DETROIT — A year ago, they stormed the streets of big cities and small towns to make their views known: Women's rights are human rights. Many wore on their heads what became the de facto symbol of activism in 2017, the pink pussyhat.
The Women's March is back in 2018 with its Power to the Polls anniversary protests on the weekend of Jan. 20-21. The focus during this Women's March reboot is to register more women to vote, and to elect women and progressive candidates to public office.
But this time when marchers take to the streets in cities from Lansing to Las Vegas, there could be fewer pink pussyhats in the crowds.
The reason: The sentiment that the pink pussyhat excludes and is offensive to transgender women and gender non-binary people who don't have typical female genitalia and to women of color because their genitals are more likely to be brown than pink.
"I personally won’t wear one because if it hurts even a few people's feelings, then I don't feel like it’s unifying," said Phoebe Hopps, founder and president of Women's March Michigan and organizer of anniversary marches Jan. 21 in Lansing and Marquette.
"I care more about mobilizing people to the polls than wearing one hat one day of the year."
The state and national organizations, she said, have tried "to move away from the pussyhats for several months now, and are not making it the cornerstone of our messaging because ... there’s a few things wrong with the message.
"It doesn’t sit well with a group of people that feel that the pink pussyhats are either vulgar or they are upset that they might not include trans women or non-binary women or maybe women whose (genitals) are not pink."
The concept of the pussyhat grew from an idea Krista Suh had when talking with her friend Jayna Zweiman after the 2016 presidential election. They wanted to find a way for protesters to make a strong, unifying visual statement during the inaugural Women's March on Washington.
They launched the Pussyhat Project, hoping their matching pink hats would do not only that, but also allow activists who could not get to Washington for the big national march to show their support for women's rights in other places.
The color pink was chosen "because pink is associated with femininity," the Pussyhat Project posted on its website. "We did not choose the color pink as a representation of some people’s anatomy. Anyone who supports women’s rights is welcome to wear a Pussyhat. It does not matter if you have a vulva or what color your vulva may be. If a participant wants to create a Pussyhat that reflects the color of her vulva, we support her choice."
They named it the Pussyhat Project as a play on words referencing the way Trump bragged in a 2005 Access Hollywood tape about groping unsuspecting women.
"The original hat has these adorable cat ears, so ‘pussyhat' also is a play on ‘pussy cat.' ... The word ‘pussy' is often used in a derogative way," Zweiman told the Free Press in a January 2017 interview. "Pussy is a very charged word; I'm now very used to saying it, but it's interesting to hear people talk about the word, and how they feel about the word. These are conversations we all need to have. The discussions are around what is this word, what does it mean? A lot of it is constructive dialogue."
The hats were so popular in the run up to the 2017 Women's March on Washington that there was a run on hot pink yarn in Michigan. Shops couldn't keep it on their shelves.
Knitters made the hats by the dozen, selling pussyhats online and donating proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Some handed out pussyhats free to other marchers not only in Washington, but at sister marches in Lansing, Detroit and Ann Arbor.
But since then, the idea has begun to sour among some feminists.
LaShawn Ebly, co-chair of Black Lives Matter-Lansing, declined to talk about her views on pussyhats because the topic is a cornerstone of the speech she plans to give at the Jan. 21 march in Lansing.
"I will say this one thing: It is a problem," Ebly said.
Those who come to to the state Capital Jan. 21 will hear her views on the pussyhats, and also about the misconceptions she says are so common about Black Lives Matter, and about the need for people of color and diversity in elected office.
"You know, nobody can speak for your experience but you, so it really is important that people that look like you, that have experiences like you to represent you," she said. "You often can look just about anywhere and see a white person leading black people. But rarely do you see it in reverse.
"I’m really impressed by the people who are putting together this march because most of the women are women of color. I think that’s a really important message to put out in front of Michigan. I’m excited to hear the speakers."
Another activist scheduled to speak at the Lansing march is Lilianna Angel Reyes, a transgender woman of color who said she will wear a pink pussyhat — if she can find one in time.
"I'm trying to get one of my friends to crochet one for me." said Reyes, who is the program services director at Affirmations in Ferndale, a non-profit organization serving people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. She also is the co-executive director of the Trans Sistas of Color Project.
To Reyes, the sea of pink that came with the Women's March movement was welcoming from its inception.
"I definitely understand that there are people that are concerned that the pussyhat, the pink cat hat, is very specific for people with vaginas," Reyes said. "But ... it was a very specific thing, ... specific to when President Trump said 'Grab 'em by the pussy,' and so to me it was a play on words that shows power. I also think for me, it's more symbolic.
"There are people who believe that because not only is it a pink pussy, which can mean only white women, that it could be a race and a gender thing.
"For me, it doesn't read that way."
She was included in this swell of activism in a way that other movements for women's rights excluded her.
"When I was at the March on Washington, I felt so included," Reyes said. "I felt embraced. It was a beautiful thing. I never once felt excluded for my trans-ness or my woman of color-ness. I never had that experience at the March on Washington, or at the women's conference, and I'm sure I won't have it at the March on Lansing.
"What's important is that I personally think people are missing is that ... people make mistakes ... the people who organize the marchers tried as hard as they could. I know a lot of trans women who were part of the organizing and part of the speaking. I know a lot of women of color, too. I spoke at the women's conference, I'm speaking at the Women's March on Lansing and they've reached out to me on a number of other occasions.
"I think at some point, I do preach the impact versus the intentionality."
Not everyone sees it that way.
The Women's March chapter in Pensacola, Fla., posted to its Facebook page that it is discouraging marchers from wearing the hats to this year's event.
"The Pink P*ssy Hat reinforces the notion that woman = vagina and vagina = woman, and both of these are incorrect. Additionally, the Pink P*ssy Hat is white-focused and Eurocentric in that it assumes that all vaginas are pink; this is also an incorrect assertion," it posted to its Facebook page. The post has been shared more than 1,200 times.
"The Pensacola Women’s March organizers understand that this idea was a knee-jerk reaction to the heinous, sexist, misogynistic Trump administration, but it is also just that: a knee-jerk reaction, not fully thought out. Therefore, we ask that march goers refrain from wearing this hat and instead, pick an alternative headwear that focuses on collective women’s liberation for ALL women: transgender women, multinational women, disabled women, queer women — the most marginalized. It is only through the centering and leadership of these groups that women will be liberated — not through exclusionary white feminism, which the Pink P*ssy Hat is indicative of.
"The Pensacola Women's March team will be removing all forms of hate speech that they encounter in an effort to promote a safer environment for all women."
Hopps isn't going that far in Michigan, saying the Pensacola chapter's post was "too divisive."
Rather, she said, those who attend Michigan's marches next weekend should do what they think is right — whether it's to wear the hats or not.
"People are going to wear them. I know that," she said. "For some people, it's a unifying thing. It's also a cathartic thing to knit this hat and then give them out for free. ... And that's fine. I'm not the one to make the decision for them.
"You know, we can't be divided right now. We need to unite. So, if you want to wear one, you can. But just be aware that it is upsetting to some people, and that's why national has moved away from that.
"We're going with the statement that if people want to wear it and it means something to them, feel free to wear it, but just be aware that there is the perspective that it is pushing away some of the women that we need to unite with."
Follow Kristen Jordan Shamus on Twitter: @kristenshamus