The New Wave of the Women’s Movement in the United States

By Michael T. Heaney

The facts about the mobilization of women’s movement in the United States over the past 14 months are fairly well established.  A new organization calling itself the “Women’s March” formed shortly after the 2016 presidential election.  It coordinated massive rallies, consisting mostly of liberal women and their allies, in Washington, DC and around the world.  These rallies reached across diverse interests and were among the largest internationally coordinated demonstrations in history.  The Women’s March has retained its momentum over the past year, staging a national convention in Detroit in October 2017, and then reprising its post-inauguration performance this past weekend with rallies in hundreds of cities under the slogan “power to the polls”.  On the heels of the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund arose to address widespread sexual harassment and assault.  These efforts have spurred the national conversation on the inappropriate treatment of women in the workplace.  Millions of people have joined Pantsuit Nation and other internet discussion forums that discuss gender and politics.  Indeed, the women’s movement has been a palpable force in American politics and society since the 2016 election.

The question on the table now is to interpret the significance of these developments for the women’s movement.  I understand the “women’s movement” to be the centuries-long organizing efforts by women and their allies to gain political, social, and economic equality with men.  In discussing this movement, I am mindful of concerns among many feminist scholars about the use of the wave metaphor to describe it.  For example, Duke University political scientist Kristin Goss demonstrates in her book, The Paradox of Gender Equality, that “although women’s collective action clearly surges during waves, it does not necessarily recede – and may in fact continue to grow – after the wave has supposedly crested” (p. 7).  Finally, I recognize that the presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, in both 2008 and 2016, themselves represent substantial achievements for the women’s movement, as a woman came close to breaking “the highest glass ceiling” in the country.

I argue that the developments of the last 14 months should be viewed as the beginning of a significant “new wave” of the women’s movement.  To some extent, these developments may be seen as a reaction to Clinton’s loss in the presidential election, as well as to the crude remarks and behavior of Donald Trump.  Yet it would be a mistake to see developments as only reactive.  The past year has reflected impressive grassroots organizing by the Women’s March.  The #MeToo and Time’s Up efforts extend beyond the political domain.  While there is too much continuity between women’s mobilizations of the past and those of the present day to claim that we are witnessing an entirely “new movement”, there is substantial enough growth to justify embracing the wave metaphor.

The first reason to turn to the wave metaphor is because of the notable growth in the number of participants in the women’s movement this year.  My survey of participants in the Women’s March on Washington, DC showed that more than one-third (37%) of respondents said that they had never previously been involved in the movement for women’s rights.  Thus, the march on Washington and other cities represented an enormous influx of support for the movement.  Online activism, such as #MeToo, has also brought in many new adherents, though it is more difficult to quantify new participation through this medium than through marches.

A second reason to turn to the wave metaphor is the rise of new organizations.  Stalwart movement organizations, especially the National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters, have had severe difficulties in attracting new members in recent decades.  As a result, their memberships have grayed and shrunk considerably while their organizations have lost political relevance.  The Women’s March has brought in a new generation of leaders at the national level and in chapters around the nation.  Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have forged new spaces for activists to gather and coordinate action.

Third, the Women’s March has proved that it is more than just a momentary expression of anger.  Leaders have taken steps toward institutionalization by building a board and hiring a national staff.  The Women’s Convention in Detroit focused on helping people develop skills for the types of local activism that will be needed to sustain the movement over time.  As of this writing, the Women’s March has chapters with functioning websites or Facebook pages in at least 20 states.  These chapters are part of the process of preparing candidates for the upcoming 2018 midterm congressional elections. Time’s Up also represents an institutionalization of #MeToo, which will help the movement to sustain itself over time.

Thus, there is a reasonable amount of evidence supporting the position that we are in the midst of a period of increased, sustained mobilization for the women’s movement.  I anticipate that, in the future, we will look back on this time as a relative high point for women’s activism.  Thus, it seems entirely reasonable to characterize it as a “new wave”.

The fact that we are seeing an expansion of women’s activism says nothing, of course, about what kind of impact it will have on policy or elections, or how long it will be sustained. It is possible that this new wave will embolden countermovements that will ultimately override the goals of the women’s movement.  Further, it is possible that participants in the Women’s March will lose interest in activism if the Democrats make gains in the 2018 and 2020 elections, as Fabio Rojas and I found was true in our book about the antiwar movement after 9/11.  Still, it is possible that we are at the beginning of a decade-long surge that will reshape America and other parts of the world.

It will be interesting to observe if this new wave of the women’s movement will attract a constituency that extends beyond the liberal, Democratic women that presently constitute its core.  The Women’s March as an organization has made it clear that it is not willing to partner with pro-life / anti-abortion groups, which has pushed moderate and conservative women away from the movement.  It is possible that #MeToo and Time’s Up will more readily accommodate moderate and conservative women, as it is likely that women of all ideological stripes desire reduction in sexual harassment and assault.  If the movement were able to expand its reach to a broader constituency, then it could send a stronger signal to political leaders in both parties that they will face electoral peril if they are not more responsive to women’s interests.

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