d all been finally released from a collective experience of grief and anxiety into a festival of real people, real crowds, a movement of social change potential and ­proactive possibility.

The entire six-hour event in Washington proved unexpectedly joyful. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her 2009 book Hope in the Dark, which experienced a resurgence in sales after the 2016 election, “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism”7 [Image 14].

IMAGE 14.

Pussy Riot (2012) by Igor Mukhin is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

IMAGE 14.

Pussy Riot (2012) by Igor Mukhin is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The protest symbol of the pussy hat was in some ways a shareware reference to the multicolored balaclavas worn by members of Russian protest punk rock group Pussy Riot, and appeared in synchronicity with the emerging Occupy Movement in 2011–13. Pussy Riot’s version, also hand-knit, led initially with anonymity, similar to the Guerrilla Girls feminist collective, whose members’ names remain hidden to this day. Their influence, through performance and street art activism, continues to resonate for female representation in the art world, in Hollywood and in Washington, DC. However, due to Pussy Riot’s criticism of Russian Orthodoxy and Putin’s policies, several members were outed and jailed for “hooliganism” after a performance staged in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012.8 

In contrast to Pussy Riot’s colorful warrior-like balaclavas, which hark back to the black masks of the Irish Republican Army and other resistance movements, pussy hats reveal the eyes and invite engagement: I see you. You see me. We will be seen. We are not hiding. We can be bold, with a persistent symbolic statement, crossing political lines, using wit and sheer numbers to expose political lies. Pussy hats have kitty ears, for listening, for bearing witness.

After the Women’s March, the pink hats hit the mainstream, landing on the cover of Time Magazine and the New Yorker, in a visual riff on Rosie the Riveter, a symbol of resiliency for democracy, free speech, and our constitutional rights. Celebrities were photographed wearing the hats, using their platforms and endorsements to amplify the cause. Some backlash against the symbolism ensued about white women and their vaginas, race, and a lack of true intersectional collaboration, but some of these critiques may have missed the point about the pinkness and overlooked the multicultural makeup of the Women’s March core leadership, and the fact that the hats weren’t designed for anatomical representation. As the founders of the Pussyhat Project noted, “its mission was simple: to create a sea of pink. The hats, representing both marchers and makers near and far, were a message for unity, or as Suh put it, ‘the new symbol of resistance.’”9 Despite the backlash against the pussy hats from some sectors, their persistent appearance at resistance marches well into 2019 denotes a call to collectivity, stitching people together in commonality. The pink hats represent an invitation for interconnection.

BODIES ON THE LINE: MARCH FOR OUR LIVES, NEW YORK CITY, MARCH 24, 2018

Following the February 2018 mass murder of seventeen students and staff members, and the wounding of another seventeen, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the youth-driven March for Our Lives arrived in March 2018. It eclipsed even the Women’s March of 2017 in sheer numbers and intergenerational participation.10 The movement continues to have a growing impact on National Rifle Association (NRA) revenues due to advertising boycotts, and emerging, long-overdue public policy laws, including background checks, assault weapons bans, and other meaningful restrictions on gun ownership. March for Our Lives leaders, many now attending college and of voting age themselves, spent the summer after the march traveling the country to get out the vote for the midterm elections, putting their bodies on the line to save lives. The student survivors of the Parkland massacre pierced America’s conscience with alacrity, speaking truth to those in power. Just hours after the incident, they abandoned memorial balloons to take to social media, to use the tools at their fingertips to create a movement. The DC coalition of the march may have broken all records for mass peaceful protest in our nation’s capital [Image 15].

IMAGE 15.

Target (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 15.

Target (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

At the March for Our Lives, messages scrawled on cardboard by teenage girls spoke to the contrast between school regulation of female clothing and bodies and lack of regulation of guns. Images of targets and the #MeNext hashtag combined with cogent slogans about a need for updated gun laws beyond the muskets of the eighteenth century. In addition to key signage about gun control, with the #MeNext hashtag a reference to the #MeToo movement, throughout the march signage referenced the fact that girls and women’s bodies are policed more heavily in America than guns [Images 16 and 17].

IMAGE 16.

Gun Rights (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 16.

Gun Rights (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 17.

Girl Regulations (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 17.

Girl Regulations (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

After the massacre, eighteen-year-old Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, made a rousing “We Call BS” speech that captivated the nation with over 3.3 million YouTube views, causing her Twitter following to expand beyond twice that of the NRA.11 The Parkland students arrived at the national podium with a beyond-their-years ability to list US gun violence statistics, spinning talking points with utter clarity. Having lived through tragedy after tragedy, the post-Columbine generation has simply had enough. Unlike other school shootings, where the name of the killer became a household name, these teen voices eclipsed the criminal to linger with impact in the public consciousness [Image 18].

IMAGE 18.

Eye Watch (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 18.

Eye Watch (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

At the podium the day of the 2018 march in Washington, DC, her head shaved in mourning like the heroine of Theodore Dreyer’s silent film classic Joan of Arc (1928), Gonzalez led the crowd in six minutes and twenty seconds of silence—the time it took for the killer to assassinate her classmates. Her silence at the podium, while uncomfortable and agitating to many, underscored the power of the pause in driving home an unforgettable message as she honored those who perished, and as an act of a girl “taking up space” and time [Image 19].

IMAGE 19.

Protect Kids (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 19.

Protect Kids (2018) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

Naomi Wadler, a fifth-grader from Alexandria, Virginia, was the youngest speaker at the March for Our Lives. She eloquently urged the nation not to forget black women, who are disproportionately represented among the victims of gun violence. In the speech Wadler said, “I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.”12 These speeches continue to take up space online with millions of views, inspiring others, and demonstrating how girl power continues to be a source of renewable energy.

THE BLUE WAVE: A HEALTHY BODY POLITIC INCLUDES WOMEN IN CONGRESS, NOVEMBER 2018

The broad array of these marches and their accompanying slogan/memes have influenced policy, inspired get-out-the-vote efforts, and helped usher in the “blue wave” of women in the congressional body, starting with their inaugurations in January 2019. Against the backdrop of literally millions of female bodies in the urban and town arteries, this passionate activism has inspired a collective, resounding heartbeat of change [Images 20 and 21].

IMAGE 20.

Waving (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 20.

Waving (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 21.

RGB Blue Wave (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 21.

RGB Blue Wave (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

A power rebalancing finally arrived in Congress this year, with a new House of Representatives representing a cohort of multicultural women, the most diverse congressional body of all time, now holding 102 seats. These include the youngest congresswoman ever to be elected, twenty-nine-year-old powerhouse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the first Native American women: Democrats Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Ayanna Pressley became the first woman of color elected to Congress from Massachusetts, while Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, a Somali American from Minnesota, became the first Muslim American women elected to Congress. These wins were accompanied by firsts in female governor wins for Democrats in Rhode Island, Michigan, Maine, Oregon, Kansas, and New Mexico, and for Republicans in South Dakota, Iowa, and Alabama.13 

Even among those candidates like Stacey Abrams, who ran for Governor of Georgia and lost in the midst of rampant voter disenfranchisement, historic wins and recognition took place. Candidates tapped into the authenticity of their own stories as veterans, women of color, and mothers to produce challenging campaigns. On Long Island, Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley took on a long-time Republican incumbent for Congress and, although she didn’t win, helped pass legislation for campaign fund usage for childcare, previously disallowed.14 Clearly, the key to a healthy democracy and the rebalancing of power is an active female body politic.

INCLUSION AND MARCHING ON

Attending the Women’s March of 2018, on my home turf in New York City, and the 2019 Women’s March in Washington, I saw many of the same sentiments echoed across the signage, and the pussy hats returned with the same spirit of interconnectedness. While the participation numbers were more modest, the level of creative affirmations of the female body politic continues to resonate, within a context of elevated intersectionality. There is more room for inclusion, through outreach to marginalized and vulnerable communities, and through awareness of privilege and how that privilege can be used to make more seats at the table. A shift in leadership occurred at the People’s Climate March in Washington in April 2017, where Native Americans—the water protectors—led the march in collaboration with representatives of Black Lives Matter and Climate Justice. People of color took to the podium for the opening and closing statements of the march with a focus on climate change through the lens of social justice, economics, and healthcare.

The umbrella of social change will only continue to be more inclusive through expanded awareness of our internalized sexism and racism, the need for increased compassion, and a willingness to persist through the slow, plodding aspects of democracy and change. Mass demonstrations make steps in the right direction, affirming that “It’s Not a Moment, It’s a Movement.” Movements require more work, not just by voting, but by engaging in local and national acts of social change, and accepting the messy, imperfect nature of activism, always on alert for visionary improvements, tweaks, and adjustments. Seeking innovation, we move beyond activism, to create proactive solutions for resiliency in an ongoing “March for Mother Earth” knowing “A Good Planet is Hard to Find” and “There is No Planet B” [Image 22].

IMAGE 22.

Bear Clan (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

IMAGE 22.

Bear Clan (2019) by Kathleen Sweeney; © Kathleen Sweeney.

1.
2.
Tim Meko, Denise Lu, and Lazaro Gamio, “How Trump won the presidency with razor-thin margins in swing states,” Washington Post, Nov. 11, 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/swing-state-margins.
3.
Vanessa Williams, “Black Women—Hillary Clinton’s most voting reliable bloc—look beyond defeat,” Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/black-women – hillary-clintons-most-reliable-voting-bloc – look-beyond-defeat/2016/11/12/86d9182a-a845-11e6-ba59-a7d93165c6d4_story.html?utm_term=.8b736e99c3c9.
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9.
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10.
Joseph D. Lyons, “How Many People Attended March for Our Lives? It’s Officially the Biggest In the Last 40 Years” Bustle, March 26, 2018, www.bustle.com/p/how-many-people-attended-march-for-our-lives-its-officially-the-biggest-in-the-last-40-years-8605361.
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Rebecca Mead, “Joan of Arc and the Passion of Emma González,” New Yorker, March 26, 2018, www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-passion-of-emma-gonzalez.
12.
Sarah Midkiff, “An 11-Year-Old Spoke Up For All Black Girls In Influential March for Our Lives Speech,” Refinery29, March 24, 2018, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/03/194618/march-for-our-lives-washington-dc-naomi-wadler-speech.
13.
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14.
Anna North, “This mom just won the right to use campaigns funds to pay for childcare,” Vox, Nov. 5, 2018, www.vox.com/2018/5/11/17340698/mom-mothers-congress-child-care-liuba-grechen-shirley-campaign-funds-babysitting.