Standing in front of the Supreme Court on the night of Sept. 20 was a striking moment for anyone who has paid attention to women in politics for the last four years.
That’s not just because it was the night of a vigil for a feminist giant, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but because it provided a somber bookend to the last four years of the American women’s movement.
In January 2017, women flooded the streets around the court — and really, everywhere around the National Mall — toting snappy protest signs and wearing pussy hats, in what was likely the largest one-day protest in American history. Now, they chanted the mourner’s Kaddish behind masks, amid a global pandemic.
Women who were part of the recent feminist resurgence have felt that shift from hopeful defiance to anxiety. After four years of protest against Trump, the stakes of the election for this movement are enormous. The next round of marches is set for Saturday, focused on protesting the filling of Ginsburg’s seat, but many participants will also hope it’s their last mass protest against Trump.
To watch feminism over the last four years has been to get a clear view into the dance of protest and backlash in American politics. Many women saw Trump’s election as a threat to their rights and, with his defeat of Hillary Clinton, a rebuke of women’s power. That helped push these women to make their own, unprecedented gains, but amid a sense that the cost has also been high.
The difficulty of measuring success
I first met Lenore Bell at the Women’s March in 2017. The 65-year-old retiree had come from Arizona with her wife, and she was feeling cautiously hopeful.
“My belief is from the suffragettes through civil rights, through Vietnam, the only way we enact change is by taking to the streets like this,” she said.
Bell knows the power of protest — she told me about growing up in segregated Alabama, and how she once marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. I called her up recently to ask how successful feminists have been during the Trump presidency. Her answer was mixed.
One the one hand: “I think [the women’s movement] has gotten stronger because more women have gone into politics. There are more women in the house from what the House of Representatives, from what I can see, and I’m hoping to add more women to the Senate in November,” she said.
But then again, she’s exhausted, and unsure of how to even assess how well feminists have been able to resist the Trump presidency.
“It is just so hard to determine because there’s just so much out there, You know, one day, every day, it looks like there’s something different,” she said. “It’s like, look over here, look over there.”
For feminists like Bell, the last four years have been a torrent of headlines both encouraging and demoralizing, of power lost and power gained.
There were #MeToo, Roy Moore, Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. There was Lucy Flores accusing Joe Biden of behaving inappropriately toward her. There were still more women accusing Trump of sexual assault, pushing the total past two dozen, by some counts. There were a record number of women elected to Congress, and then the president telling “squad” members (all citizens) to go back to where they came from, and a congressman reportedly calling one of those women a sexist slur on the Capitol steps. There were new abortion laws and new Supreme Court decisions about abortion laws. There was the wait for justice for Breonna Taylor. There was coronavirus pulling women out of work. The administration rolling back health protections for transgender Americans. Democrats pondering “electability” as a record number of women ran for president and came up short. Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket. Trump calling Harris a “monster” after her recent vice presidential debate. And, of course, the death of a feminist icon. Confirmation hearings just wrapped up for Amy Coney Barrett — a woman whose abortion stances leave many feminists fearful.
“It was not worth it”
One area where the effect of Donald Trump was clearest was in women running for office. 30,000 women interested in running for office approached the Democratic group Emily’s List ahead of the 2018 midterms, compared to fewer than a thousand in 2016. But then, there was that weighing of what feminists gained versus what they felt they had lost when Donald Trump was elected.
“It is not worth, it was not worth it,” said Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock in 2018. “I would have taken our 920 who wanted to run [in 2016] to have a different president. I would have taken that.”
In the end, women went from around 1 in 5 members of Congress to nearly 1 in 4 — still far from parity. Those gains were overwhelmingly on the Democratic side. Currently, women account for less than 10% of Republican lawmakers.
#MeToo opens the floodgates
Trump is also considered one of the reasons why the “Me Too” movement took off the way it did in 2017. The Access Hollywood tape, and then the women accusing him of assault ahead of the 2016 election, helped set the stage for a flood of accusations against powerful men, including high-level politicians.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken was accused of groping and unwantedly kissing women. Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual assault, including by women who were minors at the time, which he denied. Former state legislator Lucy Flores accused former Vice President Joe Biden of sniffing her hair and kissing the back of her head. (He denied acting inappropriately.)
And then, in 2018, came Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Those hearings provided a striking parallel — and contrast — to the 1992 accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas.
Kate Manne, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, sees in the Kavanaugh hearings further evidence of the women movement’s simultaneous advances and backlash against it.
“We both saw that people were, partly for reasons that probably have to do with racism, they were much more prepared to believe [Ford] than they had with Anita Hill,” she said.
But then, Manne and other feminists were disappointed that some people didn’t believe Ford or take her accusations seriously. Kavanaugh was eventually confirmed, while Blasey Ford moved multiple times and received death threats.
“So I think in a way, it illustrates the interwoven nature of the regressive and progressive steps of that do si do dance,” Manne said.
Feminism gets (more) intersectional
Long before Trump ran for office or the Harvey Weinstein story broke, it was a black woman, Tarana Burke, who started the “Me Too” movement in 2006 — just one example of how black women laid the groundwork for feminist advancement.
“Black women have been consistently pouring into our democracy, from the eighteen hundreds to now, and frankly, getting less back than we put into it,” notes Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, which promotes progressive black women in politics. “And we’ve consistently been a political force.”
Women of color gained congressional seats in 2018, and a record number are running for Congress this year. But moreover, they have been powerful activist forces. Jess Morales Rocketto is a 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign staffer and executive director of Care in Action, which advocates for domestic workers. She points to the Black Lives Matter movement and its founders.
“The effects of the Black Lives Matter movement have rippled across all movements,” she said. “Black Lives Matter as an entity and an idea is explicitly pro-feminist and pro-LGBT and especially [pro]-trans. It is because of the leadership of three women.”
Relatedly, women of color have gained new prominence in a feminist movement that had long been dominated by white women. Carr stresses that there’s a long way to go toward making feminism truly equal, but she hopes that the last four years of progress will stick — again, with that language of weighing what she feels has been gained against what she feels has been lost.
“You also saw white women and our allies stepping out and protesting amid the racial uprisings this summer,” Carr said. “And so I would hope that this unfortunate, politically toxic, racially divisive times have actually created more intersectional tables and frank discussions.”
A partisan movement
Amid renewed feminist energy during the Trump presidency, the movement has become increasingly partisan. That phenomenon started well before Trump became president, according to one 2017 study. People with feminist beliefs have increasingly filtered into the Democratic Party, reinforcing that feminism more of a question of belief than gender, as The Atlantic reported.
“If you still are a Republican woman these days, you probably are supportive of Trump,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has been critical of Trump.
Still, Matthews added, conservative-leaning women who oppose Trump often feel that they have been left out of the so-called feminist #resistance.
“I think the perception with Republican women is that [feminism] is a clique-y group,” she said. “In these marches, you feel like even if you might oppose Donald Trump and you’re pro-life, you feel like you’re not welcome to be part of that. [It] sends a message to Republican women: Only a certain kind of woman should be here to protest or to be a feminist.”
And amid the growth of the women’s movement during the Trump presidency, that question of what beliefs exactly make a person a feminist remains unanswered.
Supporting Joe Biden… not necessarily enthusiastically
The last four years have culminated in a new first for American women: the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket.
But for some voters it was a letdown after a record number of women candidates vied for the top position. The Democratic primaries laid bare a deep fear among that party’s voters, heightened by Clinton’s 2016 defeat: that maybe a woman couldn’t beat Trump.
“I have a friend at work — she’s like, ‘You’re not progressive.’ She thinks that I don’t want a woman president,” said voter Anita Burgess at the 2019 National Action Network conference. “I do! But I don’t think they’re going to do it! And so I can’t waste my vote either, because we have to get the orange man out. I’m sorry — orange man got to go.”
Many women did support Biden in the primaries. Still, the accusations of misconduct against him, as well as his past stances on issues including abortion, leave some feminists, like Manne, lukewarm on him.
“My hope is that the kind of consciousness raising that’s happened during the Trump era might continue under President Biden because of a kind of increased awareness that, while he might represent a return to some degree of normalcy, politically speaking, he is by no means someone who can be fully trusted to get it right,” she said.
Rocketto’s hopes for Biden are also measured.
“Is he my number one? No. Will I be voting for him enthusiastically? Yes. Do I believe that he has an agenda that is attempting to advance gender equity? Absolutely. Do I think that he is going to be [a] sort of feminist policy icon?” she said. “I’ll never say never, but no, I don’t think that.”
For now, she and other Democratic women are fighting to get Biden elected, as well as to fight the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett. This weekend’s women’s marches were organized to protest Republicans filling Ginsberg’s seat, though the Senate seems poised to do that before Election Day.
Looking back to that first women’s march, Rocketto believes that feminists have answered one of the biggest questions that loomed over it.
“The number one thing that people were asking was, ‘Is this a movement or a movement?’ And that was so irritating then. Because it was just, it’s the biggest protest in American history,” she said. “It’s a movement. Get over yourselves.”