How to live in the waves of deep depression/sadness that are part of watching the rise of fascism? I don’t know how to navigate these feelings, but to accept how deeply painful they are, breathe into them, find some community gardens nearby, connect with others doing the work. This moment is overwhelmingly sad. The histories feeding this violence are overwhelmingly sad.
— Kimberly George, Facebook status
I ARRIVED IN DC on Friday morning as the inauguration was taking place. My friend Samira met me outside Union Station wearing a pussy hat she’d knitted, and handed an identical one to me. When I put it on, I felt none of the minor embarrassment I’d expected to feel, just warmth against the cold. At first, we weren’t sure whether we wanted to go home to Samira’s place and hunker down until the Women’s March, or whether we wanted to walk around and, as I said, “look at history.” She’s a scholar of American religion; I’m a writer. We realized we couldn’t look away.
We walked into a sea of protesters — Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, Obama-nostalgic, antifa. There was a man in a polar bear suit protesting climate change, and there was an elephant-sized, elephant-shaped balloon with a giant sign saying RACISM on its side. We bought an assortment of Shepard Fairey “We the People” posters for a dollar each, and later gave the poster with a picture of an old water protector to a young Native woman who asked us where she could get one. Meanwhile the street vendors were trying in vain to move their Trump/Pence merchandise, and right-wing propaganda vehicles were driving slowly by: an anti-abortion van plastered with pictures of fetal body parts, and a violent transmisogyny truck covered with all-caps endorsements of the BATHROOM BILL and injunctions to BE A MAN and DEFEND THE CHILDREN, plus many pictures of guns.
I heard Trump’s 21-gun salute without at first knowing what it was; it sounded ominous, like thunder.
For hours we marched with the crowd without knowing where we were going. Along the way, we saw riot police, at least 30 of them, watching and waiting from the side of the road. Even on a gray day there was a glare on their glassy exoskeletons. A few hours later, they were tear-gassing protestors in McPherson Square. Samira and I ended up following the crowd up an on-ramp and onto the beltway and shutting it down.
For a while, we stood together in the parted sea of traffic. On one side of us were stranded cabs and motionless stretch limos full of angry men in MAGA hats, and on the other side, a post-apocalyptically deserted highway. Above us, helicopters swooped and surveilled. We thought about staying and maybe getting arrested, but decided not to. We had to march again the next day.
The essays are coming in waves.
— Marcia Aldrich, “Preface,” Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women
Published the month after the election, the new anthology Waveform arrives as an anachronism, like a birthday cake at a wake. It’s a collection that, in the words of its editor Marcia Aldrich, “celebrates an exuberant field of contemporary literature, the literary essay as written by women.” Breathlessly, Aldrich introduces the collection by telling us that “women’s essays today are exuberant in all the senses of the word — plentiful, energetic, lively, and unrestrained.” In accounting for this era of essayistic exuberance and excess, Aldrich mentions several aspects of contemporary life that have taken on somewhat sinister new meanings since she wrote about them:
Social media have made everyone a potential author — all it takes is a few keystrokes and a post. […] Boundaries between fiction and nonfiction […] have melted […] Reality television makes the claim that anyone’s life is worth documentation. And so on.
As an online essayist who owes much of my writing career to the kind of confessional, click-friendly cultural populism that Aldrich celebrates, I’m swept up by her enthusiasm. But I also can’t help recognizing that the factors that produced the modern essay — social media, blurred genres, reality TV — are the same factors that produced fake news, alternative facts, and Donald Trump.
They are also some of the factors that produced the Women’s March — a surging viral protest that was impulsively conceived by amateurs on social media, and within a few tumultuous months had changed forms and platforms multiple times, falling into ideological infighting and verging on failure before being salvaged by seasoned organizers and ultimately swelling into the biggest global protest in the history of the world, a tsunami that swept over seven continents.
Many things can happen when old forms are washed away.
“Tidal Wave of Protest as Hundreds of Thousands Join Women’s March on Washington”
— The Esperance Express, Australia
I went to the Women’s March with my old friend Amelia, and my new friend Shirley, and Shirley’s boyfriend, Colin. (We tried and failed to meet up with a friend of Shirley’s who has the improbable name of Jared Kushner.) Like the half million people who surrounded us, my friends and I were not all of the same gender, race, citizenship status, or national origin. We were gathered under the word “women,” but our concerns were varied and cosmic. We wanted to be together; we wanted to wield power; we wanted to sing, chant, get in formation, and become the body electric.
Amelia marched with a beautiful Shepard Fairey portrait of a woman with a flower in her hair who, as we later learned, was San Antonio middle-school teacher Maribel Valdez Gonzalez. Shirley wore a Beyoncé T-shirt and held a sign that said ANOTHER FUTURE IS POSSIBLE. One side of my sign was a naked expression of my existential dread (DEMANDS FOR DONALD: 1. DON’T BLOW UP THE WORLD 2. DON’T BOIL THE WORLD 3. DON’T GET RE-ELECTED). The other side was a list of the platform planks from the Women’s March website (ENDING VIOLENCE, REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, LGBTQIA RIGHTS, WORKERS’ RIGHTS, CIVIL RIGHTS, DISABILITY RIGHTS, IMMIGRANT RIGHTS, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE).
Over the course of the day, we chanted about black lives, healthcare, tax returns, equal pay, abortion, immigration, and what-do-we-do-when-we’re-under-attack. Some of the best chants were the simplest, like “SCI-ENCE, SCI-ENCE!” When we marched past the Trump Hotel, we yelled: “SHAME.”
Like Waveform, the Women’s March was an attempt to use “women” as an organizing term without either defining it or presuming that it could or should be delimited or defined. Unlike Waveform, the march welcomed the participation of men. But like Waveform (to paraphrase Aldrich), it “was not wed to a fixed theme, or even women’s experience per se.” Like Waveform, it offered “the appeal of the miscellany.”
An anthology of women’s writing unbounded by a set definition of women’s themes and experiences allows for a new emphasis on formal exploration and innovation. In Waveform, essays come in the form of alphabets, notes, letters, lists, annotated images, rewritings, readings, and wounds. The subjects include cowboys, volcanoes, disco, show tunes, cats, butterflies, mealworms, and wolves. As Aldrich promises, when one is reading Waveform, “the pleasures of surprise come to the fore.”
Similarly, the Women’s March, with its sense of a world suddenly flooded with miscellaneous multitudes, made room for surprising new forms of collective decision-making and new uses of gendered public space. My former student Micah, who has researched the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement, wrote to me about what happened when her bus stopped at a rest stop in Delaware on the way to the march:
Of course, the line for the women’s restroom was insane, per usual. However, when I got toward the front, I looked over at the line for the men’s restroom and I see that the line for the men’s restroom is full of women as well. It was this great moment all around, because it was this simple practical form of pushback. That day women refused to wait. Or rather, decided that we would all wait together as equal. And it made me think of this concept Myles Horton talks about in the book The Long Haul. Which is that we should stop talking about doing the right thing and just start doing it. If I believe that gender is a social construct, why do I let these arbitrary categories affect me? Not that I’m going to go on a one-woman patriarchy smashing spree after that. But it was nice to see how little power social categories have when we choose to lay them aside and live out different convictions.
Like an anthology, a march is a complex collection of motives and voices. But in the midst of the mixture, unanticipated moments of meaning can arise: surprising pleasures that will remain resonant for years.
Given the wild miscellany of the protestors, it’s not surprising that one of the most popular memes from the Women’s Marches was “Woke Baby”: a small toddler at the march in Charlotte, North Carolina, sitting on her father’s shoulders and holding high a corrugated cardboard sign covered in crayon scribbles. The scribbles were a kind of Rorschach blot that contained as many visions of the march as it had viewers — the infinite list of reasons to protest — as well as the inscrutable promise of formal and political innovation pointing the way forward. As @mumbles_j said on Twitter: “I feel like #WokeBaby just gave us something powerful here but our third eye ain’t ready for the truth.”
The Pussyhat Project launched Thanksgiving weekend with the goal of creating a sea of pink hats …
It was Second Wave and ’70s: crafty, fiber artsy, fuzzy, essentialist. It was retro women’s handwork and normative cisgender female anatomy.
It was post–Third Wave: cute, consumerist, corporate, Komen-esque. It was a wearable Snapchat filter. It was Mean Girls conformity and the pinkification of a movement.
The pussy hat, like women’s essays, like women’s bodies, is a site of ambivalence.
Though it was never an officially authorized uniform (as the FAQ page of the Women’s March website pointedly explained: “Q: Is there a single color we can wear to unite us? A: We are not planning to wear anything in particular except VERY WARM CLOTHING. Please do the same and have fun planning ways to connect visually with your friends, groups and family members”), the pussy hat ended up as a metonym for the march, vying with the red MAGA baseball cap for the Time Headwear of the Year cover.
The Women’s March and Waveform explicitly or implicitly refused to define women based on particular bodily forms and experiences, but the partly repressed always returns. In Waveform, traditional tropes of female embodiment appear on the very first page and practically in the very first sentence, with Cheryl Strayed, in her persona of the advice columnist Sugar, telling us, “Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit?” Later, Adriana Paramo recites an alphabet of her body beginning with her Ass, Breasts, and Clitoris, continuing through her Ovaries and Uterus, and concluding with her missing Y Chromosome. On the last page of the anthology, Marcia Aldrich is in labor, and her baby is crowning. In between, there are at least six essays dealing with sexual assault — more rapes than I can bear to go back and re-count. Misogynistic violence might actually be the most common theme of the essays in Waveform, as well as the link that connects women across gender categories and spectrums. Trans people are primarily represented in Waveform in a found essay by Torrey Peters compiled from a list of 226 reported murders — a relentless litany of victims.
At the Women’s March, normative women’s bodies came back in the form of the pussy hat — kitschy, winky, and blandly obscene.
My colleague Greta wrote about the pussy hat controversy on Facebook:
I did not wear a pussy hat (I’m on the trans spectrum, do not have breasts, do not believe that biology provides a useful uniting term for people working against patriarchy, and furthermore just don’t love “cute” as an aesthetic), but I have read a lot of what feels like kneejerk rejection of vagina-speak with some ambivalence. I don’t think that specific bodily configurations (vaginas, for example) should be the sign under which anyone who identifies as “women” organize[s], but neither do I think that vaginas — understood here as a specific bodily configuration shared by people of many different genders that require different kinds of care that have historically been deprioritized, especially if you’re a POC — are irrelevant to feminist organizing.
Meanwhile in Wyoming, my friend Erin and her five-year-old daughter Lena and thousands of others marched behind a bison-antlered banner proclaiming WILD WOMBS OF THE WEST, and Lena carried a sparkly uterus poster she’d made at a sign-making party. Erin told me that “while I was somewhat uncomfortable with what seemed to be an essentialist conflation of uteri with ‘women,’ Lena, while she was making and carrying her sign, found many opportunities to talk about how not all women have uteruses, while some men do.”
I was acutely aware of my own particular woman’s body and its wild womb on the day of the march. I’d chosen this godforsaken year to try to get pregnant, and on the last night of the Obama era I’d gotten some potentially encouraging news on that front. Then on the morning of the march I got an email informing me of a significant setback in my reproductive quest. It felt so good to yell “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” over and over at the top of my lungs on a day when my fertility felt so far removed from any choice that I could make.
My own take on the pussy hat: I wore one partly because my friend made it for me, and my politics often takes the form of friendship. But mainly I wore it because pussy was what Trump said he liked to grab. Pussy didn’t actually grab back on Election Day, despite all the memes and T-shirts promising it would, but it grabbed back with a vengeance on Inauguration Weekend. As my friend Robin pointed out, maybe the real purpose of the pussy hats was to prevent the president from pretending that pictures of the marchers filling and overflowing the Mall were actually pictures of his own followers and fans.
In the end, the pussy hat was a plague against Pharaoh, like the time the Nile ran red.
One of the things that left a mark on my nervous system were these waves of cheers that you could feel approaching from blocks away, and by the time they reached felt like euphoria to join and amplify and pass on through the multitude. At risk of being too cheesy, I think those waves of pure energy and feeling without any division will be transmitted out into daily life everywhere, and that’s a very concrete accomplishment of the marches — a seismic tremor of affective politics recalibrating our collective nervous system for battle.
— Stephen Poland, Facebook status
I will never forget the cheers that greeted every Metro train as they arrived in the station: the platforms and balconies full of marchers of all ages lifting their voices in welcome. Amelia said at her station they were singing the Black National Anthem. Later in the day we sang “This Land Is Your Land,” which always makes me feel patriotic, and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which never does; but singing it in that crowd almost made me want to put my hand on my heart.
My friend Kim said the march was the first time she’d felt hopeful since the election. My friend Cathy, who went to the rally in Hartford with her family, felt like her daughters’ pleasure in political participation gave her permission to feel good about it too, instead of just anxious. This wave of good feeling swept across the Atlantic. My friend Rebecca wrote:
Living in Barcelona, I don’t often feel proud of being American. I often wish I could hide my accent. But at the Women’s March, I felt suddenly proud to be American, and an American woman there with my kids. There was a feeling of support in the city. There was good sentiment. And there was so much humor, wit, and creativity.
The exhilaration we all felt in these moments was mixed with an almost painful sense of release. We hadn’t been sure we would feel political pleasure again, and the Women’s March gave it back to us for a day. It gave us permission to feel pleasure the way Leslie Jamison’s epic crowd-sourced Waveform essay “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” gives us permission to feel pain. The unguarded desire expressed in the essay’s last lines is particularly poignant in the guarded, paranoid time of Trump: “I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”
The night before the march I listened to “Bread and Roses” on Youtube with an open heart. I keep returning to the version of the song from the movie Pride, which is based on a true story from the 1980s when gay and lesbian activists in London forged an unlikely alliance with Welsh miners on strike. At a moment of political despair, a woman begins to sing “As we go marching, marching …” and then everyone joins in, women and men, gay and straight, English and Irish and Welsh, and an orchestra accompaniment swells in the background, and I start to cry. The story and the song offer me a wave of feeling based on the promise that entrenched divisions can be overcome by women marching and lifting their voices. But I know that I cry partly because I don’t actually believe in this story, even as I can’t help coming back to it.
We’ve heard again and again that the 2016 election pitted urban queer people and their friends against the rural white working class. This story isn’t all wrong. And yet it fails to address the even deeper chasms that divide us.
While some of my friends and I were energized by the march, my friend Katherine felt emptiness. Katherine has been organizing for civil rights and against systemic racism for years, and after the march she felt frustrated, wanting “an action that actually centers folks of color and their issues instead of merely paying lip service to them.” She posted a link to a viral Facebook post by DC marcher Lakeshia Robinson, which narrates how a white woman Robinson calls #BeckyinthePinkHat rudely informed her there was no room for her in a Metro car, grabbed her arm, and tried to physically prevent her from entering the train while other pussy-hatted white women looked on in silence. Robinson writes that what happened to her demonstrates
exactly why being black around lots of white people is dangerous for black flesh. […] I have never felt free enough to touch a white woman. I am scared of white women, if I’m being honest. And for good reason. White women’s tears get people who look like me killed.
In the week after the Women’s March, a white woman whose tears got a black boy killed was in the news again. Carolyn Bryant, the woman whose false testimony killed Emmett Till in 1955, had belatedly confessed to a reporter over a half-century too late that her allegations had been a lie. But Bryant did not express any guilt or responsibility for having caused Till’s lynching. Instead, she consoled herself by emotionally identifying with the black woman whose son she had stolen, whose life she had devastated:
[Bryant] admitted she “felt tender sorrow […] for Mamie Till-Mobley” — Emmett Till’s mother, who died in 2003 after a lifetime spent crusading for civil rights. (She had bravely insisted that her son’s casket remain open at his funeral in order to show America what had been done to him.) “When Carolyn herself [later] lost one of her sons, she thought about the grief that Mamie must have felt and grieved all the more.”
What kind of real shared wave of feeling can possibly survive the history of violence and violation that divides our lives?
I read the pieces about Bryant and Till-Mobley alongside various black and Native women’s critiques of the march, and alongside the many essays in Waveform that map and critique the outsized social force of white women’s feeling, both its vast scope and its appalling limits. In “Gun Shy,” Jocelyn Bartkevicius writes about showing up at a shooting range that had
a life-size cardboard figure of then presidential candidate Barack Obama […] near a sign that read, This man will take away your right to own a gun. Walk into that range with a target in the shape of man, and Obama’s is the last face you see.
Bartkevicius is shocked, but she stays and shoots anyway. In an unsparing and self-reflective essay wryly titled “Difference Maker,” Meghan Daum talks about how she mentors and advocates for kids of color as a way of dealing with what she calls the “Central Sadness” of her childless marriage. At one point, she attempts to correct a teenager’s understanding of racism, and “tried to explain that President Bush most likely did not, as she put it […] ‘hate black people’ but, rather, had policies that were unfavorable toward all but the wealthiest Americans.” And Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich probes the racial failures of empathy at the Angola Prison Rodeo. Why is the audience so ready to believe that prisoners don’t and won’t get hurt when they get charged and tossed by bulls? And why, she wonders, is it so hard for her to admit to herself what’s happening, and to ask follow-up questions about what it means?
These essays and histories and questions matter because they help to put the march’s euphoric wave of feeling in a broader and longer perspective. They belong alongside the viral photo of Angela Peoples, the blasé black woman at the DC march sucking on a lollipop and holding a sign saying “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for TRUMP” while three happy #BeckysinPinkHats stand obliviously behind her and focus on their phones. Trump is terrible, but our divisions predate Trump, and will outlast him. This is a very long fight, and many of us are still trying to find our place in it.
A wave of feeling will carry some of us along for a while, and God knows some of us needed it. But it won’t carry all of us, and it won’t carry us far enough.
To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the sun lines of the continents for untold thousands of year … is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
— Rachel Carson, reprinted in “Drill, Baby, Drill,” No. 8 in the Dead Feminists broadside series
Dead Feminists is a book for the long haul. I bought it just before the election, and on the days since then when I’ve been submerged in social media for endless hours or buffeted by a series of nauseating news alerts (almost every damn day, in other words), I’ve learned to close my screens and open its covers.
The book documents an ongoing eight-year collaboration between illustrator and letterer Chandler O’Leary and letterpress artist Jessica Spring. O’Leary and Spring respond to contemporary crises by finding a relevant dead feminist to honor in a hand-printed broadside, and they use the proceeds from the broadside sales to support a relevant cause. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example, they began researching Rachel Carson, reading her books, and poring over pictures of shorebirds, maps of oil slicks, and vintage ads for DDT. They chose and lettered a Carson quote, illustrated it with dolphins, walruses, pelicans, otters, and roseate spoonbills, printed it in colors evoking sand, water, feathers, and oil, and donated the proceeds to the environmental organization Oceana. Each of the broadsides is a limited edition (there are 136 copies of the Carson broadside, to commemorate 36 years since the passage of the Endangered Species Act — now itself endangered), but the images continue to circulate online and as postcards. (O’Leary has also recently started selling postcards especially designed to send to members of Congress.)
Each stage of O’Leary and Spring’s thoughtful research, design, and printing process is documented in the book. It contains full-page reproductions of all of the broadsides to date, as well as biographies of each of the women O’Leary and Spring have honored, information about all the organizations they’ve supported, and beautifully illustrated accounts of their collaborative approach to craft. So far they have printed 24 broadsides, honoring women from Sappho to Fatima al-Fihri to Harriet Tubman to Lili’uokalani to Emma Goldman to Alice Paul to Elizabeth Zimmermann to Shirley Chisholm. The book is simultaneously a finished work of art, a lavish visual representation of an ongoing creative process, and a practical model of how to sustain friendship, creativity, and purpose through a deep sense of history and a commitment to the future.
Like Waveform and the Women’s March, Dead Feminists is a collection of women and their words that aspires to be collaborative, intersectional, and attentive to form. What Dead Feminists adds is a broad and expansive horizon of historical perspective — there’s even a two-page timeline spanning from 630 BCE to 2015 — that sees women’s role today not as a single cresting wave of creativity or crisis but as part of a long ebb and flow of political struggle and purposeful work. It reminds me of the woman Samira and I met on the Metro, who told us that the last time she’d come to DC was for the May Day Protests in 1971. In her four and a half decades in between world-historic protests, she raised two kids as a single parent and became a midwife and later a lawyer, representing thousands of clients and witnessing thousands of births.
To leaf through the book’s sturdy pages, to read the stories of women who lived a hundred or thousand years before, to see the bright scrapbook-like reproductions of old photographs and flotsam-and-jetsam ephemera borrowed from archives or salvaged from junk shops and set in even rows, to study the carefully chosen images and symbols intimately arranged next to bold bright words and then washed and drenched with layered ink … is to have knowledge of the currents of creation and the unending ocean flows of progress that have sustained and supported most of the planet for all of human time.
What we need, what I crave: Not just a wave, but a turning of the tides.
Last night I dreamed that all the women and men who participated in marches, esp. the women’s marches, in the past couple of weeks were invited to a huge banquet. A long table was set with flowers and elegant dishes, stretching for longer than the eye could see. A buffet of delicacies awaited the hungry stomachs of pink-hatted thousands. Children eyed the dessert table with cakes and ice creams, and everyone looked with longing at the sky-blue ocean waters at the nearby beaches and swimming pools. No one shouted angry words or tried to cut in line, but when I awoke, it vanished like a mirage.
— Emily Mace, Facebook status
The night before the Women’s March, we had Shabbat dinner at Samira’s. Emily blessed the candles, Rachel blessed the wine, and Samira blessed the bread. As the token gentile, my role was just to eat and drink and bask in the light. We were descendants of immigrants or refugees or resentful nativists; continuing long-standing practices of protest, or beginning new ones; marching for the children we’d left back at home, or the children we hoped to have, or would never have. In the candlelight, we talked together about what the future might bring.
Like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Women’s March gave the occasion to dream. But like Emily’s dream of the banquet, its utopian moment couldn’t last. These days, dining by placid swimming pools is a pastime for presidents. The rest of us know that the sky-blue ocean waters are more tempestuous than they seem.
We are looking out to sea, where the waves are converging from every direction. Currents are meeting, forming maelstroms, forcing vortexes. Cracks are appearing across the continent of ice and along the foundations of the dams. The waters are rising and warming. The seawall has been breached.
I remember the story of how once, long ago, the waters of the Red Sea were parted, and the people marched to freedom on dry land. But we can’t afford to hope for such miraculous waveforms now. A march will not deliver us. Instead we must learn to navigate this ancient ocean.
We stay awake to see what form the waves will take.