WASHINGTON — The nasty, brutish, and ultimately short presidency of Donald Trump was only a few hours old when it was met with the counterforce that would define his time in office. Women’s Marches flooded some 650 towns and cities nationwide with protesters waving signs, pushing strollers, chanting slogans, and wearing crocheted pink hats topped with cat ears. The crowd in Washington D.C. alone was estimated to be three times as large as the audience for Trump’s inauguration.
After some men publicly wondered whether they were invited to join, the sight of 4 million women, men, and children packing American streets quickly answered the question. More than 1 percent of the U.S. population participated in the marches, the single largest day of action in the nation’s history. Yet even those demonstrations were dwarfed by the massive protests last Saturday, on what was to mark Trump’s final weekend in office. At least 11 million people marched through and occupied American cities with music, speeches, signs, and chants such as the call and response between women and men, My body, my choice! / Her body, her choice!
The counter-Trump movement would not be made only of women. But they would lead it, as surely as they propelled past American movements for universal suffrage, for labor protections, and for civil rights. And whether he realized it or not, that put Trump on the receiving end of a harsh historical truth. Women-led uprisings throughout history — including the 1789 women’s march on Versailles that helped to spark the French Revolution, and the 1917 International Women’s Day March that helped bring about the abdication of Russian Tsar Nicholas II — often have tectonic consequences, up to and including regime change.
“So often the difficulty in mobilizing a bloc of people as heterogeneous as women is lack of consensus,” said Frieda Campos, a University of Hawaii historian of women’s movements. “You see that in America today — plenty of women still voted for Trump. But a wide consensus emerged early on that Trump was a threat to all women. It catalyzed an effort that hastened his exit.”
The marches of January 21, 2017, established a precedent of sustained pushback against Trump from America at large, but especially from women. Studies found that more than half the marchers in the next two large protests — the People’s Climate March and the March on Science — were women. And a survey that year of calls to Congress found that women’s phone calls outnumbered men’s by a 6-to-1 margin.
It was as if watching a woman presidential candidate win 3 million more votes than her opponent reminded women that they, in fact, are the majority.
On the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, millions of protesters again gathered in cities around the country to reprise the Women’s March. Some 200,000 marched in New York; another 300,000 in Chicago. In Los Angeles, the crowd of 600,000 made voter registration a theme of their action. In Palm Beach County, Florida, a few hundred turned out to roast the president near his Mar-a-Lago compound, including a group of women who arrived in white bonnets and red cloaks, à la “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“We’ve seen women across the country really leverage their power in these actions,” said Sulma Gallardo, an activist and Indiana University sociology professor. “It frankly disarmed Trump. He’s always been threatened by women, and sort of blusters through his fragile idea of masculinity. You could see it get under his skin as he lashed out against Maxine Waters, Stormy Daniels, Kirsten Gillibrand, and just about every other woman not named Ivanka.”
The rising anger of the women’s movement only grew after the New York Times in October 2017 broke the long-buried story of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment, assault, and coercion of women. Using the hashtag #MeToo, echoing the phrase coined by movement founder Tarana Burke, women shared their own stories of abuses in and out of their workplaces. The resulting firestorm unseated dozens of accused men from powerful positions in media, finance, education, and politics.
Even as the president suffered little consequence for his own accusations of sexual assault from 20 women, his impunity only energized his opposition. In December 2017, the overwhelming support of black women voters made Doug Jones the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate since 1996, nudging him past an opponent credibly accused of sexual assault.
A year later, the movement met a setback. The Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s searing testimony to the Senate judiciary committee that Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh and his backers responded with indignant rage. Women meanwhile took to the halls of Congress, pleading to lawmakers face-to-face with stories of their own assaults. More than 1,200 demonstrators were arrested in a series of sit-ins and hearing disruptions, presaging the women-led direct actions that would later hound Trump from office.
Through it all, polls showed that more Americans believed Ford, and when Kavanaugh took the bench, he had a net negative rating among voters. Even as conservatives claimed the moment as a culture war victory and predicted indignant voters would turn out to avenge Kavanaugh’s good name, the loss stiffened the Trump opposition. Thanks in part to grassroots get-out-the-vote operations anchored by women, Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House. Women candidates accounted for more than 60 percent of the House districts that Democrats flipped.
“It’s not often you see a protest movement produce such huge electoral gains so quickly,” said Takema Berry, a University of Miami law professor and city commissioner in Coral Gables, Florida. “But that’s part of what has made this resistance so distinctive: it’s both angry and pragmatic. It may someday rank with other women-led movements like suffrage, labor, and abolition, that transformed America’s fundamental social contract.”
The beginning of 2019 saw a Democratically controlled House offering the first formal check on Trump’s power since he’d assumed office. Faced with a tactician as practiced as Nancy Pelosi, the veteran Speaker of the House, Trump seemed deflated and withdrawn all winter. Then, on March 8, International Women’s Day, demonstrators began clogging New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s nine offices with so-called Sippy Cup Sit-Ins, whereby entire families, kids and all, held a borderline festive occupation, echoing the “play date” family separation protests of the previous summer.
Ten days of sit-ins won a pledge from Schumer to support the “Bundle” of progressive legislation while thwarting any of Trump’s actions that would harm vulnerable Americans. “I’ve been a Senator for a lot of years,” he said in announcing the pledge. “But I’d never truly arrived until my daughter called me this morning to say, and I quote, ‘Welcome to the sisterhood, dad.’”
Not long after that, the 11-million-strong protests swept away a president. History will show that Trump quit. It will also show that women had effectively given him a pink slip his first day on the job.