An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 1: Finding Communitas, Feminist Style

Mass of Demonstrators in Front of Capitol 1, cropped
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction.  On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another.  Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water.  In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.”  Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals.  But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves.  Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last.  On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
Indeed, after it was over, yesterday’s march in the nation’s capital felt, if anything, infinitely grander and more important when we learned of the 600 or so sister marches around the world attracting some 2 million protestors, begun on Facebook and coordinated by the miracle of social media.
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I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.  But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
A, H, Mina, Charlotte on Subway
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped more
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges.  One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing.  And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy.  Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue.  And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march!  Start the march!” some began chanting.  And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers.  Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose.  Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land.  And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory.  Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
Latina Girls with Posters
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Muslim Woman Holding Poster (LS Photo) cropped
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Poster-We Are All Immigrants (LS Photo)
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
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I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day.  The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power.  Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.

15 comments

  • Jennifer Nourse

    Alma, This is fantastic!!! I plan on using this in my theory class and sex and gender class. Thanks! Can’t wait to read more!

    • admin

      Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your kind comment. I’m delighted you enjoyed the post and touched that you’ll share it with your students! Let me know what you think of the second post.

  • Bunny Berg

    Alma! I do hope you are right about the communitas of the day. Kerry and I marched in the Champaign/Urbana parade which was about 5000 strong. I had a real feeling of community when at 10:45am ( the event was set to start at 11am) many people from our neighborhood started to walk toward West Side Park to march.
    Alex and Sinead marched “with you” in DC. Brendan tried to march in LA but the crowds were overwhelming during the journey there.
    I remember lying down in the street to protest the Vietnam war in Ann Arbor when I was in my teens. Let us all continue to voice our opinions about what our new government intends to do or actually does.

    • admin

      Thanks so much, Bunny, for your comment! Wonderful that you felt the same community spirit in the C-U march. Too bad I missed Alex and Sinead in DC. Well, there were a few people there . . .:)
      Philip’s and my new protest venue is Indivisible. If you haven’t joined yet, I suggest you consider signing up (for free)!

  • Carrie Douglass

    Yes, and I missed Edie on this day. She would have smiled her biggest smile and laughed her biggest laugh.

  • Carolyn Fluehr Lobban

    Thank you Alma for this grassroots report, better than any journalist’s report that I read or saw. Your use of ‘communitas’ to describe the spontaneous social order is brilliant and appropriate. The Resistance has begun.
    Carolyn in Cranston

  • Thanks for sharing this with us Alma. Your insights and your gift with words makes the event all the more real and promising for those of us who could not attend.

    • admin

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Janet. There are so many ways to participate in the political process these days. The massive campaign of phone calls and e-mails to our reps and even signing online petitions seems to be having an effect.

  • Admiration for all the women and their commitment and time to come together for an important cause during a frightening time in our great country. We must all be vigilant and wary standing firm together.

  • Wonderful!! I am the younger sister of Edie Turner. We talked for hours about communitas while she was writing her book, and it is amazing to see and read about this happening in such a context. It would surely have been in her book! In Leipzig, history was changed by this most potent energy of the power of love. Indeed the betterment of the world is in the hands of the women.
    This was foreseen in 1912 by Abd’ul Baha who wrote about the future of women after visiting America. He had just been released from life-long imprisonment by the Ottoman Empire.
    “In the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, women are advancing
    side by side with men. There is no area or instance where
    they will lag behind: they have equal rights with men, and
    will enter, in the future, into all branches of the administration of society.
    Such will be their elevation that, in every area of
    endeavour, they will occupy the highest levels in the human
    world….”
    and again:
    “So it will come to pass that when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world, when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease”

  • Elizabeth Challinor

    Reading this was very moving and also made me think of Jean-Luc Nancy’s ideas regarding “being singular plural”.
    The march – not the show – must go on!

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