Our Bodies, Our Selves

At the Women’s March, January 21, 2017
Betti-Sue Hertz

The official poster for the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017 featured three women’s archetypal profiles lined up in a row, in a color scheme of red, dark blue, and cream above rounded, bold lettering. Other designs were available as downloadable posters, featuring generic phrases in black lettering on a white background: “Together, We Rise,” “We Honor the Legacy of the Movements Before Us,” and “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest.” The guide to the march encouraged participants to bring signs, and people actively embraced this directive at marches in 676 cities in the United States and 137 more around the world.

However, the signs from the official website were only rarely in place. Instead we saw a proliferation of outspoken, unflinching, DIY signs, with a profusion of pink—expressions of agency and exuberant creative energy in protest and celebration—as women passionately spoke out in support of women’s rights, human rights, environmental justice, labor, and other progressive issues and against a regime bent on crushing civil rights and destroying democratic and constitutional structures. Particularly striking were the many signs on reproduction, gender, and women’s sexuality featuring graphic bodily imagery, which put the personal and intimate aspects of the female body on public display with a level of gutsiness surpassing earlier feminist protest signs.

The overt representation of the normal processes of a cis woman’s body was until recently considered radical in and of itself, even in the much more insulated art world (think Judy Chicago’s 1971 Red Flag, a print of woman pulling a bloody tampon from between her legs, or Carolee Schneemann’s photography with drawings, performance and sound collage of vulvic space in Fresh Blood: A Dream Morphology (1981-1987)). However, it’s notable that throughout the Women’s March, the female body was pitched to a new level of visibility. Numerous signs were proudly on view depicting bodily imagery as a statement of women’s power. The sign-holders’ bold and fearless approach in a decidedly open forum represented a tremendous shift in assuming equity and demanding full access to public life by using words and pictures of our “private parts.”

With governmental attacks on Planned Parenthood, NARAL and other groups fighting for reproductive rights, safe abortions, and affordable health care, our very cis female reproductive system is under threat. No longer content in referencing the cis female body with metaphors and innuendo about biological, psychological, or sexual aspects of identity, sign after sign explicitly represented self-love and demanded autonomous control of our bodies, health, emotional well-being, and personhood. Signs promoted “a women’s right to choose” through graphic displays of the female reproductive system—the uterus, fallopian tube, ovaries, cervix, and vagina. A collage featuring a uterus with a woman’s head at its center asked: “Why are you so obsessed with me?” Others featured a simple line drawing of a uterus with one of the fallopian tubes turned upwards and capped with a fuck-you middle finger; “Public Cervix Announcement: Fuck You”; “If I wanted politics in my vagina I’d fuck a senator,” or the slightly more polite “Out of My Uterus,” “Mi Cuerpo Mi Utero,” and “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” Handwritten signs combined a disgust for the militarist and corporation protectionist direction of the Trump administration and its denigration and disrespect for women’s reproductive rights: “If my uterus fired bullets the GOP would fund it,” and “If my uterus was a corporation, will y’all stop regulating it?” Another referenced ovulation while critiquing the threat to build a wall between the US and Mexican borders: “Shed Walls Don’t Build Them.” Still others were quite forthright about the desirability of women’s bodies as a positive characteristic of ones’ identity, while trashing Trump: “Keep your tiny hands off my huge tits! (and the healthcare that keeps them pretty).” And, many women turned Trump’s words against him, with the popular refrains: “This pussy grabs back,” and “I’m a nasty woman.”

In this way, the no-holds-barred messages, brash honesty, and fullness of the Second Wave feminist rallying cries—“The personal is political” and “My body, my choice”—were joined by a new era of aesthetic resistance in street protest signs that Third Wave feminists embrace—“grab my pussy,” “I’d call you a cunt but you don’t have any warmth or depth.” Hundreds of thousands of people wore “pussy hats,” as generational difference melted into a massive community, differentiated yet in solidarity.

The history of feminist protest signs, posters, and banners that focus on reproductive self-determination, the vote, and economic and sexual freedom can be traced back to the Suffrage Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1900s and 1910s US Suffragists put pressure for the vote (which women finally achieved in 1920) on President Woodrow Wilson by marching with banners and signs that bore slogans addressing women’s rights and liberties. Their demands sound hauntingly familiar: “President Wilson, How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” At the 2017 Women’s March, some participants paid tribute to these foremothers while referencing their personal journeys for women’s rights: “I can’t believe I’m still having to do this shit,” or “I’ve been doing this since the 1960s.”

Succinct and timely phrases are like a knife that cuts through time and can be repurposed by later generations. In each movement—from Suffragists to Civil Rights to the fight against the proliferation of nuclear power plants to the marches against the first Iraq War, the Occupy Movement, climate activism, and Black Lives Matter—protest signs have played a major role in synthesizing in both image and text the demands for social justice, by “speaking truth to power.” The forest of protest signs held up one by one has long been the handmaiden of progressive causes, a stalwart tool of the populace demonstrating its civic agency and body politic as a right in the democratic state.

While some of the signs at the Women’s March were designed by professional artists or graphic designers, most appeared to be made by their user. The texts were often significantly more engaging than the visual imagery, which in many cases was completely absent beyond lettering (which was often basic bubble style, or all capitals, or half-cursive). Many were hand-drawn or hand-cut collage, with few relying completely on the photographic image. Oftentimes, when images of the female reproductive system were in play, they seemed to be awkwardly copied from medical diagrams or simplified graphics. All of these characteristics set the signs far apart from the lens-based saturated image world exemplified by photography, live action TV, video and cinema, Instagram and Flickr, that is the usual fare of our culturally produced visual field. In this post-fact moment, when fiction is termed “alternative fact,” when truth is called lies and lies are defended as truth, we ironically find ourselves in a highly creative space. The delinking of reality from truth strangely gives permission to shake off the legacy of the truth claim of the photographic for direct address, puns, fact lists, and colloquialisms. Sign-makers’ counter message is embedded in the individualism of their DIY handwritten texts and drawings. This bodily connection with the making of the sign amplified the corporal presence of putting bodies on the line as tools of civic power, protest, and outrage.

At the same time, I have to ask, where have our drawing, painting, and collage skills gone? Has our dependence on the photographic, the thousands of photographs that we take on our phones and look at through Instagram scrolls, hijacked our abilities to create complex visuals? Certainly, there are artists and graphic designers with the skills to create signs with the visual punch of past social and political movements like the Anti-Vietnam War protest signs of the 1960s and 70s and the visual activism of AIDS activists in the 1980s. Some contemporary designers have made their images available for download and replication as a purposeful strategy: Shepard Fairey’s “We the People” series featuring women—Native American, African American, Muslim, and Latina—were in wide circulation at marches. The German illustrator Lennart Gäbel’s poster featuring flat block color shapes of Trump grabbing the crotch of the Statue of Liberty—which captured both the anger at one man’s attitudes towards women and the fragility of democracy itself—also went viral. Daniela Gilsanz created a color packed uterus with one of the fallopian tubes turned upwards with a raised fist. Graphic designers at Refinery 29, a large global digital media company, promoted an array of posters created specifically for the women’s march and ready for distribution, including Isabel Castillo Guijarro’s riff on Rosie the Riveter, Annu Kilpelainen’s “Power,” of a woman grabbing her crotch with one hand, and Marina Esmeraldo’s “Equal Pay,” featuring a large screaming mouth. Yet these professional designs were far outflanked by the outpouring of DIY designs.

Does it matter that many signs didn’t have the visual acumen of a skilled graphic designer? I would argue that combining image and text increases the impact of a political message, especially in what has become a text-dominated protest landscape. As an example, in 1986 the AIDS activist commandeered the pink triangle, placing it on a black background accompanied by the now famous phrase “Silence=Death” to drive home the homophobic responses to the epidemic. Douglas Crimp observed: “The graphics not only reflect…knowledge, but actively contribute to its articulation, as well…They function by conveying, in compressed form, information and political positions, for those who are infected, to onlookers at demonstrations and to the dominant media.1

Visual symbols such as the fist inside a universal woman’s sign—representing women’s power and resistance—that accompanied the “Sisterhood is Powerful” slogan helped galvanize the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and are forever associated with that history. Even going back to the Suffragist Movement, in the popular imagination it is the visual signifier of their white outfits featuring long dresses and hats that has come to represent their struggle. It may be that the “pussy hats” emerge as the symbol for the Women’s March. I would vote for the line drawing of the uterus with the upturned fallopian tube “speaking out,” as a succinct visual expression of a demand for autonomy over our reproductive system. Or maybe in our post-Occupy Trumpland moment our broader concerns cannot be expressed by one unifying symbol because of the vast diversity of messages and messengers. Similarly, the feminist movement has become more horizontal in structure, shunning the monotheistic model of one charismatic leader.

This diversity of messages is related to another shift in recent years: the fervent fight by social progressives to break down rigid gender binaries and support gender non-conformity, bringing into question conventional categories across the female-male spectrum. At the march, perspectives from the queer community tended towards visibility for diversity of sexual identities. However, as Marie Solis wrote in an analysis for Mic, “pussy hats set the tone for a march that would focus acutely on genitalia at the expense of the transgender community. Signs like ‘Pussy power,’ ‘Viva la Vulva’ and ‘Pussy grabs back’ all sent a clear and oppressive message to trans women, especially: having a vagina is essential to womanhood.”

I agree that the genitalia focus was very present, with much of it speaking from a white middle class perspective in spite of the march’s leadership that led from a strongly articulated progressive position of protest and resistance across race, class, culture, bodily difference, and status vís-a-vís the nation state. Another perspective is that we should see the march as an opportunity to take stock of not only what we have in common (or not) at the most basic level of biology, but our differences across every other marker including access to power. And especially at a moment when the right is emboldened to threaten hard-won civil rights, it is important to steadfastly embrace diverse gender expressions as represented in march signs and slogans such as “Black Trans Lives Matter,” “My Child’s Transgender Rights are Human Rights,” “Support your Sisters Not Just your Cis-ters,” “I am a…Black Queer First Gen American Woman and I Refuse to Be Ignored” and “Experience Dyke Power,” “Never Underestimate the Power of a Faggot with a Tambourine,” and “Not Gay as in Happy Queer as in Fuck You.”

With these multiple identities in mind, it was still the cis woman’s body, in graphic, physical detail, that took center stage on January 21. One speech at the main DC march stood out in capturing the bold spirit of so many women creating a message to get out into the world. Actress Ashley Judd recited “I am a Nasty Woman,” a poem written by Nina Donovan, a 19 year-old from Franklin, Tennessee that reached deep into the personal realm and extended out into the global sphere—angry, forthright, voracious, and proud. The arc of the poem moved freely from the public to the private, calling out hate and inequity and then circling to rage and the menstruating female body: “I’m nasty like my blood stains on my bed sheets/…Tell me, why are tampons and pads still taxed while Viagra and Rogaine are not?/… Is your erection more than protecting the messy part of my womanhood?/ Is the blood stain on my jeans more embarrassing than the thinning of your hair?”

The poem then arrived at its climax, unflinching in the call for the continued struggle for women’s rights, and powered by bold language and imagery shared with so many of the protest signs: “And our pussies ain’t for grabbing. They’re for reminding you that our walls are stronger than America’s ever will be. Our pussies are for our pleasure. They are for birthing new generations of filthy, vulgar, nasty, proud, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, you name it, for new generations of nasty women.”

1 Crimp, Douglas, AIDS Demo Graphics, Bay Press, 1991, 20

This essay was published by Art Practical on March 23, 2017. It is reproduced here with permission.