Last Saturday, after an early march around the block holding signs and flags, a mellow morning crowd camped out on the sloping great lawn at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College, still damp from the previous evening’s rain. Aunties in tie-dye swayed to ’60s protest songs, teenagers held risque and amusing “Pussies Grab Back” and “Trump Don’t Surf” signs, and little kids and dogs trotted happily and cluelessly around. One man held court at a table, talking to people about campaign finance reform. Another held a rainbow flag that merrily ordered to “Make America Gay Again.” There was a food drive for the Maui Food Bank. It was more of a peaceful stroll and morning concert on a beautiful Maui morning than an angry protest.
It was a noticeably different vibe than the first nationwide Women’s March in January 2017, after the ugly presidential election that left many shocked and spooked. Then, a huge and energized crowd gathered at UHMC, Maui’s impromptu political gathering ground, and took to the street in unification with millions worldwide in a protest of a president who is no friend to women’s issues.
Two years later, they’re still marching, though their numbers have dwindled. On Maui, the talented Deborah Vial – who I interviewed two years ago about her role in the march and its aftermath – headlined, sharing the stage seamlessly with Ha‘iku born-and-raised Nara Boone, Justin Morris of Brown Chicken Brown Cow String Band, and a smattering of other talented Maui musicians. Despite the fact that the concept of a march is akin to a protest, the mission of the Maui march is for something, and not, at its heart, against anything:
The intention of the Women’s March Maui 2019 is to demonstrate our community’s continued commitment to unity, kindness, acceptance, and aloha for all. We stand against acts of oppression, and are dedicated to building inclusive systems that support economic, political, social, racial, and environmental justice.
Despite that overarching focus, there were plenty of individual attendees who were resisting something. Environmental issues, women’s rights, reproductive health, LGBTQ equality, healthcare, campaign finance reform, gun reform, and a food bank drive were all given attention. One of the criticisms of the Women’s March has been that there’s no unified message because it’s possible to have different opinions about those issues, and a potential protester might not want to stand behind all of them. But to those present, the diversity of thought seemed ultimately a strength: a way for people to gather and express themselves, not cohesively but in a way that helps them feel seen and be seen by others.
It’s just that fewer people are feeling the need to do so.
There is a lot to explain the dwindling crowd. Some are sick of the circus of contentious national politics, or overwhelmed by the daily reports of collusion and scandal, and have tuned out of the “House of Cards” meets “Days of Our Lives” daily news. The Women’s March has not been without scandal too, as the national movement fractured following disagreement over some leaders’ support for the anti-semitic Louis Farrakhan. Others, always feeling the physical distance from Washington D.C., are more focused on local political movements that seem more relevant. Maui, located as we are in the Pacific, can seem distant – not just geographically but also ideologically.
Just a few days before, in the exact same spot at UHMC, a crowd gathered to mark ‘Onipa‘a, the overthrow of Queen Lili‘u‘okalani, a striking instance of a woman getting something forcibly taken from her: her kingdom. Native Hawaiians have always known injustice and inequality and distrust of the American government, which others have begun to recognize in a broader sense under a president who has cut taxes for the ultra-wealthy, imprisoned brown children at the border, and has shut down the government to try to build a wall to keep immigrants out of what was once indigenous lands. These issues are not new, just easier to see now with lighting-quick communication and an emboldened racist facet of the American nation.
Which, in fact, brings me to another uncomfortable criticism of the march, both nationally and here on Maui: It was very white.
Which is not to criticize the march, but rather to think critically about it and what it stands for. The Maui march conscientiously distanced itself from the national march, which has been embroiled in a bit of scandal regarding anti-semitism and a lack of central messaging, with positive messages toward unity and aloha. And, despite the fact that Hawai‘i has its unique ecosystem of politics and concerns, we are not immune to national injustices and lasting discriminations against women. It can be frustrating to talk about, because many of us are already aware of the gender pay gap, the “Me Too” movement, and the horrifying, rapey new Supreme Court Justice who will make decisions that affect every American citizen for decades to come.
But awareness of an issue doesn’t solve it. I work in one of the more progressive environments on Maui, teaching at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. Yet, my department chair is man. My boss is a man, and his boss is a man, and his boss is a man, and yes, his boss, the president of the community colleges, is also a man. Research shows that in almost every classroom observed, boys speak more than girls, even when girls outnumber the boys. Here in our county, there is a Mayor’s Clerical Repricing Committee, which has been working for years on the fact that primarily male, unskilled blue-collar county workers make significantly more than primarily female, skilled white-collar workers.
At the march on Saturday, women held signs like “Lei Off My Body,” and “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” Some conservatives have decried this growing awareness of women’s oppression as a “war on men.” There is a hard-to-attribute quote floating around the internet that goes something like this: “To the privileged, equality can feel like oppression.” Men have taken a privileged position in American society which manifests politically, economically, in the home, in the workplace, and on the streets. Pointing that out can cause contention, as we’ve seen over and over again, recently from the much-discussed Gillette commercial featuring “woke” men who confront toxic masculinity. A lot of people liked it, and it also triggered a lot of people for its virtue signaling and finger-pointing. None of us want to think that we are a part of a problem, a system that oppresses and undermines women.
In the end, these issues are complex and touchy, with solutions that won’t come easily but only with difficult discussion, critical thinking, and soul-searching about our identities, our actions – conscious and unconscious – and what we want our nation to be. Sometimes the only thing to do is to march on.