Beyond Pink Pussyhats

This essay originally appeared in the Maryland Political Review in March 2017.

On Jan. 21, half a million people attended the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. Across the globe, thousands attended sister marches in protest of the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. It was a crisp winter day, and a sea of pink knit hats — coquettishly named hot pink ‘pussyhats’ — spilled out from the Metro onto the grey streets. The goal was nebulous, but if you had to pin it down, it was a march for women’s rights, whatever that exactly means.

The think pieces and photo galleries followed. The most popular signs were variants on a singular message — pussy grabs back. Viva la vulva. Hands off my uterus. Rinse and repeat. The theme of the day: the female body.

The Declaration of Sentiments drafted at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention demanded women’s suffrage, fairness in divorce laws, and financial freedom for married women. As the twentieth century progressed, Betty Friedan’s 1963 landmark, The Feminine Mystique defied the public view of womanhood and incited the second-wave of the feminist movement. Over the next decade, feminists tackled several other legal and economic issues: gender discrimination in the workplace and in the education system, domestic violence and reproductive rights.

Many of the rights and protections that women have today come from legislative and judicial efforts of this era. Title IX (1972), a key piece of legislation from the second-wave, made it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of sex in any federally funded activity. Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade established legal rights to contraceptives and abortion, respectively. On a state level, the criminalization of marital rape began. Women, including women of color began to run for positions in state and federal governments.

The word liberation is inextricable from the feminist movement. In the 1960s, alongside a legal and social feminist movement emerged the Sexual Revolution. American society moved towards increasing acceptance of sexual intercourse outside of traditional, heterosexual and monogamous relationships — this meant that premarital sex, pornography, alternative sexuality and nudity all became more socially acceptable.

Any historical definition of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s will include the demands for social, political and economic equality for women. But it is impossible to ignore the convergence of the Sexual Revolution and the feminist movement when they share at least one core belief — the importance of female agency.

What was unclear was whether sexual freedom was a feminist issue or an entirely separate one — by the 1980s, the second wave had devolved into the sex wars, a debate between anti-pornography feminists and sex-positive feminists. The first view saw pornography — and other elements of the sexual revolution — as contributing to the sexual and societal objectification of women beyond the screen. The second viewed pornography, and sexual liberation in general, as a medium for female sexual expression.

Despite these debates, by the 1980s, women had gained essential legal rights and had changed social norms. Feminist theory was alive and well, but no longer a part of mainstream discourse in the way it had dominated the 1960s and 70s — the sociological concept of intersectionality developed in the academic world, and several women of color began to insert themselves into the existing feminist canon. The third-wave, coming at the start of the 1990s saw a lack of cohesion and a lack of interest in the movement, and this lulling complacency: women were finally equal to men.

The view of female empowerment I was presented as a child was defined by images on screens. All of the HBO I secretly watched in my childhood would tell you this: the 21st century woman has it all — a high-powered job, a great apartment, and above all, a fulfilling sex life. She is equal to men in all things, and if she’s truly a modern day woman, she has no problem going home with that man at the bar. She’s a feminist. She’s a liberated woman. The casual sex — it was part of the persona. If you switched channels to MTV, you’d be given the same message through some nubile pop star’s gyrating hips — sex is power. Years later, I think the message I’ve finally peeled away is this: don’t let a man objectify you — just objectify yourself.

As we all know, this equality was patently mythical. For most of my peers, feminism made its reemergence in the early stages of our adolescence. The 2011 SlutWalk was organized after a Toronto Police Officer was on record as saying that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” as a precaution to sexual assault. Attendees were primarily young white women, clad in “sexy” attire and makeup. The goal of these marches was to fight against victimization, or the idea that women are deserving of sexual assault, and reclaim the word “slut” as something positive.

SlutWalk is an homage to the sex-positive feminist movement. It was a moment focused on empowering female sexuality as female expression. The Women’s March on Washington focused on our president and his comments about women — but the messaging of the SlutWalk was just as relevant as ever. The organizers, vaguely, described the Women’s March as a march (not a protest) that “affirms that women’s rights are human rights.” From the start, the organization of the march was plagued with conflict. It took weeks of conflict for women of color to be incorporated into the leadership of the march, and just as long for the march to develop a mission statement inclusive of all women, not just the white organizers.

Like SlutWalk, the Women’s March had no real end goal. The platform promises nothing, and does nothing with the energies of the half-million people who showed up and marched. Instead, both relied on ideological, feel-good activism — pussyhats and selfies taken by white, upper-middle class women included. Both relied on a narrow view of female empowerment that focused on something more elusive than equal rights, but some kind of strange satisfaction. There’s nothing radical about that and it’s indicative of a larger problem.

We cannot sloganize our way to equality. This brand of satisfaction-seeking feminism isn’t inclusive — for those of us who grow up in conservative cultures or religious homes, there is no dialogue around sex. It’s a taboo, perhaps it is dirty and wrong or perhaps it is something that is just for your husband. For survivors of rape and sexual assault, sex can be a difficult subject to navigate. Some women have medical conditions that complicate sex. What about a SlutWalk is inclusive for a woman who wears a hijab? What about #FreeTheNipple is relatable to women who struggle with self-esteem and body image issues?

Awareness of the body is important — women, and all people — should act in ways that are safe, comfortable and pleasurable to them. We should teach our daughters and sisters that they deserve to feel fulfilled by their partners in all ways, and that includes sexually. But frankly, I am much more interested in all of the other things we should be telling young women — glass ceilings are yours to break, equal pay is yours to receive and your ideas and thoughts can take you anywhere. Reproductive rights are human rights. No woman deserves to raped, period. I don’t disagree with the sentiments conveyed by these women. But I have a few reservations about the messaging. When we say we are feminists, what are we saying? What are we fighting towards?

To quote the great feminist thinker Audre Lorde, I am not free when any woman is unfree. There is so much for feminists to fight for on a concrete level. The wage gap is real, and even realer for women of color. The presence of a gun in situations of intimate partner violence increases a woman’s risk of homicide by 500 percent.

The United States has no federal stipulation for paid maternity leave, an anomaly among Western countries. There are real threats to reproductive rights that cannot be made into puns on a sign. And all of these issues affect women of color and poor women disparately more than their white and economically mobile peers.

As a woman of color, I am conscious of all the ways that my sisters around the world are oppressed. Girls across the world have not reached gender parity when it comes to educational access. Female genital mutilation is a nightmare that many women have to live through. Sex trafficking plagues the developing world. The list goes on, but it is safe to say that there is no place on earth where women are truly equal to men. The patriarchy is a global problem, with local consequences.

I support the passion of any woman who identifies herself as a feminist, but I cannot support a movement based in superficiality. There are real issues for us to work on, and real gains to be made.

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