The Women’s March in Washington, DC and many other cities was the latest in a string of eye-popping political events over the past year, springing up almost spontaneously from a Facebook post, and far exceeding any advance estimate of marchers. Many have tried to interpret what this unusual event means, often asking, what was the issue for which they marched? What was the objective? What do they want to happen as a result?
The march was often described in the press as “an anti-Trump rally.” I was there, and of course, I could not take off my qualitative researcher’s hat at this fascinating event. I believe this is an inadequate interpretation of the event. As a qualitative researcher, I was paying attention to the clues we would consider in interviews. As we researchers know, to understand deeply, we need to ask the right questions; listen to what they said, what they meant, and how they said it; pay attention to the context; and consider the related imagery. Those clues brought me to a very different conclusion.
First, asking the right questions and listening to how as well as what was said. When questions requiring a specific answer are posed, human beings tend to quickly land on a specific answer, usually an expected, “rational” answer. When media representatives asked point blank about what issues they were marching for, many marchers did point to a specific issue or concern, such as equal pay, reproductive rights, the right to healthcare, and climate change.
A better question, “why are you here?” elicited a very different response. The verbatim responses I heard over and over and over in the general conversation spoke to a much more visceral, gut level reaction to the current state of affairs and a sense of being irresistibly compelled to join in. What was significant is that this question was seldom answered with an issue:
- “The minute I heard of this, I knew I had to be a part of it.”
- “I booked my reservations the day I heard of the march.”
- “I have never been political. I have voted Democratic and Republican. I have never demonstrated or marched in my life. But when I heard about this I had to come. “
- “I did not come with anyone. I just came. I had to be here.”
Second, context. It is significant and extraordinary that these marches all developed so quickly and organically with virtually no leadership from individuals nor organizations until it was clear that the marches would be big enough to require some planning for logistics. The speakers, many very high-profile, were almost an afterthought – booked when it was already clear that this march was happening. This highly unusual grassroots development is proof positive that whatever the motivation was, it was extraordinarily compelling to cause so many people to invest significant time, and often expense, to participate.
Third, consider the imagery that marchers created to carry on their signs and to chant in their crowd calls. There was a LOT of female anatomy in pictures and words. Of course, everyone has heard about the “pussy hats” that many of the marchers wore (usually knitted by individuals specifically for the March, and resulting in a major run on pink yarn). There were pictures and verbal references to all kinds of “lady parts” all over the place. To my researcher self, this suggests the perception that their fundamental femaleness is being threatened in some way.
As a qualitative researcher, my conclusion is that this focus group – or rather, march – was not about any one issue, and was not organized to achieve a specified outcome, although of course, the marchers hope it will have an impact. Rather, it was an expression of a generalized but tremendously powerful sense among this group of people that something is very wrong, that their very foundation and essence is under attack, that something must be done, and that they are ready to step up. It was not so much about a specific desired outcome as much as it was about launching a new movement.
Media coverage of the March focusing on those diverse – and obvious – issues missed or minimized the important point that the right qualitative research could uncover: this energy goes beyond a particular politician, and has the potential to bend the arc of current events. Moreover, there is something going on with women specifically that is giving them the incentive to participate in the political discourse in ways they have not before, or at least in a very long time. We will see if the Marchers of January 21 will organize and focus on specific and effective actions going forward, but future planned women’s activities and the leadership of women in objections to the recent Immigration Executive Order give evidence to my interpretation.