The lead-up to Saturday's post-Donald Trump inauguration Women's March on Washington, and the many marches that took place around the world in support of that event, was predictable. There were many reports, in tones that ran the gamut from gloomy to gleeful, that there were some disagreements between the group organizing the ad-hoc event and some of the myriad groups hoping to participate.
There was much sardonic discussion over the fact that some women were knitting pink "pussy hats" for the marches, a reference of course to America's new President, who was caught bragging, on tape, about grabbing women "by the pussy."
The now-leader-of-the-free-world – then-reality-TV-host – was wearing a microphone when he was "caught" saying this, on account of the fact that he was about to record some behind-the-scenes footage for his guest appearance on Days of Our Lives. That wasn't an easy sentence to type and yes, that would be the same Mr. Trump who recently claimed he's too hidden-camera-canny to have been secretly taped by Russian operatives – but let's get back to mocking women who want to wear hats in January.
Attempts were made to frame the knit and sometimes crocheted (factionalism! Warm, woolly factionalism!) hats as a lightning-rod for controversy. In fact, they were the kind of viral-marketing campaign corporations dream about. Hat patterns were swapped on Facebook. "Have you got your hat yet?" was posted with the date but the media narrative was largely that the event might well be a washout – indications being that all the women in the world having failed yet again to reach a consensus on how best to better the lives of all women in the world and express that agenda in a single event; feminism was clearly a failure; better to call the whole thing off.
Much of this hand-wringing went to print. Promise to reduce the complexities of women's lives to a cat-fight and you'll always be able to find at least one editor ready to say "Give me 1,500 words!"
The much reported upon "mommy wars," for example, never happened. The more mundane reality is that as a formula for harmonious friendship, unanimity of values and steadfast co-operation, "We all have three-year-olds" isn't a guaranteed winner but so much ink was spilled discussing this apparently world-shaking conflict. After all, it seemed to prove a point a lot of people very much want proven.
For hundreds of years, men discussed and debated – often very hotly – how best to advance society. Sometimes they painstakingly parsed the minutiae of their emerging ideologies to the point where those witnessing their drama wanted them shot. Sometimes they actually got shot. Sometimes they broke ranks and turned on former allies but few suggested that they just settle down and call their project off; democracy is over all deemed to be a success.
Feminism can't catch this break and activism in general has not been in vogue for a while now.
"You must have one unified message," protesters are warned, "but you must never debate what that message is." Marching is framed as at once too gentle to cause change and too confrontational to sway opponents. In much the same way we are sagely informed in defiance of actual history that neither large gatherings of citizens, nor individuals, effect change.
"You won't win people over," protesters are chided," You won't make any new friends," to which I say, this ain't political Tinder. Sometimes you don't go out to make new friends.
"Protesting alone won't change anything anyway," people sigh, as if anyone at a protest ever thought it would; I believe the Act Up chant was "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" not "We're here, problem solved, let's get a drink!" And yes, change was effected during the AIDS crisis. Public opinion and public policy were altered in answer to a cry and lives were saved.
Protests are part mundane industry conference, part triumph of the human spirit.
They can educate and galvanize participants, although not of course all participants. Don't be silly. Marches can apply political pressure. I saw accusations that the protesters were merely "attention seeking" to which I can only say, "Yes, Einstein."
Hitting the street en masse is an easily mocked gesture. It's like shooting sign-waving fish in a barrel but as the Women's March demonstrated again, protests can help form an agenda as well as articulate it. They often do this while blocking a little traffic, threatening to be, at the very least, a trifle inconvenient in the long run if their demands are not met.
A peaceful protest like the Women's March can be a thorn in the side. Dissent is not obliged to be a soothing balm, as is the current spin.
I went to the Toronto Women's March in large part for my mother who could not be there. My mother underwent surgery this past Friday, to remove some lumps of yet-to-be-determined substance and here's what she said to me when I called on Thursday night to wish her well and give her my love, "You know," she said, "I go under at 11:30 and I'll be down for Trump's whole inauguration. It's almost worth it."
How could I go wuss out of a walk in the face of that, let alone everything else? I hoped if I went to the march and posted a picture on Facebook, my mum would come on Facebook on Saturday – in the guise of my dad, as she always does – and "like" those photos. I'm very happy to say she did, and perhaps she saw that not all the lessons my parents gave were lost upon me. My mother and father were part of the peace movement against the Vietnam War and one of the few pictures of my parents in their very early years is a black and white shot of them protesting racial segregation in South Africa while at university there, where they met.
"All the couples, and it was mostly couples, at that protest were ordered to march six feet apart," my mum told me, in order for the police to be able to get a clear photograph of all of them. Surveillance technology has improved since then and I have no doubt it is being put to use.
In that protest picture, my mother, Janey, looks serenely into the future, knowing, it appears, that she will ultimately end apartheid, simply by looking like a young Elizabeth Taylor.
My mother sat me on a float in an International Women's Day March in Guelph, Ont. The theme of the float was "When I grow up I want to be …" and we were instructed to wear costumes. My little-girl-self just really wanted to wear a slightly Victorian princess dress from the bottom of my dress-up box and so I did. I can't recall exactly what my sign claimed that I aspired to be. I think it was "seamstress," but I never did like to miss a chance to rock a nice frock and I sat there on the back of that trailer blissfully unaware that I was not on point and I took something away from that day: There is a season, as it's been said, and I reckon that the season for protest may be upon us. After all a guy who speaks approvingly of the Chinese government's show of "strength" at Tiananmen Square is now in power in America. Autocratic is in.
If not now, than what are you thinking? I am grateful to have been primed in the culture of opposition. I'm also hugely grateful to all the men and women, older and younger people, families pushing prams, who came out in every city in solidarity. They came out to push back against the popular un-wisdom that now that a repeat bankrupt, who lies even when there is no conceivable benefit to lying and who ran on a platform of doing absolutely terrible, dangerous, cruel and completely unworkable, flat out idiotic things has been elected and we should sit back and give him a chance.
In several U.S. cities, the actual march had to be all but called off, the crowd size having swelled to nearly fill the entire route.
There were speakers at the Toronto march which began at Queen's Park. I'm not sure who. It is the one unifying aspect of all large protests that that no can hear any of the speakers. I swear Mr. Trump himself could have got up and spoken and the crowd would have cheered. There were too many people for me and most others to catch the audio and the crowd was that enthusiastic. This is partly why the signs, often both witty and angry, mattered.
Shout out the young gentlemen with the "I'm with her" signs with arrows pointing in all directions. Applause for the young woman with the "We the Pussy" sign. Well played, man with the pink pussy hat, one of many, carrying a sign that said, "We shall overcomb, balding men against Trump" and love to the sweetheart with the "Make America gay again" sign and so many others. Thanks, little boy who had climbed a tree and who, when I passed him my phone, took a crowd shot for me.
A young woman stood on a bench and held up a red sign that said "Make empathy great again." Great to hear from you.