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Putting a Pink Pussy Hat on a Harriet Tubman Statue Is Disrespectful

A gender studies scholar explains how pink pussy hats center white cisgender women, and why the decision to place one on a statue of an enslaved black woman who helped others escape slavery is "opportunistic and ahistorical."

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo via Twitter/ Corey Townsend

On Saturday, as hundreds of thousands of people across the country attended various Women’s Marches, an unknown person took it upon themselves to place a pink “pussy hat” on the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Harlem. The 13-foot statue, designed by sculptor Alison Saar and dedicated in 2008, features the iconic American hero with a stoic, determined look on her face. Her skirt includes imprints of the faces of anonymous passengers who traveled the Underground Railroad with her.

As photos of the memorial donning the brightly colored, cat-earred accessory began making the rounds on social media, many people called it out for being disrespectful and inappropriate. Eve Ewing, a sociologist and writer, tweeted, “Harriet Tubman was a disabled black woman, an enslaved person who risked her life to free other enslaved people. Keep your cutesy symbol of cisnormative, white normative, made-a-supposedly-subversive-joke-about-sexual-assault accessories off her head.”

Another writer, Demetria Irwin, pointed out in a piece for Blavity that the hat trivializes Tubman and all that she stood for: “Tubman was a true freedom fighter. Her objective was to get Black people free and she dedicated her life and her own liberty to that singular goal.” In contrast, she wrote, “the pink pussy hat brigade is a feminist lite reaction to real problems. Donning a stupid hat, retweeting a clever quip, and marching once a year does not make one a freedom fighter.”

The controversial pink pussy hat came into style last year for the inaugural Women’s March, inspired by Donald Trump’s Hollywood Access comments, in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. Despite the sea of pink that dotted the marches then, many people have since criticized the hats as being a symbol of white feminism, and exclusionary of women of color and transgender and nonbinary people.

In fact, another highly shared photo on social media over the weekend featured a woman wearing the pink hat while holding a sign that attacked trans women: “Woman is not a ‘feeling,’ a costume, or a performance of a stereotype!” the sign read. “Woman is a biological reality! There is no ethical or moral duty to lie to soothe a male ego.”

Some march organizers, such as those behind the Pensacola Women’s March, discouraged attendees from wearing them, the Detroit Free Press reports.

"It doesn’t sit well,” explained Phoebe Hopps, founder and president of Women's March Michigan, “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 nonbinary women or maybe women whose (genitals) are not pink."

“The pink pussy hat reduces contemporary social justice struggles to a very narrow vision of who and what people are fighting for in 2018."

Treva Lindsey is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, with a concentration in black feminism and African American women’s history. She tells Broadly that when she saw the controversial photo of Harriet Tubman’s statue wearing a pussy hat, she was appalled. “It felt both opportunistic and ahistorical,” she says.

“The pink pussy hat reduces contemporary social justice struggles to a very narrow vision of who and what people are fighting for in 2018,” Lindsey explains. “Symbolically, it centers white cisgender women. Most of these women were nowhere to be found at Black Lives Matter Marches or for undocumented people or for workers fighting for a living wage. The hat, for many, represents a continuation of a historical pattern in which white women center themselves and co-opt movements and justice work of more vulnerable groups.”

The creators of the Pussyhat Project, however, say the hat was created on the principles of “inclusivity, compassion, creativity, personal connection, and open dialogue, all to further women’s rights and human rights,” according to their website. They chose to go with the color pink, they add, because of its association with “girls and femininity.”

Lindsey says in order to really have inclusiveness and solidarity, we need to be committed to being intersectional and mindful about the ways we engage each other. “Coming together requires folks recognizing power differentials and how privilege operates even in social justice spaces,” she says. “Solidarity takes a lot of work and part of that work is accountability.”

Lindsey adds that she thinks Tubman, were she alive today, probably wouldn’t have been opposed to these marches, especially because of the role women of color and queer people of color have had in shaping the platform. “Tubman acutely understood the acuteness of simultaneously fighting multiple forms of oppression,” she says. “She was a women's rights advocate and someone who fought for all people and against all forms of injustice.”