Marches and Protests Won’t Change Things Overnight, but They Can Change Times

A group of women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, led by Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Martha Wright On July 19, 1848. At this convention, the women wrote and signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which said that the “history of mankind” was built on “repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward women.”

The declaration was not widely well received. In fact, many newspapers attacked the convention. The Philadelphia Public Ledger responded by saying: “A woman is nobody. A wife is everything,” while the Lowell Courier mocked the convention, saying “they should have resolved at the same time that it was obligatory to wash dishes.”

Then, in 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.

It’s easy to get discouraged with the state of politics in America, and even easier to say it’s pointless to try to change things. After all, what have protests actually accomplished recently?

Nathan Heller of The New Yorker asks if “is it just a bit of social theater that we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right?” It certainly seems that way these days. Countless social movements have sprung up in the last decade such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the Flint Water Crisis protestors, and the protests against Donald Trump, among so many others.

And nothing is changing.

Then again, nothing changed for Stanton, Mott, and Wright either. None of them lived to see the 19th Amendment ratified. But the 19th Amendment was ratified and that’s the important thing.

People like to get discouraged when protests seem to do nothing but it’s important to keep in mind that change, especially the kind of change people like Stanton wanted, takes time.

A. Kauffman, author of Direct Action, says that “It’s the movements that… are willing to do bold action over time, that are the most successful.” A single day of protest changes nothing, but continuous protests, coupled with several other factors can change the world.

Of course, there are innumerable factors that go into change. It’s not just enough to march on the streets, demanding change. Persistence is a major factor in the success of social movements.

In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. had a 63 percent disapproval rating according to Gallup polls, which is three points higher than President Trump’s most recent rating. Now, King has a holiday dedicated to him. There is always backlash and resistance to change but to actually bring change, it’s important to keep going.

Inclusivity is another important factor. Zian Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University, says that “this strong tendency to want to be ideologically pure,” only serves to drive away potential allies.

Nonviolence is absolutely another major component. A study done by Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton, found that proximity to “black-led violent protests” substantially determined whether a county would vote Democrat or Republican in the 60’s and “likely tipped the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.”

There’s a lot that goes into change and it’s impossible to tell how much of an impact a protest will have. The only thing that can be said is that we should not dismiss any movement as insignificant or worthless and we cannot ignore the time-tested tool of protesting.

After all, Stanton, Mott, and Wright were dismissed as “excessively silly,” “shocking and unnatural,” and “unwomanly” by three different Syracuse newspapers. None of those papers exist any longer while we all remember the Seneca Falls Convention.

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