One Year Later: Faculty, Students on Impact of Women's March, Social Movements

More than five million marchers took to the streets on Jan. 21, 2017, for the historic Women's March. Almost a year later, Twitter erupted with personal stories of sexual assault and harassment as the hashtag "MeToo" went viral in the wake of revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Women's March, we asked faculty and students to share their thoughts on these powerful social movements and their impact on the issues they bring to the fore.

Thinking about the social movements that recently focused on women's issues and led by women in the past year, what should we pay attention to in terms of how these events are covered by the media?

Amanda Martinez, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies & Sociology

Media framing is important to keep a critical eye on when learning about the movements through the lens of both the mainstream news media outlets and various social media platforms–some of which may be lay-user created, thanks to the accessibility and ease afforded by social media platforms.

Media frame issues by crafting messages that focus our attention on particular aspects of a given communication setting or media event, which occurs through images (including angles, literal frames and other photographic techniques), filmed content (including segments cut and strewn together to capture a particular message), and even the word choices in headlines and descriptions of events, vocal and other nonverbal emphasis in reporting, and who/what about the movements and events receive attention in the first place.

Social media and lay-user-created content can serve an important function by diversifying the information and subsequent framing we receive about social movements and media events that gain traction in mainstream media. Social media users may provide important counter-frames of movements and media events by showcasing different interpretations and experiences from the events themselves, which is quite powerful for audiences in gaining access to a wider range of narratives around the movements and issues that de-center the all-powerful, top-down mass media.

While clicking "share" via social media can feel empowering, we should remain engaged beyond social media "slacktivism," the term to describe participation in movements only from the perch of our social media screens, by also participating in many different forms of activism outside of media consumption. We can also enhance our ongoing critical media literacy skills by seeking out news from a variety of outlets to see how the movements may be communicated differently to mass media audiences.

How do social movements differ from organizations and institutions?

Rebecca Ruhlen, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology

This has been a remarkable year for feminist activism. One interesting thing about the Women's March and #MeToo movements is how effective they have been at drawing in broad participation and breaking new ground despite–or due to?–constant internal dissent. People accustomed to thinking of a social movement the way they might think about a corporation, or a government, can be really confused by constant arguing amongst the movement's participants about what they stand for, who's included, and how to move forward. But the truth is that activism has always been messy this way, because human beings are messy this way. 

You've documented the histories of Native American women, who are too often left out of the narrative of U.S. history. Do modern social movements, such as the Women's March or #MeToo, lift the voices of women who remain marginalized (and if so, how)?

Rose Stremlau, Assistant Professor of History

Social media has fundamentally changed power dynamics within social movements. The predominantly white, Protestant, and economically privileged women who led the mainstream organizations of the First and Second Waves of the women's movement in the United States had tremendous power to silence–and only occasionally amplify–women of color, working class women, lesbians, non-Christian and immigrant women. Particularly during the Second Wave, many of these women ultimately sought to organize within their own communities rather than create alliances with white-majority organizations. (It is important to remember that male-dominated organizations within their own racial, ethnic, etc. communities often marginalized these women, too.)

Today, these smaller, often less-well-resourced organizations don't depend on mainstream groups to reach broad audiences. The successful and skillful use of social media has enabled hashtags like #sayhername, which calls attention to African American women who have been victims of police brutality, and #NotInvisible and #MMIW, which raises awareness of the disproportionally high number of missing and murdered Indigenous/American Indian/Native American women in the United States and Canada, to go viral and these messages to reach broad audiences. The playing field for public awareness and support is far from level, but the power of, for example, the young Native leaders in the #NoDAPL movement (many of whom are female), to move millions around the world to their cause is without question.

What sets social media activism apart?

Susan Roberts, Associate Professor of Political Science

Scholars acknowledge that activism and movements need a sense of collective oppression and a means of communication. Social media, especially Twitter, has totally transformed that means of communication. Hashtag politics can provide quick response to wide audiences. In the case of #StandWithPlannedParenthood, #ShoutYourAbortion, and #MeToo, women get the anonymity through Twitter that can give voice to previously very private and disturbing events. From those voices can come a strong sense of agency and even advocacy.

Roberts was quoted in today's Charlotte Observer article, titled "Charlotte Women's March: Impact a year later."

How have movements like the Women's March and #MeToo affected or motivated you personally? 

Laney O'Shea '19, President and founder of Planned Parenthood Generation Action group

There is a very strong push to recognize sexual assault on college campuses and all over this country, though many politicians and their constituents have failed to see it as an issue. #MeToo is one social media/youth-based version of activism that worked to combat the fact that sexual assault is often not being taken seriously. To see the number of women who supported the #MeToo movement was shocking, but also inspiring. To announce a sexual assault online, for the world to see, is an act of bravery. #MeToo and the Women's March, movements show that there is power in numbersof survivors and their allies.

While this activism is important, and the amount of support received by these movements is amazing, it's crucial that we continue to be activists year-round. Further, it's important to note that the issues we fight by supporting the Women's March and #MeToo disproportionately impact transgender women, disabled women and women of color. The problem we are trying to combat will persist beyond hashtags or marches; it is up to us–through our bravery and persistence–to empower those who have been oppressed.

Lisa Patterson