Protests don’t work. Yes, I’ve said it. I’ve been an activist for over 30 years, spending a whole lot of time shouting slogans and waving signs, but I’ve been known to say it and will say it again. Protests don’t work. But, let me go a little deeper here and share what’s inspired this post.
On August 18th, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed giving women in the US the right to vote. (We could get into the discussion of who exactly got the right to vote, but that’s another post for another time.) Historical societies and museums across the country are celebrating the 100th anniversary of this amazing victory right now with exhibits, documentaries, and educational events. Yesterday, a friend and I went to visit the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison to view their exhibit on suffrage. It was an excellent display and I would encourage anyone in the area to check it out.
As we wandered and viewed the images my friend questioned whether some of the tactics used by the suffragettes might provide lessons for organizers today. Could we use any of the same tools? She lamented that protests and rallies no longer work because of the fact that we live in a world of social media in which messages move so quickly and can so easily be modified. I proposed that protests have never worked and never will, at least not on their own.
Protests are only a tool. It is the actions between the protests and behind the scenes that make the work successful or not. Protesting remains important, if well used. It is a tool that can draw public attention and influence decision makers. However, it is important not to expect that protesting on its own is going to bring change. A large portion of the museum display was dedicated to the banners, signs, buttons, sashes, and tunics worn and used during fight for the vote and later fight for the ERA. This makes sense as they are very visual pieces of history. Still, it only shows us the highlights of what was really a much more complex history.
In the 1820’s, one hundred years before the amendment was to pass, white men had gained the right to vote in most states and discussions had begun about this right for women. By 1948, the movement solidified through the Seneca Falls convention. For nearly one hundred years women met, discussed, strategized, argued. They built partnerships and alliances. They wrote letters, created newspapers, handed out pamphlets, spoke to handfuls and to huge crowds of people. They coordinated conferences. Women, and some men, committed their lives to this issue of justice. Some would never see the results of their work as they would die before the passage of the amendment.
We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that social change is some sort of fast food where we head up to the capitol or wherever to protest and come home with our win. There is much more. The struggles are long and hard, but the victories and the loves found along the way are well worth it. Take good care of yourselves my friends and keep on moving forward.