November 12, 2021
And that's the tee... on the raised fist as a symbol of resistance
Happy Monday, Feministas. It’s been a while since our last installment of "And That’s the Tee," where we spill on the sweet sweet inspo behind some of our favorite graphic tees. But this week we’re bringing it back with a deep dive on a symbol that graces several of our shirts, decals, and accessories: the empowering and oh-so-familiar feminist raised fist.
It’s a sign of solidarity, an act of defiance, a symbol of rebellion, revolution, and resistance. It’s an image you’ve seen painted on sidewalks and buildings, in movies and TV—maybe even in person at protests. When someone holds up their hand and closes it in this way, we pay attention, we feel the significance, and—if the moment calls for it—we raise our own fist in response. But how can a gesture like this carry so much weight and power?
Early 20th century uprisings & the rise of a symbol
The most famous early depiction of the raised fist is credited to a man named Honoré Daumier, who was inspired by the social and political discontent of workers in France and the eventual overthrow of the King Louis-Phillipe's monarchy during the Revolution of 1848. It shows a man in a crowd with his hand reaching out and a clenched fist, politically engaged and willing to fight.
In 1917, the symbol was further popularized by yet another labor movement, when the Industrial Workers of the World adopted it as their logo, demonstrating that unity meant power. Since its early adoption by workers in rebellion, the meaning and use of the raised fist has evolved to meet the moment, but has been consistent as a representation of strength and determination by marginalized and oppressed groups of people around the world.
Over the next few decades, anti-fascists carried on the tradition of raising a fist in opposition to the Nazi party, during the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s, and all the way through the 1960s and the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, when the gesture took on a whole new role in American society.
Civil rights, the Summer Olympics & building solidarity
Perhaps the most famous association with this symbol is Black liberation and the Civil Rights movement. The gesture went mainstream in modern culture when, in 1966, the Black Panther Party was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The clenched fist became known as the "Black Power salute" and was used by members at meetings and rallies.
In 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, that salute hit the world stage at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. After winning first and third place respectively in the 200m dash, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos each wore a single black glove, bowed their head, and raised a fist during the national anthem at their medaling ceremony in peaceful protest of racial injustice and in honor of what Smith called "community and power in Black America."
Many cite this moment as the inspiration for Colin Kaepernick's infamous kneeling during the national anthem, in silent protest of police brutality that disproportionately affects Black people in this country. The comparison feels especially apt given the response to these simple acts: Smith and Carlos were banned from the U.S. team and the Olympic Village, and Kaepernick hasn't played in the NFL since.
Thankfully, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were recognized with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage by President Barack Obama in 2008 (40 years later) and became Olympic Committee Ambassadors in 2016 :)
Raising a fist & fighting the patriarchy
That same year, feminists put the raised fist to use in the first organized protest of the Miss America pageant. On September 7th, a group called the New York Radical Women showed up on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to publicly protest the oppressive traditional beauty standards and objectification of women inherent in the event.
In an equally dramatic gesture, they brought what they called a "Freedom Trash Can" along with them and threw in symbolically feminine items like make-up, hairspray, bras, corsets, mops, etc. Fun fact: when a reporter compared the action of throwing bras into the trash can to the defiant act of burning draft cards during the Vietnam War, the term bra-burning was born and remained a permanent fixture of the feminist movement.
Soon after that, the raised fist combined with the female gender symbol was introduced and shown on posters as well, solidifying the raised fist's place in the feminist movement.
The Women's March, BLM & beyond
In contemporary culture, we have the Black Lives Matter movement to thank for bringing the gesture back into the public eye in a major way. In the summer of 2013, after the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin and the eventual acquittal of the police officer responsible for his death, people took to the streets to protest and #BlackLivesMatter began trending on social media. Since then BLM activists have gathered in hundreds of cities around the world to stand against police brutality and honor the lives of those who have been lost, and raised fists can always be seen in the crowd.
The Women’s March in 2017 brought more of the same, when women and men around the country and in the capital gathered on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration to send a message to the incoming administration: that women’s rights are human rights. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, and millions of participants held signs and fists high.
Right now, in anticipation of the upcoming Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade, we’ve got a metaphorical fist up for all of the women with limited access to reproductive health and abortion care in Texas, Mississippi, and beyond—in the U.S. and around the world. It’s our job as feminists to be attentive and to fight back when we’re called to, so let’s be on the lookout and ready to show that symbol of solidarity so packed with history and power, it’s bound to make some change :)
Thanks for reading, Feministas. See you next week for more of The "F" Word, our weekly newsletter and blog on all things feminist, from activism to fashion and beyond. Want it delivered? Scroll down, sign up, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox.