January 24, 2017 12:02:54 am
One valuable lesson of Indian democracy, I realised after Donald Trump’s victory, was that it taught me to live with the crushing disappointment of knowing that the party or political position I stood for could lose electorally. I admit the surprise I felt post-November 8 on seeing students and friends break down and cry, not so much at Hillary Clinton’s loss, but at Donald Trump’s win. As November gave way to December, the pall of gloom deepened.
It was in this dismal milieu that I heard of the million-woman march scheduled to take place in Washington DC, a day after the new president was sworn into office. Soon, similar marches were announced in other cities, Chicago among them. Almost immediately though, there were disagreements that I now regard as constitutive of the women’s movement. Angry voices asked if this was yet another white, middle class, feminist agenda. Why call it a women’s march? Didn’t black lives matter? What about LGBTQ rights? Being a scholar of women’s history has brought me to the realisation that it is impossible to mobilise women qua women in a sustained fashion. The historian Joan Scott’s observation, that women have only “paradoxes to offer”, seems more true than ever before; most acknowledge that the differences between men and women are irrelevant when we consider them as citizens, but sexual, racial and class differences do have profound implications for how citizenship itself plays out in everyday lives.
The day of marching was bright and sunny. Not only was the beautiful day a sharp contrast to the rainy inaugural day in Washington DC, but the unusual warmth for this time of year in Chicago flew in the face of the new president’s disavowal of climate change. Meanwhile, about 1,50,000 people had congregated where the nation’s first black president had delivered a historic speech eight years ago. The crowd was diverse; men, women, children, trans and disabled people of all ages and colours. Many sported the conical pink hats that have become symbolic of opposition to the sexual politics that people see Trump embody.
The variety of the crowd was reflected in its wildly diverse placards. While some were serious, such as “Resist together” or “Women’s rights are human rights” others were scatologically playful. One person waved a sign that read “No uterus, no opinion”. There were groups representing nurses, transport workers, planned parenthood, immigration activists, even librarians! The latter evoked much laughter; when the librarians come out to march, I overheard people say, things must be really dire. Many placards, such as, “Mess with ladies, there will be hell”, cut with dark humour.
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By 11 am, the crowd was humungous, spreading several blocks from Grant Park to Trump Tower. Despite the gathering’s size though, the event was calm. People seemed to know they were in it for the long haul. Many had brought their children to the event, hoping to give them an education on how to form a “public”. Most of the “public” gathered there agreed that their world was about to change — and those changes were shrouded in anxiety. The big issues, such as scrapping Obamacare, increasing the US’s drilling capacities, amendments in abortion laws, isolationism and clamping down on immigration, have been discussed intensively. Seemingly smaller issues, such as cutting funds for the National Endowment of the Humanities, if it happens, would irrevocably alter the US’s intellectual landscape.
But specific issues aside, for me, the most memorable aspect of the day was to be a speck in a sea of humanity. Following American political convention, the new president — despite losing the popular vote — was democratically elected. The crowd wasn’t disavowing the democratic mandate. Yet, its presence announced that there is a very large part of the American nation that is not “mainstream”. And this march was not programmatic. In these respects, it was a queer gathering, insofar we understand “queer” as that which defies bundling into a definition. That was the power of this phenomenon, as well as its evanescence.
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