On January 21, 2017, nearly half a million people flocked to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. They carried various signs about reproductive rights, anti-Trump sentiment, and intersectionality amongst feminists. The event hosted several celebrities who spoke about women’s empowerment and stressed the need for resistance against the new administration. Just one day earlier, Donald Trump had been sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States, and a different crowd of protestors organized a Counter-Inaugural protest to display their concern. Michael Heaney, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan, collected data on the participants at both protests, shedding light on the types of people who attended and their reasons for doing so. Heaney recently presented this work at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.
The foundation of Heaney’s research centers on the theory of “mesomobilization” – an explanation for how protests form and become organized. Typically, a central group decides to take action and declares a frame for the movement. The central group then brings other people together that would be motivated by this specific frame. Therefore, the theory suggests that all protestors share certain commonalities. In this case, the protestors were all highly motivated by women’s rights. Heaney aimed to further explore participants’ identities and compare them to that of the Counter-Inaugural protest, which advantageously occurred in the same city.
Heaney hired a team to sample the two crowds. Stationed at different places throughout the protests, the team would look out over the crowd and select an individual. To reduce bias, the sampler would count five people away from their selected individual then approach this person to participate in a six-page survey. After asking three people in the surrounding area to complete their survey, the team member would begin a different round at a new location and select another random protestor. This cycle repeated until the team gathered about 180 responses at the Counter-Inaugural protest and roughly 320 at the Women’s March.
The survey produced some interesting results:
- The two crowds showed no difference in ideology. When asked if they leaned left, right, or center, nearly every respondent answered “left.” However, protestors at the Women’s March were much more partisan. When asked about their partisan identification (i.e. independent, independent who leans Democrat/Republican, moderate Republican/Democrat, strong Republican/Democrat, or third party), they answered they leaned more towards the Democratic Party.
- Counter-Inaugural protestors were more inclined than Women’s Marchers to believe that the current political atmosphere justified violence.
- Demographically, the crowd at the Women’s March was significantly older than the Counter-Inaugural, but the two groups did not vary in white versus nonwhite respondents.
Next, the survey focused on how respondents framed their participation. Participants were asked why they attended their respective event. The researchers then coded these responses in terms of gender. For example, if the person said they were there to protest for reproductive rights their answer was considered gendered. If they responded that they protested on the premise of healthcare, it was coded as non-gendered. Results show that about 15 percent of the Counter-Inaugural and 35 percent of Women’s March attendees gave a gendered reason for attending their respective protest. Furthermore, people who had organizational attachments (i.e. involvement with Planned Parenthood) were far more likely to provide a gendered response at both events. This suggests evidence of the mesomobilization theory at each protest. Heaney asserts that people brought their cohorts to participate in politics based on the frame that a central group created.
The researchers also examined the group of people who attended both the Counter-Inaugural protest and the Women’s March. One would expect that people observed at the Counter-Inaugural, who planned on attending the Women’s March, would be more likely to provide a gendered reason for attending the Counter-Inaugural. Remarkably, this was not the case. However, people observed at the Women’s March who also attended the Counter-Inaugural very commonly provided a gendered reason. Could the event itself play a role in the protestor’s participation or even explicitly introduce a frame? Heaney plans to investigate this curious paradox.
Michael Heaney’s data from the Counter-Inaugural protest and Women’s March gives insight on the mesomobilization theory, along with demographic data on the protestors. He continues to work on connecting evidence from both movements then plans to compare it with other data from the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions and a Right to Life protest.
For more, read Heaney’s working paper here: Partisanship and the Resurgence of Women’s Protest in the United States