Marching with Women: Then and Now

Women’s demonstrations have become one of the most prominent ways of resisting the populist right and the attack on human rights. What are the origins of these protests? What do they mean, and how do they impact society and politics?

In the chilly morning of March 3, 1913, just one day before the inauguration of newly elected President, Woodrow Wilson, close to 8,000 women ascended on Washington DC. The women marched from the Capitol to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue in a quiet, orderly, and dignified manner. They staged the march—or as they called it the Woman Suffrage Procession—to demand a constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote. Half a million spectators gathered on the streets, mostly men. Some applauded the march, others ridiculed, harassed, or physically attacked the marchers. The Procession was organized by Alice Paul of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Paul learned the new tactic of public demonstrations from British suffragettes, when she studied at the London School of Economics a few years earlier. The most spectacular part of the event came shortly after the Procession, when more than a hundred women in elaborate costumes performed a Suffrage Pageant titled “Allegory” on the steps of the Treasury Building. The “Allegory” featured the figure of Columbia—the female version of Columbus, who is also the goddess of liberty and the personification of America—gradually joined by the figures of Justice, Charity, Liberty, Hope, and Peace. The performance was accompanied by live orchestra playing the national anthem “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Today, women are marching again in different parts of the world. Women’s demonstrations have become one of the most prominent ways of resisting the populist right and the attack on human rights. What are the origins of these protests? What do they mean, and how do they impact society and politics?

It is tempting to see women’s protests as unprecedented, related to the recent empowerment of women in professions and the political world, especially in developed nations. Headlines such as “The Future Belongs to Women” have appeared for more than a decade, citing women’s dominance among college graduates, the workforce, and the rising numbers of female CEOs, scientists, and political leaders. But women’s mobilization for public action is not new. Recent events such as the Black Protest in Poland, the Women’s March on Washington, or A Day without a Woman all have a history. Although women as a social group have historically occupied subordinate positions in society, this did not prevent them from acting as powerful agents of historical change.

The Feminist Revolution

At the threshold of the 21st century, feminist historian Estelle Freedman wrote about a two-century-long “revolution” that “transformed women’s lives.” This revolution was unlike any other as instead of “armed struggle it gradually sown seeds of change, infiltrating our consciousness with a simple premise that women are as capable and valuable as men.”¹ There was much to celebrate in 2002, when Freedman published her book under the telling title No Turning Back. Legal changes in the status of women, educational and professional gains, reproductive rights, and the internationalization of women’s movements seemed to become an entrenched part of the political and social landscape. Freedman recognized backlashes and reversals of rights, but believed in the resilience of women’s movement. “In the past, feminism grew and thrived because of its flexibility and adaptability,” she asserted. “By listening to the voices of all women, it will continue to redefine its politics and broaden its reach.”²

Modern feminism grew out of two major developments: capitalist economy and political theories of individual rights. Both emerged in tandem and produced contradictory effects for women.

Feminism has been understood (and misunderstood) in different ways. The term was coined in the 1880s in France to denote supporters of the cause earlier known as the Woman Question. Not all women who participated (or participate) in public life, including female-dominated demonstrations, identify themselves as feminists. But they too have consumed the fruits of feminism by taking on roles outside the household. From a historical perspective, feminism, as Karen Offen suggests, “can be said to encompass both a system of ideas and a movement for sociopolitical change based on a refusal of male privilege and women’s subordination within any given society.”³ As feminism became a global movement in recent decades, it embraced diversity of women’s interests and identities.

“The Separation of Spheres” Sparked Feminism

Modern feminism grew out of two major developments: capitalist economy and political theories of individual rights. Both emerged in tandem and produced contradictory effects for women. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution gave rise to new political discourses of rights and political participation that inspired many social actors, including women and slaves, to argue for inclusion in the definition of citizen. However, the dominant strands of the liberal political theory at the time defined women in terms of difference from men rather than equality. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in particular, argued that female reproductive functions made women incapable of rational thinking, and therefore women inherently could not exercise political rights. Instead, he and his followers chose to rely on the theory of sexual complementarity that assigned women distinct roles in democratic societies – as mothers and nurturers confined to the domestic sphere. Although Rousseau and others explained the exclusion of women from citizenship in medical and scientific terms, their ideas were influenced by the fear of social instability. If women were to be equal citizens—and many elite women in 18th century Europe demanded just that—what would happen to the maternal and domestic duties that were believed to sustain the social and moral order of the nation?

Ironically, it was “the separation of spheres” based on sexual difference that sparked feminism. The same forces that generated the domestication of women—the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—provided women with tools to demand equality. Already in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer and philosopher, penned a powerful critique of Rousseau’s ideas she titled A Vindication of the Rights of Women, using the same arguments about liberty and equality to include women in the notion and practice of citizenship.

The two world wars formed the backdrop for expanding women’s participation in the public sphere in the 20th century. Work on “the home front” meant entering jobs hitherto reserved for men and changes in sexual mores.

Wollstonecraft’s ideas inspired generations of feminists, but they failed to prevail at the time. Rather, the ideology of “separate spheres” defined the 19th century societies, and was reinforced by legal codes that excluded women from suffrage, property rights, higher education, professions, and custody of children. Of course, such gender division had its limits in practice. Although women were restricted to their supposedly “natural” duties of domesticity and childcare, in reality lower-class women engaged in both domestic work and paid employment outside the household. The industrial revolution that swept the continent during the same time relied on cheap female labor and their unpaid work at home.

The feminist agenda from now on included not only advocating for equal rights but also for cultural changes, and for more effective laws against domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape.

Women Participation after the Two World Wars

Prior to the First World War, suffrage was the main goal of many women’s associations. Feminists believed that if women were granted the vote, they would change politics, because of their alleged higher morality and peaceful inclinations. When women in many European states and the US were finally granted the right to vote after the First World War, it soon became clear that suffrage did not create a major political overhaul, and women continued to occupy subordinate positions in society. Still, women’s suffrage eventually did change politics by expanding the participation of women in the public sphere from which all women, regardless of class or political views, benefited and continue to benefit.

The two world wars formed the backdrop for expanding women’s participation in the public sphere in the 20th century. Work on “the home front” meant entering jobs hitherto reserved for men, economic independence, and changes in sexual mores. Although when the war was over, governments usually encouraged women to return to domesticity, wartime gains proved enduring and generated more feminist demands.

Another powerful force that shaped women’s experiences was socialism. In the early 19th century, European socialists went further than any other political movement in insisting on the legal equality of the sexes. Almost a century later, after the Russian Revolution, the new Soviet state built on Marxist-Leninist brand of socialism introduced gender equality from above. The Soviet Union and later Eastern European states were the first to implement such legal equality in an effort to build a more egalitarian and non-capitalist society. In practice, however, gender difference remained an enduring social distinction in communist states, attesting to some of the most glaring contradictions of the communist project. Despite official policies of equality, definitions of manhood and womanhood still relied on Enlightenment notion of “natural” gender characteristics, which were believed to be independent of political and social circumstances. The communist push for women to join the workforce and engage in public life coexisted with more traditional assumptions of female maternal and nurturing qualities. As a result, the emphasis on motherhood remained a strong feature of communist societies, and was reflected in the gender-segregated workplace and the official glorification of women’s maternal duties as a way to foster stable families and a new generation of socialist citizens.

The Changing Feminist Agenda

In contrast to Eastern Europe, women in Western Europe and the US faced legal restrictions on property rights, divorce, education, and professional work until the early 1970s. Second-wave feminism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s grew from the social and political upheavals of the Long Sixties, and embraced a more diverse agenda. Feminists now argued that legal and political rights were not sufficient to achieve equality. Rather, they targeted deeply-rooted cultural prejudices and socialization patterns. The new term “sexism” encompassed a plethora of cultural and structural mechanisms that kept women in subordinate positions. The feminist agenda from now on included not only advocating for equal rights but also for cultural changes, and for more effective laws against domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape.

So far there are few signs that women are ready to give up the gains of the feminist revolution. Quite the opposite.

As feminist movements grew in power, so did their different orientations. While liberal feminists, inspired by Betty Friedan’s famous book The Feminine Mystique published in 1963, demanded legal changes and equal access to male-dominated institutions, including the government and the army, radical feminists rejected participation in what they saw as inherently patriarchal structures, and argued for a radical redefinition of the entire social order. Third-wave feminism, which arguably started in the early 1990s, recognized not only the diversity of women’s interests but also the need for an intercultural dialogue. Although modern feminism is rooted in the Western tradition, resistance to male power had existed in other societies and women across the globe had questioned inequalities and social hierarchies in myriad ways. Since the 1990s, feminist strategies changed to account for cultural differences and local economic conditions. Overcoming poverty, for example, has become one of the foremost goals for many internationally-oriented feminist groups.

There are important new elements in women’s protests today that set them apart from past events such as the Suffrage Procession or the female-dominated workers’ strikes.

International institutions such as the United Nations proved instrumental to boosting gender perspective and feminism as a global phenomenon. In 1995, the Declaration and Platform of Action, adopted at the UN-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, proclaimed that women’s rights were human rights. As a result, watchdog agencies such as Amnesty International and Human R ights Watch expanded their definition of human rights from basic civic rights to issues such as sexual violence, forced sterilization, and female genital mutilation. The current feminist movements engage in intense international cooperation that also recognizes the intersection of gender identities with those of race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation.

What’s Next?

The current attack on women’s rights by right-wing populists is a reaction against the two hundred years of the feminist revolution. Understandably, the anti-feminist campaigns and policies have prompted many commentators, including feminists, to project apocalyptic visions that starkly contrast with Freedman’s assessment of feminism 15 years ago. Recently, Andrea Peto and Weronika Grzebalska identified the anti-feminist agenda of right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland as part of a new type of illiberal politics that is deeper and more dangerous than the usual “backlash” experienced in the past: “Illiberalism is not a backlash, after which one can go back to business as usual,” they write, “but a new form of governance.”Nevertheless, the suppression of feminist movement can only happen if we assume that all-powerful states are possible and able to exercise control unmitigated by social forces from below. Such view is contradicted by the historical record. So far there are few signs that women are ready to give up the gains of the feminist revolution. Quite the opposite. Just as the anti-feminist rhetoric and policies become stronger as in the case of the US under Trump, so does women’s resistance.

Reproductive Rights Came to Stand for Human Rights

Women’s protests today sometimes emerge in the most unexpected places and the high turnout astonishes protest organizers as in the case of the Black Protest (or Black Monday) in Poland in October 2016. When the Polish right-wing government moved to implement a near total ban on abortion and to limit other reproductive rights (such as IVF and contraception), hundreds of thousands of women (and men) came to the streets, most of them dressed in lack, to protest the planned legislation. The demonstration mobilized women from all social backgrounds and political orientations, large cities and small towns. Many commentators saw the protest as “new,” since Catholic-dominated Poland had not been well known for feminist mass organizing. But the country has a long tradition of women’s strikes and demonstrations. Polish women often dominated workers’ strikes starting in the early 1880s, through the revolution of 1905, the interwar period, and the communist era, including the massive strikes and hunger marches against the communist government in the early 1980s. These were not “women’s strikes” perse, as women did not explicitly organize on behalf of their gender group, but gender identity—especially the appeal to the maternal or consumer role of women—was used as an effective strategy to gain concessions. What was unprecedented in the Black Protest was that women and men mobilized on behalf of women, and that reproductive rights came to stand for human rights. The assault on the right to have an abortion (already severely restricted in Poland) was a powerful symbol of the abuse of power by the state and Church. For many participants, the protest was primarily about human dignity and respect. And this was one of the reasons why it was possible for demonstrators to cross social and political lines.

The Future of Women Depends on Feminist Goals

The Black Protest in Poland achieved its immediate goal. The government withdrew the proposed legislation (at least for the time being). The protest, however, did not divert the Polish government from further strengthening its authoritarian rule in other areas. We do not know to what extent women’s demonstration will help democracies withstand the global populist assault. And even if they do, one can be certain of pitfalls, drawbacks, and conflicts before political changes can be achieved. Still, as Freedman reminds us, “the future of women depends on how we continue to redefine and implement feminist goals.”5

In 1913, women did not win the vote. The new president, inaugurated the day after, held congressional hearings on suffrage, but the proposed legislation was rejected. In January 1917, Alice Paul and a handful of other suffragists launched an 18-month picketing of the White House with signs such as “Mr. President: How long must women wait for liberty?”It took more determination from women and the calamity of the Great War to finally win the vote in 1920. The Suffrage Procession of 1913 contributed to that victory, but more importantly, the suffragists opened the way for other people to claim the space of the American capital (marches on Washington are now an integral part of politics), redefine the meaning of citizenship, and influence policies.7

There are important new elements in women’s protests today that set them apart from past events such as the Suffrage Procession or the female-dominated workers’ strikes. These include the use of technology, social media, and the extensive participation of men and families. Yet, the most powerful is the link between women’s protests and human rights. As traditionally “subjugated” people, women—in a personal and symbolic sense—have the power to speak against all inequalities. It is not unsurprising that, for many participants and observers regardless of their gender, women’s marches stand for a set of values and beliefs centered on human solidarity and openness. It is the commitment to these values that, if sustained, will make women’s marches effective in propelling political change.

  1. Freedman, E. 2002. No Turning Back: The History of Women and the Future of Feminism. New York: Ballantine Books, 1.
  2. Ibid., 346.
  3. Offen, K. 2000. European Feminisms, 1700-1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 20.
  4. Peto, A. and Grzebalska, W. “How Hungary and Poland Have Silenced Women and Stifled Human Rights ,” 14 October 2016,
  5. Freedman, No Turning Back, 12.
  6. accessed 9 September 2017
  7. Barber, L. G. 2002. Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Małgorzata Fidelis

Małgorzata Fidelis is an associate professor of history, University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on social and cultural issues, particularly everyday life and the relationship between individuals and state power, in post-1945 Eastern Europe. She is the author of Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Polish translation, 2015.

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