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The Myth of the Well-Behaved Women’s March

When no one is arrested, it's often because no one wants to arrest them.

Wikimedia Commons

On October 5, 1789, a crowd of more than seven thousand women—fish sellers and bakers, working women from the markets, bourgeois “bonnet-wearing” women from the suburbs—marched the twelve miles from Paris to Versailles to demand King Louis XVI release his stores of grain. The march had been planned at the Palais Royal by a group of women who were furious over food shortages, especially after rumors that the king had thrown a lavish feast for his bodyguards only days before. The women swore that together, they would save the city: “Tomorrow things will be better because we will be in charge!”

Armed with pitchforks and pikes, stolen cannons and muskets, and knives snatched up from the kitchen table, the women gathered supporters as they left Paris on the six-hour journey, including the National Guard, led by the Marquis de Lafayette. The guardsmen’s duty was to protect the king, but many supported the women’s cause and had threatened to desert if they were not allowed to accompany the march. Lafayette sent warning to Versailles that he was bringing his soldiers and the marchers to the king.

Women also marched in Paris on January 21, 2017, and in dozens of other cities across the globe. Hundreds of thousands of women participated in marches from Iceland to Antarctica, and in the U.S. participants numbered in the millions. As far as we know, of those millions, no one was arrested. Not in Washington, D.C., where I marched along with at least 500,000 others; not in New York, which approached another half million, where the notably hair-trigger NYPD was reportedly friendly and helpful; not in Chicago, where the rally grew so large that the official march portion was canceled, but the 250,000 participants marched anyway, and a police department mired in a brutality investigation by the Justice department gave them all a pass. Instead, cops took smiling selfies with protesters and even handed out high-fives.

Media, organizers, and marchers alike have crowed over the lack of confrontation at the Women’s March. (The day before, more than two hundred people were arrested while protesting the Inauguration.) It was a triumph they attributed to civility, to good behavior, even to the superiority of their gender. “This is why women should be in charge of everything!” exclaimed some on social media, echoing the bonnet-wearers who schemed at the Palais Royal.

At Versailles, Louis XVI had a regiment of personal bodyguards, but he ordered them not to engage with the marchers; eventually, he dismissed them altogether. Instead, he tried to calm the revolt, first by feeding protesters from the vast Versailles stores, then by promising to address the Parisian shortage. The King could have had his royal guardsmen force the mob to disperse, but he clearly felt it was in his best interest not to fire on a crowd of women. The optics simply weren’t in his favor.

The streets of Washington, D.C. were almost entirely unimpeded the day after the Inauguration; the majority of the barriers that had blocked off traffic lay in neat stacks on street corners, leaving the city open for protesters to move freely. There were no intimidating lines of cops in riot gear, like you might see at a Black Lives Matter rally. Instead, the police presence was sparse and aloof. At one point, a cop rode on horseback down 7th Street amid a press of bodies, and the greatest threat was what the horse left behind. “Watch out for horseshit,” announced the woman behind us with a megaphone, and we shouted back “literal and metaphorical!”

Seventh Street was not on the permitted route. The crowd had overflowed its boundaries; the designated route was already packed full of women, and so we spilled into the Mall and any other space available. We would easily have been blocking traffic if anyone had been foolish enough to try driving around downtown. At times, we marched shoulder to shoulder; if we’d been told to get off the street, we couldn’t have complied if we had wanted to. And yet the mounted cop passed peacefully through the crowd, trailing shit.

Yes, the marchers on Saturday were well-behaved. But when has that ever mattered? John Lewis was beaten nearly to death for marching across a bridge in Selma. Ieshia Evans stood bare-armed and weaponless as police in body armor lunged towards her with plastic cuffs in Baton Rouge. If the cops want to arrest a protester, they will gladly turn her into a criminal—ordering her to disperse while making it physically impossible, for instance, or searching her with or without consent in an attempt to turn up something illegal. (At the march on Washington, organizers said that bags larger than 8 x 6 x 4 were not allowed. Many marchers carried larger bags under their coats. If any cops had checked, they could have had an excuse to detain us, but nobody did.) Bad behavior is enough to lead to arrests, but good behavior isn’t enough to avoid it. If the cops didn’t arrest anyone, it’s because they didn’t want to.

A glance at any Women’s March photo will give you a clue to the reason. Underneath those pink hats were a lot of white faces—a stark reminder of the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, as one protester reminded everyone with a sign that later went viral. The average marcher did not look like John Lewis, or like Ieshia Evans. The average marcher looked like me—a white lady. If I don’t look like someone a cop wants to arrest, that’s not a testament to my law-abiding goodness, or the cop’s. It’s a testament to how sexism in this country fuels racism, and vice versa. It’s a testament to exactly what we need to resist.

White women’s safety has long been used as an excuse and a vehicle for oppression. Indeed, our safety is fetishized to the point that we are often protected against our will: not the protection of a person, but the protection of property. Some white women revel in this and use it against others: as favorite toys, they can at least feel superior to those who are both dehumanized and disposable. Others recognize that a prized object in a locked case is still just a thing. But whether we like it or not, we are all subject to this dubious privilege: the privilege to be treated as a delicate, precious possession.

The safety of white women has been used as a pretext for lynching: Emmett Till whistled at a white woman, or at least that’s what they said when they murdered him. It’s been an engine for neo-Nazism: One slogan claims that white nationalism is the way “because the beauty of the white Aryan woman must not perish from this earth.” It’s been used to justify refusing trans women the right to use the bathroom in peace: Mere proximity to someone who has or at one time may have had a penis is considered to be a material threat to “our daughters and wives.” It’s constrained the rights and freedoms of white women themselves, who must be hobbled into permanent, quiet, decorative purity. And it’s fueled an incalculable amount of injustice towards black women, who stand at the intersection of these wrongs, a threat to white women’s fragility because of their skin color, an object because of their sex.

When police strap on their body armor and batons to face black men and women, when they goad them into illegal action and dispense swift punishment, the pretext for that violence is often that the protesters are “dangerous.” Dangerous to what? To property, sometimes, but also to ideals like “community” and “peace” and “our children and families.” But the people being beaten are communities, are children and families. So who is “us”? What is “ours”? Well, white men’s white wives and daughters. In other words, property again.

The high-fives of cops at the Women’s March and the blows raining down on BLM are the front and back of the same hand. If you think their uncharacteristic gentleness is a testament to your good behavior, think again. It comes from the same root as their violence: from the conviction that you are a delicate, breakable, and unthreatening thing.

It’s possible that Louis XVI underestimated what the thousands of women had come to him for, but his stand down was more likely equal measures of fear and respect for an enraged citizenry. By the time the crowd had forced its way into the palace, it was too late for decorum. A soldier fired, one marcher was killed, and the group surged forward and beheaded two royal guards. The king had no choice but to go with them, and the thousands of triumphant women escorted him and his family back to Paris on October 6, riding in a carriage under the watchful eye of the Marquis de Lafayette and the National Guard.

This is not the French Revolution. Effective protest does not require anyone having their head cut off. But it does require recognizing that this zero-arrest protest wasn’t something a largely white and female crowd earned. It was given to us, whether we asked for it our not, because of our frailty. Because we are something to be protected, not a serious threat. Because our safety has been the engine of our oppression and the oppression of others. We owe it to ourselves, and to those others, to use this gift wisely. If the police stay their hand with you, white women, it is not a compliment. It is condescension. But it is also an opportunity. How will you use it?