"The Burning Question"

The Burning Question

Are marches and protests an effective way of bringing about political change?

by Edward Onaci
Assistant Professor of History

Among the various forms of political action at people’s disposal, public demonstrations such as marches draw quite a bit of attention. The Women’s March that followed the inauguration of Donald Trump is just one example of a century-long legacy. Although they tend to generate a lot of “buzz” and bring necessary attention to issues, marches alone do not guarantee political change. They never have, and never will, substitute the quotidian political work (whether it be grassroots or on Capitol Hill) that influences policy. However, when done in conjunction with daily activity, they can be effective.

A number of important marches have taken place at various historical moments. Most people are probably familiar with the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Less familiar in United States history is the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. Led by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the parade and pageant occurred one day prior to the inauguration of president-elect Woodrow Wilson. Alice Paul and her co-organizers hoped to use the theatrical public event to pressure the incoming president to push for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee women’s right to vote.

Although 8,000 women were reported to attend and participate, the United States would not guarantee their right to vote for several years. However, Paul and others continued the decades-long struggle to exercise the ballot until they achieved their goals. Thereafter, they directed their attention toward what would be known as the Equal Rights Amendment.

On August 26, 1970, women went on strike to celebrate 50 years of the franchise, but also to protest what they considered as persistent barriers to their freedom. The estimated 50,000 women of varying, though decidedly left-of-center, political positions marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City and demanded legal abortion, 24/7 childcare, and equal pay for equal work. Like their predecessors in 1913, the historic event overlapped with consistent grassroots organizing and lobbying. Also like their predecessors, they won some important concessions and saw the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

While the National Organization for Women and “women’s libbers,” their leftist counterparts, were organizing and demonstrating for equal rights, a conservative powerhouse, Phyllis Schlafly was organizing to stall and eventually defeat the ratification of the ERA. In a 2008 essay, Historians Donald T. Critchlow and Cynthia L. Stachecki indicate that Schlafly and her allies were successful because their relatively quiet, state-focused strategy, ultimately gave them the upper hand.

Considering these examples, The Women’s March on January 21 continued a legacy of over a century of American women’s activism. Although it is easy to become fixated on the people in the streets, their signs, and the imaginative costumes, participants and onlookers must keep in mind that marches often accompany long-term, quotidian, and sometimes athletic, civic participation; they are not replacements.

Although marches do not make direct political change, they do bring attention to issues and help promote the very difficult work that dedicated citizens and residents do every day in their attempts to help make their families and communities healthier and safer, in their attempts to bring their visions of democracy and justice to the nation.

Professor Onaci, who holds a Ph.D. from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, teaches courses in cultures of resistance, modern American history, women’s political struggles and African American history.