The reason some feminists are ditching the pussyhats and going in a new direction

Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon read a poem she wrote for the 2017 Women’s March rally in Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza.
Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon read a poem she wrote for the 2017 Women’s March rally in Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza.

A year ago, they stormed the streets of big cities and small towns to make their views known: Women’s rights are human rights. Many wore on their heads what became the de facto symbol of feminism in 2017: the pink pussyhat.

The Women’s March is back in 2018, with its Power to the Polls anniversary protests this weekend. The focus during this Women’s March reboot is to register more women to vote, and to elect women and progressive candidates to public office.

But this time, when marchers take to the streets in cities from Lansing, Mich., to Las Vegas, there could be fewer pink pussyhats in the crowds.

The reason: The sentiment that the pink pussyhat excludes and is offensive to transgender women and gender nonbinary people who don’t have typical female genitalia and to women of color because their genitals are more likely to be brown than pink.

“I personally won’t wear one because if it hurts even a few people’s feelings, then I don’t feel like it’s unifying,” said Phoebe Hopps, founder and president of Women’s March Michigan and organizer of anniversary marches Jan. 21 in Lansing and Marquette, Mich.

“I care more about mobilizing people to the polls than wearing one hat one day of the year.”

The state and national organizations, she said, have tried “to move away from the pussyhats for several months now, and are not making it the cornerstone of our messaging because … there’s a few things wrong with the message.

“It doesn’t sit well with a group of people that feel that the pink pussyhats are either vulgar or they are upset that they might not include trans women or nonbinary women or maybe women whose (genitals) are not pink.”

For the Saturday march in Lexington, the sentiment is the same. Karen Conley, vice president for the state National Organization for Women, said this year’s march will have a different focus from last year’s.

“This year we’re about getting people mobilized,” she said. “Our theme is ‘Power to the Polls.’ We want to reclaim our state and turn Kentucky blue (Democratic) again.”

The Lexington march will feature diverse speakers and will emphasize the importance of policies and political candidates that reflect the concerns of women. The organization isn’t promoting the wearing of pink hats, she said.

“We have about 15 Democratic candidates who will be there. We’re hoping for a revolutionary year,” she said.

The concept of the pussyhat grew from an idea that Krista Suh had when talking with her friend Jayna Zweiman after the 2016 presidential election. They wanted to find a way for protesters to make a strong, unifying visual statement during the inaugural Women’s March on Washington.

They launched the Pussyhat Project, hoping that their matching pink hats would do not only that but would allow activists who couldn’t get to Washington for the big national march to show their support for women’s rights in other places.

Pink was chosen “because pink is associated with femininity,” the Pussyhat Project posted on its website. “We did not choose the color pink as a representation of some people’s anatomy. Anyone who supports women’s rights is welcome to wear a pussyhat. It doesn’t matter if you have a vulva or what color your vulva may be. If a participant wants to create a pussyhat that reflects the color of her vulva, we support her choice.”

They named it the Pussyhat Project as a play on words, referencing the way Trump bragged in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape about groping unsuspecting women.

“The original hat has these adorable cat ears, so ‘pussyhat’ also is a play on ‘pussy cat.’ … The word ‘pussy’ is often used in a derogative way,” Zweiman told the Free Press in a January 2017 interview. “Pussy is a very charged word; I’m now very used to saying it, but it’s interesting to hear people talk about the word, and how they feel about the word. These are conversations we all need to have. The discussions are around what is this word? What does it mean? A lot of it is constructive dialogue.”

The hats were so popular in the run-up to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington that there was a run on hot pink yarn in Michigan. Shops couldn’t keep it on their shelves.

Knitters made the hats by the dozens, selling pussyhats online and donating proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Some handed out pussyhats free to other marchers not only in Washington, but at sister marches in Lansing, Detroit and Ann Arbor.

But since then, the idea has begun to sour among some feminists.

Lilianna Angel Reyes, a transgender woman of color who will speak at the Lansing march, said she will wear a pink pussyhat — if she can find one in time.

“I’m trying to get one of my friends to crochet one for me,” said Reyes, the program services director at Affirmations in Ferndale, a nonprofit organization serving people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. She also is the co-executive director of the Trans Sistas of Color Project.

To Reyes, the sea of pink that came with the Women’s March movement was welcoming from its inception.

“I definitely understand that there are people that are concerned that the pussyhat, the pink cat hat, is very specific for people with vaginas,” Reyes said. “But … it was a very specific thing, … specific to when President Trump said ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy,’ and so to me it was a play on words that shows power. I also think for me, it’s more symbolic.

“There are people who believe that because not only is it a pink pussy, which can mean only white women, that it could be a race and a gender thing.

“For me, it doesn’t read that way.”

She was included in this swell of feminism in a way that other movements for women’s rights excluded her.

“When I was at the March on Washington, I felt so included,” Reyes said. “I felt embraced. It was a beautiful thing. I never once felt excluded for my trans-ness or my woman of color-ness. I never had that experience at the March on Washington, or at the women’s conference, and I’m sure I won’t have it at the March on Lansing.

“What’s important is that I personally think people are missing is that … people make mistakes … the people who organize the marchers tried as hard as they could. I know a lot of trans women who were part of the organizing and part of the speaking. I know a lot of women of color, too. I spoke at the women’s conference, I’m speaking at the Women’s March on Lansing and they’ve reached out to me on a number of other occasions.

“I think at some point, I do preach the impact versus the intentionality.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

The Women’s March chapter in Pensacola, Fla., posted to its Facebook page that it is discouraging marchers from wearing the hats to this year’s event.

“The Pink P … ssy hat reinforces the notion that woman vagina and vagina woman, and both of these are incorrect. Additionally, the Pink P … ssy Hat is white-focused and Eurocentric in that it assumes that all vaginas are pink; this is also an incorrect assertion,” it posted to its Facebook page. The post has been shared more than 1,200 times.

“The Pensacola Women’s March organizers understand that this idea was a knee-jerk reaction to the heinous, sexist, misogynistic Trump administration, but it is also just that: a knee-jerk reaction, not fully thought out. Therefore, we ask that march goers refrain from wearing this hat and instead, pick an alternative headwear that focuses on collective women’s liberation for all women: transgender women, multinational women, disabled women, queer women — the most marginalized.”

Staff writer Sally Scherer contributed to this report.

If you go

Women’s March Lexington, 2018

When: 2 p.m. Jan. 20

Where: Fayette Circuit Courthouse, 120 N. Limestone