Marching with Women: Then and Now

In the chilly morning of 3 March 1913, just one day before the inauguration of a 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 granting 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. ‘Allegory’ featured the figure of Columbia – the female version of Columbus, who was 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 a live orchestra playing the national anthem, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.

In recent years, women have been marching again in different parts of the world. The marches have become a prominent way of resisting the rise of authoritarian populism and the attacks on human rights worldwide. 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 and the workforce, as well as the rising numbers of female CEOs, scientists and political leaders. But women’s mobilization for public action is not new. Recent events in 2016 and 2017, such as the Black Protests in Poland, the Women’s March on Washington and 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 change.

The Feminist Revolution

At the threshold of the 21st century, 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 sows 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 the 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]

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’. 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]. 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 multiple roles outside the household. As feminism has become a global movement in recent decades, it has increasingly embraced the diversity of women’s interests and identities.

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 demand to be treated as citizens. But 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 in the West. 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, an 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. Wollstonecraft’s ideas inspired generations of feminists, but they failed to prevail at the time. Rather, the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ defined 19th-century European societies, and was reinforced by legal codes that excluded women from suffrage, property rights, higher education, professions and custody of children, to name just a few areas. 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 labour in the factories and their unpaid work at home.

Prior to World War I, 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 World War I, it soon became clear that suffrage did not create a major political overhaul, and women continued to occupy subordinate positions in society. But 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.

Alongside liberalism, another powerful force – socialism – shaped women’s experiences and ideas of gender equality. 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 of 1917, the new Soviet state, building on the Marxist–Leninist brand of socialism, introduced gender equality from above. The Soviet Union and later Eastern European states were the first to implement such equality in an effort to build a classless 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 the Enlightenment notion of ‘natural’ gender characteristics, which were believed to be independent of political and social context. The communist regimes’ 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 Eastern European 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.

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. The so-called ‘second-wave feminism’ that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s grew from the social and political upheavals of the Long Sixties and embraced an expanded agenda for women’s rights. 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’ that they coined 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.

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. The so-called 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, to a large extent, in the Western tradition, resistance to male power had existed in other societies, and women across the globe had questioned inequalities and gender 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. International institutions such as the United Nations proved instrumental to boosting the gender perspective and feminism as a global phenomenon. Consequently, starting in the 1990s, watchdog agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights 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 populist movements and governments is a reaction against the achievements 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 nearly two decades ago. Recently, Andrea Pető and Weronika Grzebalska identified the anti-feminist agenda of right-wing 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, rather it is ‘a new form of governance’ [4]. But suppression of the feminist movement can only happen if we assume that all-powerful states are able to exercise control unmitigated by social forces from below. Such a 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 and activism.

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 government under the Law and Justice Party 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 out on the streets, most of them dressed in black, to protest the planned legislation. The demonstration mobilized women from all social backgrounds and political orientations, large cities and small towns. Just as the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, the Black Protest was accompanied by numerous sister marches outside Poland. It may be tempting to see the Black Protest as ‘new’, since Catholic-dominated Poland had not been well known for feminist mass organizing. But a closer look at the historical record reveals that Poland, in fact, has a long tradition of women’s strikes and demonstrations, as women often dominated workers’ strikes, starting in the early 1880s, through the revolution of 1905, the inter-war period and the communist era, including the massive strikes and hunger marches in the early 1980s. These were not ‘women’s strikes’ per se, 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 – functioned as a powerful message about the government’s failings of its citizens and 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 in a powerful way. 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 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 activism will help democracies withstand the global populist assault. And even if they do, one can be certain of pitfalls and drawbacks before a meaningful political change can be achieved. But as Freedman reminds her readers, ‘the future of women depends on how we continue to redefine and implement feminist goals’ [5].

In 1913 American women did not win the vote. The new president, who was 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-long picket outside the White House, brandishing signs such as ‘Mr President: How long must women wait for liberty?’ [6] 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]. The work and determination of suffragists bears fruit today as the American democracy is being tested by the president’s ostentatious disregard for the rule of law and basic human values. The response to the assault on democracy has been a remarkable reinvigoration of the feminist movement and more recently, women’s unprecedented successes in the US electoral politics. In the midterm elections in November 2018, a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate, including the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women. Out of a total of 117 women elected, as many as 100 came from the Democratic Party, many of them inspired to enter politics by the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 [8]. Local elections are even more remarkable. In early April 2019 Chicago became the site of a history-making moment: a run-off mayoral election between two African American women, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, with Lightfoot winning by a wide margin. Not only is the new Chicago mayor the first African American female to hold that office, she is also the city’s first openly gay leader.

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 and social media, and the extensive participation of men and families. But 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 up 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.

Małgorzata Fidelis

Małgorzata Fidelis is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She teaches courses on Modern European, Eastern European, Polish and Gender history. Her research focuses on social and cultural issues, particularly everyday life and the relationship between individuals and state power in post-1945 Eastern Europe. Her first book, entitled Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2010; Polish language edition, WAB, 2015), is a study of female workers and communist policies in Poland. The book’s central theme explores how communist leaders and society reconciled pre-communist traditions with radically new norms imposed by the communist ideology. Her new research project concerns the social and cultural history of the ‘Global Sixties’ in Poland, with a particular emphasis on youth and student cultures in a transnational context.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Aspen Review Central Europe in April 2017. I thank Aspen Review for permission to publish an updated version here.

[1] Estelle Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Women and the Future of Feminism (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 1.
[2] Ibid., 346.
[3] Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 20.
[4] Andrea Pető and Weronika Grzebalska, ‘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] Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
[8] As of now, women hold 23.5% of seats in the House of Representatives, and 25% in the Senate. Drew DeSilver, “A Record Number of Women Will Be Serving in the New Congress,”
Although these numbers are the highest in US history, they are still significantly lower than the proportion of women in society or in parliaments in other countries such as Rwanda, Mexico, Sweden and Finland.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 3.0 Unported License (users are free to share and adapt the material providing attribution is made to the author and source)

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