The Women’s March in Washington had three times more people in attendance than did President Trump’s inauguration. Many have argued about the reasons for these numbers (see here, here, and here), and used them both individually and together to make claims about activism and political support. But something is missing from these conversations. In order to fully understand the differences in attendance at these events in D.C., and to avoid taking these numbers to mean something they do not, we must account for class and race.
Gender, education and race may have been the biggest rifts in voters this past presidential election, but class is part of this political shift. At least part of why people didn’t show up for President Trump’s inauguration in droves but did show up to the Women’s Marches is a story of class privilege and the cultural capital that comes with it. Upper middle class white women and urban dwellers from all classes had easy access to Women’s Marches, both in D.C. and around the country. Many of Trump’s voters would have had to fly to D.C. Because research shows that only about 50% of the population in the US flies each year, and because that tracks with income and education, Women’s March supporters may have been more likely to fly than Trump voters were. If we look at data from just the five counties with the largest vote share for Trump, we see that, except for Buchanan, Virginia, these locations present great travel distance. Further, President Trump received 4.1% of the vote in Washington, D.C., and lost in surrounding states by large percentages. As CNN points out, a trip to inauguration would be a long one for a critical mass of Trump supporters.
White voters from rural areas and those without a college education represent the largest demographics to turn out for Trump. Many of Trump’s supporters reside in more rural areas that are struggling economically. Cost and familiarity with travel, ease and options in taking time off of work, and geographic proximity to D.C. may have affected participation in Inauguration events. Sociologists talk about cultural capital—or the non-financial goods that help with social mobility beyond economic means. Such capital can include knowledge, skills, and education—things that are both material and symbolic. When Emily lived in rural Arkansas, many people she met had never left the state or in some cases even the county. Indeed, when she told a friend there that she flew home for Christmas and it cost $70, he was surprised that a plane ticket cost less than it did to fill up his truck, because he’d never flown before. Emily’s knowledge of air travel is a form of cultural capital, and one that could put her at an advantage in planning a trip to fly to Washington, D.C. for the March. There is an intimidation that comes from not having done that or been there before—your cultural capital can determine how well versed you are in navigating AirBnB and the slew of cheap flight websites that exist.
Why was the Women’s March so highly attended? Many have analyzed the mass turn-out in D.C., nationally, and internationally. For the first time, the Women’s March brought out highly educated, more affluent white women who have the forms of capital to plan and attend a weekend in D.C. Of course, there were many—millions, in fact—who did not go to D.C., but who showed support in sister marches around the country and globe. For many, their lack of attendance in D.C. could be due to the same barriers that perhaps inhibited many from attending the Inauguration. For others, their participation was possible because demographics likely to participate in Women’s Marches – LGBTQA+ folks and people of color – are more likely to reside in urban communities. But to compare these attendance rates without talking about class, and without talking about the mobilization of white women, muddies the realities of who is ready and willing to act at more local levels.
While the Women’s March may have kicked off a movement that has the tools in place for success, we need to remember that Trump’s path to success was unpredicted. To take his inauguration attendance numbers to mean that his initial supporters have changed their minds or that Trump has lost political support would be a potentially grave mistake. To take what is now the largest protest in U.S. history as evidence of mass, continued mobilization, that may also be inaccurate. White women are just starting to show up—will they continue to do so? In talking about the intersections of class and race, we remember who is able to mobilize and show support when, and we must bring these intersections to the fore in future conversations about mobilization and activism.
Emily Kalah Gade is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Washington. Her research centers on political violence, civil resistance and militancy.