The role of protest in feminism

Women from different generations compare the feminist movements and the role protest has played

By Rebekah Alvey, F/G Scholar

Throughout the history of women’s movements, marches have played a significant role in showing civil disobedience and dissent. The marches demonstrate unity and passion for the cause while also highlighting the changes in the movement and the flaws.

Kristi Branham, director of the WKU Gender and Women’s Studies Department, said throughout history, women have always been fighting for equality.

“As long as there’s women, there’s a women’s movement,” Branham said.

One common method of marking feminism throughout history Branham mentioned is the “waves” metaphor. The first wave started in the late 1800s with the suffrage movement, and today people argue we are in the fourth wave.

Branham jokingly said that years from now when people are studying the fourth wave, they will consider Beyonce’s song “Flawless***” as a turning point since the singer lists a standard definition of feminism in the song’s lyrics.

The waves metaphor is open to criticism and demonstrates flaws. It has become a way for people to point fingers and criticize different generations rather than working as one. Each wave holds different goals and issues.

The first wave, for example, is criticized due to its lack of diversity and a blatant racism viewed in its leaders. Second wavers are also criticized for radical behavior which created a bad name for the movement.

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While there is frequent discussion over the definition of feminism, Branham said she prefers the simple idea the movement is an “effort to end sexist oppression.”

Over the years, as technology has changed, Branham said the march has always existed as a primary form of demonstration in the feminist movement. She even said other movements have started to gravitate toward marches.

While she has participated in a few small demonstrations, Branham said she feels most effective in teaching young people and interacting with the community. She said often students are anxious and feel pressured to participate in public protest.

While marches and public protests have been consistent, she said there are several ways to express civil disobedience in feminism.

“There’s a lot of ways to shake up the status quo,” Branham said. “We can cause ripples in the fabric. My existence is resistance.”

By speaking with feminists from different generations who protest and march for different reasons, one may begin to understand the factions, changes and flaws which have always existed.

Tracy Harkins

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Fresh out of college, Tracy Harkins lived and worked in D.C., where she said protest was frequent and available. She did go to marches while there because she said it was so easy to become involved with one there and attributed the location to her level of activism.

At the time, she said people considered protest an “other” or radical thing. Having grown up in the ‘70s, Harkins said feminists were seen in a radical lens. Additionally, she said it was a lot harder to mobilize large groups of people if you were not on site, so there were more “fringe” groups than the unified movements of today.

“I think if you had asked me and friends in college if we considered ourselves feminists, I’m not sure we all would’ve raised our hands,” Harkins said. “But now, people do equate it more with just: ‘Do you believe in equal rights for women and all peoples?’ If the answer’s yes, you’re a feminist.”

Today, Harkins said she believes more people are comfortable with the idea of marching, and feminism is viewed as less radical and more inclusive. She said a lot more people are willing and find it easy to stand up and be a presence in their cause. Once someone protests or knocks on a door once, she said they are more comfortable and likely to do it again.

Harkins also said feminism is becoming more relevant through current issues, and people are beginning to notice subtle forms of discrimination that still exist.

Before the 2016 election, Harkins said her involvement with protest and activism was minimal. She explained watching her shy daughter put herself out there to campaign for Hillary Clinton by speaking with strangers and later fighting for what she believes prompted her to become more involved.

Harkins is now a part of the Women’s Network: Barren River branch, an organization founded after a woman ran for Senate and lost, in Kentucky. She said the goal is to support women and to activate people to become involved in women’s issues. Most recently, she said she has protested in various local marches and women’s marches in Nashville.

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Tracy Harkins and her daughter participating in a Women’s March. Photo provided by Tracy Harkins

In 2017, Harkins did attend the march in D.C. She said people were shocked by the number of people who actually showed up and the marches it inspired.

“I think just the sheer number of people that showed up and were able to organize themselves in a peaceful way is significant,” Harkins said.  

From the time it takes someone to be upset by an issue to deciding to march to actually marching is a long and difficult process. While some think it’s easy, she said it’s incredibly difficult, which makes a march more impactful and indicates how important that issue is to someone.

Additionally, she said marches have been a vehicle for other causes. Whatever is the newest issue can take the forefront in a women’s march. For this reason, Harkins said she doesn’t anticipate the marches fizzling out any time soon during the Trump administration.

“I think a lot of women who care about these things, especially who are in my age group, think we are going backwards instead of forwards,” Harkins said. “They are going to keep doing something, and marching is going to be a part of that.”

Looking toward the future, Harkins said she hopes to see more interaction between other groups and organizations in the community who are typically discussing the same issues but may look slightly different. While she said there is some intersectionality in feminism, she hopes it is an area the movement can grow.

Kristina Arnold

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WKU Art Department Head Kristina Arnold is no stranger to activism. Born in 1972 and growing up in D.C., she said her family was always involved with activism, and her first formal introduction was in the seventh grade.

She remembered writing letters and boycotting Nestle and being upset she couldn’t go with her parents to attend protests against apartheid in South Africa.

“I almost feel like I didn’t know anything else,” Arnold said. “This is just the thing we do, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Arnold said she believes all the activism she has been a part of is interconnected, including feminist marches. However the first “official” feminist protest she participated in was the 1989 Planned Parenthood March.

Despite the connections between movements, growing up, Arnold said the term intersectionality was not widely used. She said people were thinking in an intersectional way, but today, people are using the term while also applying it.

“You can’t raise one group up at the expense of another,” Arnold said. “I think the fact it’s embracing difference, with everything that means, is important and valid.”

Today, Arnold said she believes protest has become more intimidating and scary to become involved with. She explained it’s easier to find or harass people due to increased media coverage and how far photos and videos can be shared. Additionally, she said there has been an increase in gun violence, so the idea of a group of people in a closed space seems more vulnerable.

When she protested in college, the concern was if she would be arrested and not potential violence.

“When you’re younger, you feel much more invincible,” Arnold said.

In a way, she said people’s hesitation to protest out of fear of violence or professional repercussions from being identified in a demonstration creates a barrier to conversation and understanding. If people are nervous to show up, she explained face-to-face conversations are more difficult to have.

“The less safe people feel to congregate in public, I think the more our ability to communicate will be limited,” Arnold said.

Despite the polarization and risk of violence, Arnold said there has been an increase in people becoming engaged and involved in activism. She said people who previously considered their voice irrelevant are making it heard and advocating for what they believe. In a way, she believes social media has become a tool for that.

When news of the 2017 Women’s March came out, Arnold said she and her sister were immediately interested because they felt D.C. had become a “dirty” place. She explained marching was a way to reclaim their home.

While her mother and sister lived in different parts of the country, they all participated in some type of women’s march that day. She said it felt good to know women were speaking out coast to coast.

At the march, Arnold made and brought a banner which she said reminded her of the banner she marched with years ago at the Planned Parenthood march.

She said it was important to her to reclaim her personal space, but it was amazing to see people using their voices and how many people showed up. That day she described as good and happy but wondered if today, since people seem to be more mad, if the same emotions would be present.

In a way, Arnold said marching is significant because it is a way of claiming space in a productive way. While sit-ins psychically take up space, marches are by nature a way of owning a space and moving toward the change you want to see happen.

As an artist, she said marches are visual events. She said she approached organizing marches almost as an art project.

“How do we creatively make change?” Arnold said. “How do we together imagine something we have never seen before?”

On the way back to Bowling Green, Arnold said she gathered names and information of people who participated and made a Facebook group so they could stay in touch. She accidentally made the group open, and 250 more people joined overnight. This group eventually became the Bowling Green Kentucky Social Justice Clearinghouse.

From there, Arnold said she has been involved with organizing Bowling Green protests such as an International Women’s Day march. However, since becoming department head, she explained she had less time to physically protest but is still an advocate.

Alice Waddell

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Bowling Green native Alice Gatewood-Waddell has a professional career in fine arts but also serves as the executive director of the Bowling Green Human Rights Commission. She said her passions are helping people and providing service to the community.

While she hasn’t physically participated in many large scale protests, she said she believes she contributes in an unconventional way. By educating, mentoring and encouraging young people to be socially active, she feels she contributes to the causes she cares about.

Additionally, Waddell said she has participated in Unity Day, which is a way to divert attention from what she considers negative organizations.

“Sometimes it’s not a march and a countermarch that works,” Waddell said.

Today, she said there is more diversity in the people who are socially active and protest. During the civil rights movement specifically, she said it seemed black people, white women and people in the ministry were the only people passionate and banding together.

Now, she explained there are people from other nationalities contributing to the conversation. She explained more people may communicate and visit different cultures, which facilitates understanding for others.

“People that think the same way band together,” Waddell said.

Waddell said current issues impact many people, and they encourage participation. Some people she said are just passionate about standing up for other people’s rights. She believes it sometimes does take people who are not directly impacted to speak up to create change.

In the future, Waddell said she hopes there is less division and violence in protests. She said people should have the right to express their opinions and to protest, but she worries with so many divisions a protest could lead to something bigger and war-like.

From what she has witnessed, Waddell said a march is a form of expression and a way to send a message that you don’t agree with something.

‘It’s a release of anger,” Waddell said. “Marches enable us to be a voice for a lot of people who cannot sand and speak up for themselves.”  

She said she believes the 2017 Women’s March made women more eager to be socially involved. Additionally, it impacted people across different regions rather than spreading to one state.

Waddell said because the women’s movement has such a long timeline, it has definitely made changes and influenced society. She explained today, with equal employment and domestic violence, feminism has played a role in both of these.

“Women have always played a big role in change, to me,” Waddell said.

Today, she said the idea of feminism is more inclusive as all people are now considering themselves feminists.

When she was younger, Waddell said people often had no choice but to protest. Now, she believes people are more distracted and that only passionate people demonstrate. She said people find modern issues more optional and won’t truly dedicate themselves unless it directly impacts them.

“There was no future without a protest,” Waddell said. “Change was just necessary not optional.”

Jordan Frodge

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Maysville senior Jordan Frodge said she heard about the march on Twitter and was immediately drawn to the event. She said she had never been to Washington D.C. before, but she knew she wanted to find a way to go. She said she received an email from the Center for Citizenship and Social Justice offering a free opportunity to participate in the march and immediately signed up.

“A lot of people around me didn’t understand the mission before it happened,” Frodge said. “It was the opportunity to do something that had never been done before.”

On the way there, Frodge said she was surprised to see the range of ages in women going to the march and saw it as an opportunity to share intergenerational stories. She explained how anxious and tense everyone was to see if anyone would actually show up at the march. But once they arrived in D.C., there were buses of people as far as she could see.

“People showed up. People did what they said they were going to do,” Frodge said.

At the march, Frodge said there was a series of “commandments” or values you were standing for if you participated. She mentioned one group from Texas who didn’t participate because they were not a pro-choice group.

While the commandments closed off other feminists who may have different opinions on specific issues, she said it is important to have understanding and solidarity. If they didn’t have these lines, she said the march could’ve become a joke.

Frodge said a march is especially important and impactful during a digital age. She explained it is so easy to Tweet or post something into the “abyss,” but to have the courage to show up and join in a march made an impact. She said people could’ve just posted, but instead, they chose to raise money and spend their time convincing and showing others how important their cause is.

“Nothing will ever compare with our physical voices and physical bodies standing in front of the White House,” Frodge said. “There’s nothing like that. I think that’s history that can’t be undone.”

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Senior Jordan Frodge in Washington D.C. at the 2017 Women’s March. Photo provided by Jordan Frodge

Additionally, Frodge said she believes marches are a way for people to show up and to demonstrate diversity in a group. At the 2017 march, she said there were men, women and children of all nationalities and ethnicities participating because they all believed in the same idea of equality.

Although marching remains a vital stand in feminism, Frodge said social media has been incredibly instrumental, which older generations have not fully realized. She explained how social media may increase understanding of global perspectives which some have used as an excuse to lessen the value of problems in the US.

“Sexist, hateful behavior is just bad,” Frodge said. “It doesn’t have to be less than something else that’s horrible.”

As a younger generation of feminism, Frodge said always keeping progress in perspective is important. She said realizing how recent women’s accomplishments are demonstrates the new territory younger feminists have to cover.

”I don’t think it’s any time to be complacent,” Frodge said.

Still, Frodge emphasized the importance of listening to older generations to collaborate rather than point fingers at previous “waves.” She said older women have had to experience things her generation never had to and hearing those stories helps in understanding and unity.

“There’s power in voices,” Frodge said.

Erin Woggon

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Louisville junior Erin Woggon was motivated to travel to D.C. for the women’s march because she was upset and disappointed from the election and the rhetoric that followed. She said she knew it was going to be a historic day, and she needed to be a part of it.

“D.C. was the encouragement I needed,” Woggon said.

Woggon’s first encounter with protest was the 2017 Women’s March, but it wasn’t the last. She attended one of the Occupy ICE protests in Louisville during the summer of 2018. She acknowledged differences in the purpose of both protests and her personal attachment to the causes.

Woggon explained in 2017 the women’s march was in response to something negative, but still, its participants were acting positively, and the march was a joyful occasion. On the other hand, the protests at Occupy ICE were more negative and frustrating.

“The march is so symbolic,” Woggon said.

From her experience in 2017, Woggon said she found walking in the street with thousands of people comforting and assuring. She also believes watching people march is more impactful and empowering than a Twitter feed or social media.

“Not just saying what’s wrong,” Woggon said. “Saying what you want to change.”

Woggon went to D.C. with other WKU students but was amazed to find her mother and uncle in the crowds of people at the march.

As a part of the younger generation, Woggon said she has noticed trends which motivate activism. She explained social media is a way to further a cause and unite voices easily.

She said she believes generations are becoming more liberal. She explained since her generation grew up with the first black U.S. president, it has greater expectations for inclusivity.

Additionally, Woggon said the younger generations, specifically college students, are going through a lot of difficult situations with finding a career in a changing field and fronting student debts.

“We’re not afraid to call people out,” Woggon said. “That’s when we’re going to get any change.”

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