Research

In Discarded Women’s March Signs, Professors Saw a Chance to Save History

January 24, 2017

Dwayne Desaulniers, AP Images
Signs line the fence surrounding Boston Common after the Boston Women's March for America on Saturday. Some of those signs could end up in an archive at Northeastern U.

The signs were pink, blue, black, white. Some were hoisted with wooden sticks, and others were held in protesters’ hands. A few sparkled with glitter, and some had original designs, created on computers with the help of a few internet memes.

Still, at the Boston Women’s March for America on Saturday, hundreds of the signs criticizing President Trump’s campaign promises and administrative agenda ended up wrapped around the fence near Boston Common, laid down like a carpet covering the sidewalk.

After leaving a late lunch with some colleagues, Nathan Felde, a design professor at Northeastern University, stopped to admire the signs. He was struck by their originality, and how most had come from amateur artists. Parks employees told him they had been instructed to dispose of the signs that evening, he said.

"There was that moment where, in looking at that work, it was almost instinctual to say, ‘This all has to be saved,’ and then acting on it before we knew what we were going to do next," Mr. Felde said.

The workers said Mr. Felde and his group were free to take signs. So he rented a van, his colleagues and a few onlookers loaded them up, and off to a newly rented storage unit they went. Dietmar Offenhuber, an assistant professor of art and design and public policy, said the collected signs filled a 40-square-foot storage unit.

Now the group wants to archive the collection, physically and online, with the help of Northeastern University’s library.

Patrick Yott, an associate dean of libraries, said he wants to stage an event in March where the posters will be spread across a gymnasium floor for people to look at and for the signs to be cataloged and digitized. There are more than 1,000 posters, he said, so a big space will be needed.

Later, library staff members will determine which posters can and should be preserved and a team of curators will work to maintain them, he said. It’s not every day that scholars ask him to collect or archive materials, Mr. Yott said, and he wishes it happened more.

Archival projects aren’t typically spontaneous, but the material was available for only a short window, and the group had to act quickly, Mr. Offenhuber said.

Though many of the signs were funny and creative, said Alessandra Renzi, assistant professor in emergent media, the archive isn’t just about displaying the clever quips, but about understanding the women’s movement and sentiment around the march, she said. "It was one very large mobilization in a country that no longer has very large mobilizations."

One of the more motivating reasons to archive them is their use as tangible objects, Ms. Renzi said. The signs illustrate concern and demands for Mr. Trump’s administration without getting lost in a social-media feed. As activism and democratic movements live increasingly online, physical signs are a rarity.

The nature of social movements has also changed, said Mr. Offenhuber. Activism is structured more loosely, and it’s uncommon to have one organization in charge, commanding all the logistics.

Quips That Unite

Saturday’s signs — though plenty were filled with internet jokes and pop-culture references — bore a similarity to those from the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, said Sarah J. Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies. Though the slogans may change, their purpose doesn’t. "They bring people together through quips."

Moya Bailey, an assistant professor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, said the signs illustrated today’s political climate — specifically, the tension about what it means to be a woman.

For example, a black woman at the march held a sign reading, "Black women tried to save yall! #94%." Her sign highlighted that 94 percent of black women voted for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton (while 53 percent of white women voted for Mr. Trump). The signs demonstrated that the movement, as united as it was, had points of contention.

For Carla Kaplan, a professor of American literature at Northeastern who traveled to the main march in Washington, the signs reflected separate issues that all managed to come together, she said.

As a scholar of feminist theory, Ms. Kaplan has long written about intersectionality, and how the women’s movement can encompass, among other issues, LGBT rights and concerns about income inequality and the environment. But on the National Mall, she said, it was clear that intersectionality was now part of the mainstream. Not only did many signs use the word itself, but others linked the women’s issue with other topics.

"There were people representing a range of democratic values everywhere at the march, and the entire range was understood to have a unified voice," Ms. Kaplan said. "It was unity and diversity simultaneously."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.