Signs at the Women’s March on D.C. show more than a simple message

Signs ranging from political to comical displayed unity and commitment to women’s rights in D.C.

The initial reaction

As I emerged from the Metro tunnel onto the street, I was stunned by the sight of thousands of people flooding towards downtown Washington D.C. to march in favor of women’s rights. The air was filled with excitement and conversations buzzed around me. Glancing at my surroundings, I found people in different outfits including t-shirts with feminist slogans, pink knitted hats and most importantly, tennis shoes to prepare for the miles they would walk that day. Their clothing choices might have varied, but these people all had one thing in common: they were carrying signs. Men, women and children held mass-produced signs, homemade signs with original content, signs with famous quotes, political signs and humorous signs.

There was a three-year-old child perched on her mother’s shoulders with a sign covered in crayon scribbles that symbolized her expression and involvement without words. There was a man holding a sign that said, “Weak men fear strong women,” which symbolized his understanding of the importance of the movement, casting off the idea that supporting this movement indicated a hatred of men. There was a sign held by an elderly woman that read, “I can’t believe I’m still marching for this,” that showed the exasperation felt by her generation. There was an eight-year-old holding a sign that said “In ten years I can vote,” that portrayed the next generation’s stance. These were just four signs out of hundreds that caught my eye as a sea of people flooded the roads leading up to the Capitol on the way to the White House.

The people

There were hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington D.C. to march for women’s rights and they took various roads to get there.  Some were motivated by different causes, but in that moment they were unified. A large factor in that unification was the thousands of signs made and carried by marchers.

For a country struggling with class, racial and gender divides, the march was a place for people in all walks of life to come together and stand up for a cause they not only deemed worthy, but necessary. At the march, the signs were an external indicator of the intentions of participants and served as the glue that bound these differences together. Signs bridged the gap with a visual communicator by eliminating the possibility of misconception and replacing perception with reality.

Lee Mueller, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, traveled eight hours by bus to attend the march.  She said, “The group that I was with, including myself, were all white, and so the signs were a visible identification that you were with the march. You knew everyone with a sign was on your side and it created a sense of community.” She acknowledged the anger felt by some of the participants because of the number of white women who voted for Trump in the election and stressed the sense of relief that holding the sign brought her. “I really feel like it showed those around me that I was fighting the same fight as them.”

People all around the world participated in the march for different reasons. For some, it was reproductive rights, for others it was gender equality and still more for the general fear felt in response to the changing government in Washington D.C. The signs gave marchers a chance to vocalize that reason. It united people, it sparked conversations and it broadened people’s mindsets. Signs were also a way to convey a message to many people without stopping to converse. It was possibly a way to voice more uncomfortable opinions that marchers wouldn’t normally voice in their daily lives. Instead of speaking with each person you encountered, you could quickly glance around and understand why this march was important to the people there. The signs also presented a way for participants to forge connections with fellow marchers. Kayla Seigler, a student at UNC-Charlotte, carried a sign specific to her university. “I actually found a couple other people who I go to school with because of my sign,” she said. “I had never met them, but we exchanged numbers and planned to keep in touch after the march.”

The effects of signs

Additionally, the signs were a symbol of commitment. Not only did marchers take time out of their day to attend the march, they also felt compelled to make a sign specifying their hopes of long-term results. Sarah Lerner, a resident of the D.C. area said, “It was thousands of voices expressing themselves on cardboard, which is more action than just simply showing up.” She mentioned that because of her geographic proximity, attending the march was not a huge effort to make and so she wanted to show other marchers that she was passionate about the cause in another way — by making a sign.

There was some debate over the long-term effects of the signs. Mueller did admit that she believes that the primary purpose of the signs was an outlet for the personal purpose of each marcher, rather than a message to political figures. “I think the true message that was received was the sheer number of people behind the signs,” she said. However, Tucker Morgan, a senior at Trinity College said, “I think signs do make a difference to political figures as it gives them some insight into the issues people feel strongest about.” Lerner held a third opinion. “I don’t really care if my sign sent a message,” she said. “The important part is that it allowed me to use my voice to express my opinion.”

Signs and social media 

The fact that this march took place in the 21st century, where social media was able to come into play, only adds to the importance of signs. Thousands of photos of signs surfaced in the days after the march, constantly providing visual evidence of the sheer number of people who attended the march. Morgan from Trinity College said, “The fact that, through social media, the signs could be quickly circulated and turned into memes, tremendously increased the impact they had.”

Unfortunately, the presence of social media also opened the event to criticism. One downfall of the signs was the lack of gender inclusion felt by the transgender community. The repetitive visualization of female reproductive organs that were displayed across hundreds of signs alienated a significant number of marchers that consider themselves intrinsic to the women’s rights movement. The appearance of the signs on social media also allowed the images to be altered by those who opposed the movement. The Internet was able to analyze signs over an extended amount of time and eventually twisted the meaning of signs produced with pure motives into harsh and judgmental phrases.

What now?

Now that the march is over, most participants have gone back home to return to their lives. However, what remains are the thousands of signs lining Pennsylvania Avenue, sending every message the protestors deemed worthy of carrying throughout the streets of Washington DC to the new president. Seigler from UNC-Charlotte compared this to how one would leave a memento or bouquet of flowers at a grave. “I got that impression because I think that many women did feel like they lost something after the election.” She went on to compare her view of the neatly and strategically placed signs to a compilation of art in a museum. This comment was a foreshadowing of what was to come, because on Monday morning, many universities and art institutions began collecting the signs as pieces of history to preserve for decades to come. So although the march was over, the messages placed on the signs will be safeguarded for future generations to see and remember.

Each participant in the march came as an individual, but they left with a sense of community. Mueller from UNC-Chapel Hill said, “I can’t say enough positive things about the march. It gave me so much hope and was easily one of the most memorable weekends of my life.” The signs were the messages voiced by thousands every day across the world. The march allowed people to put faces to those holding the messages.

Looking forward

Just as an exit sign on the highway signals a new town, the signs at the Women’s March signaled a promise to fight for change, a promise to be an ally and a promise to not forget where this country has been and where it needs to go. At the end of the day, the signs were more than a piece of poster board with words scribbled on it, but they were a symbol of the future, of what is to come and of promises left up and down the streets of the Capitol. The Women’s March on D.C. produced images that will be engrained in history for years to come and will serve as a source of hope for the country as it adapts to the new administration.

Edited by Avery Williams