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Harriet Tubman Wouldn’t Have Worn a Pink Pussyhat

The suffrage movement made a point to exclude women of color.

The 2018 Women’s March in Las Vegas.
The 2018 Women’s March in Las Vegas.
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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Representation matters. We know that children get a self-esteem boost when they see themselves depicted in books. We know that three-dimensional portrayals of marginalized communities on the silver screen can shatter stereotypes, or at least poke holes in them. At its core, representation reinforces the idea that oppressed people are, in fact, human.

But intentionally or not, the pink pussyhat associated with the Women’s March overlooks the living, breathing bodies of multitudes of women. Not all women have vaginas, and those who do don’t necessarily have pink genitals. This fatal flaw is precisely why a photo Saturday of a Harriet Tubman statue in the hat horrified many black women.

To be clear, Tubman supported the women’s rights movement of the 1800s, and many of the abolitionists who supported her heroic efforts on the Underground Railroad campaigned for women’s suffrage. They included white women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. Tubman contributed by speaking in favor of women’s suffrage and discussing her experiences as a formerly enslaved woman. But the rights of black women primarily spurred Tubman to action, so much so that the sickly 74-year-old risked her health to speak at the inaugural meeting of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Due to the racism of white feminists, neither Tubman nor any other black women emerged as leaders in the general women’s suffrage movement. The white feminists involved organized racially segregated marches, refused to address virulent anti-black bigotry, and ignored black women’s work for the movement. While white women and black men jockeyed for voting rights, they ignored the idea that black women deserved suffrage, too. Anthony famously remarked, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”

Of course, by “woman,” Anthony meant white women, and the pink pussyhat conveys that message as well. Jayna Zweiman, co-creator of the Pussyhat Project, lists inclusivity, compassion, and creativity as the project’s core principles. She also acknowledges, “Some feel that the pink color of the hat excludes people of color from the project. Some feel that the hat is a literal symbol of female anatomy, promoting trans-exclusionary radical feminism.” Zweiman suggests that the outcry about the hats grew so loud that Women’s March organizers even considered leaving them out of the 2018 demonstration. That didn’t happen. Instead, a pink pussyhat found its way onto the Tubman statue.

The uproar about this turn of events is multifaceted. For one, Tubman risked her life to escape slavery and to free hundreds of others from bondage. In contrast, some of the marchers wearing pussyhats can’t be bothered to confront the Trump supporters in their own families, let alone reflect on the ways that white women perpetuate racism generally and the oppression of women of color specifically. Moreover, the pink hue of the pussyhat — the sartorial symbol of 21st-century womanhood — erases black and brown women just as Anthony and her ilk erased them in the 1800s.

Rather than engage the history of anti-blackness in the feminist movement, I’ve seen white women on social media insist that Tubman would’ve loved having a pink pussyhat on her head, that the color represents all women, and, most absurdly, that all women have some variation of pink genitals. In arguing that the backlash is much ado about nothing, they once again serve to silence the very real concerns of women of color who do not feel represented by the hats or by white feminism period. By saying that the hats represent “all women,” they’re really just arguing that “all women” are white.

In “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess,” a 1996 essay that appeared in Ms. Magazine, author Sandra Cisneros makes the case that representation matters — even down there. She describes how unsettled she felt after seeing a white woman’s “pink and shiny” genitals while watching a pornographic film.

“I think what startled me most was the realization that my own sex has no resemblance to this woman’s,” Cisneros wrote. “My sex, dark as an orchid, rubbery and blue-purple as pulpo, an octopus, does not look nice and tidy, but otherworldly. I do not have little rosette nipples. My nipples are big and brown like the coins of my childhood.”

When some women of color encounter the pink pussyhats, they no doubt feel the same alarm that Cisneros describes. The hats have no connection to their bodies, making the movement with which they’re affiliated feel needlessly alien.

More than a century separates the women’s suffrage movement from the Women’s March. While 19th-century feminists relegated women of color to the sidelines, black and brown women serve as leaders of the Women’s March. That marks significant progress. But until the protest’s most visible symbol changes, many women of color will continue to feel that this march isn’t really theirs.