In 1971 my mom was fired from her job as a public school teacher for being pregnant with my brother. She was married, but the law in Connecticut at that time stated that female teachers could not work past their fifth month of pregnancy.
The teachers union took her case to court, even though she was not a member because she couldn’t afford the $85 membership fee. First dismissed as a labor dispute, my mother’s case eventually was deemed a civil rights issue. A judge ruled that her termination was gender discrimination. My mom won the case. She changed the law for all women after her.
“I was so embarrassed!” she told me recently about all the attention she received. “I wasn’t an activist.”
I never thought I was, either. I’ve always found politics to be confusing, intimidating, and overwhelmingly negative—and that’s even before this last election. I never had any desire to discuss or debate it, and certainly not with strangers on the Internet. Not only did I not want to invite arguments and vitriol, but I believed I wasn’t informed enough to speak up. And I worried that talking politics would alienate and anger people.
Like many Americans, however, this last election changed things for me. I couldn’t ignore politics anymore. I couldn’t NOT talk about what was happening in our country, at least with my family.
My children are now old enough, at ages 7 and 10, to notice what is going on in the world. They are learning about American history and current events at school and they started coming home with questions. LOTS of questions. HARD questions that I couldn’t answer. I’ve educated myself as best I can, but up until now I have mostly been reading, observing, and processing. Besides voting, there was no clear action for me to take.
That began to change when I listened to President Obama’s farewell speech on January 10 in Chicago. “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” he said. “It needs you.” (Me?!) But what really got me was this part:
If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.
I’m not at the organizing or running for office stage yet. But he had me at the “getting off the Internet and talking to real people” part. And the “showing up” part. That’s what I wasn’t doing. I was all
talk think, no action.
Then I heard about the Women’s March on Washington, and suddenly I felt compelled to show up. That’s the exact right word: compelled. Pounding heart, fluttering stomach, an unequivocal “Hell, yes!” Strong urges don’t strike me very often, so I paid attention.
But then I began to hear from people questioning my safety and the crowds and even what’s the point? I started to overthink it and fear took over. And besides, I had no one to go with and no way to get there.
Then I got a text at 11pm the night before the march saying a spot had opened up on a bus to D.C. I jumped. I went with a friend who works in public health, is married to an immigrant, and has a mixed-race daughter. Until now, she didn’t consider herself an activist, either. No pink hat for her. Ha!
I didn’t wear one, either, but I did wear a pink scarf. I made a sign that said “Make America Kind Again.” My kids made signs for me that said “Peace for All” and “Be the change you want to see in the world.” They came up with them entirely on their own. #SoProud
My friend and I rode a chartered school bus the 50 miles to D.C., then walked two miles to the Capitol along with many other marchers. We passed a half dozen National Guardsmen in Humvees, but for the rest of the day we’d see a total of maybe four police officers. There was no security checkpoint, however, attendees had been told to bring only clear bags.
The mood was celebratory. People waved and greeted us along our route, and many people stopped to take selfies and group photos with their signs and banners. There were rows and rows of Porta-potties (labeled Don’s Johns, ha!). We passed the empty bleachers and seats still set up from the Inauguration the day before.
We followed the crowd and made our way over to the National Air and Space Museum overlooking Independence Ave. We found a good spot on a wall with a view of one of the jumbotrons.
I heard some astonishing speeches. Actresses America Ferrara and Ashley Judd spoke about immigration and women’s reproductive rights. Amanda Nguyen, a 24yo rape survivor, spoke about fighting for Congress to pass a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights. I also heard speeches by Donna Hylton, a criminal justice reform advocate who was in prison for 27 years; filmmaker Michael Moore; and D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser.
Also, feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem!! What a thrill that was for a Vassar grad… She reiterated President Obama’s points: “Sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are. Sometimes pressing ‘send’ is not enough.”
By this time the crowd had grown… and grown. We feared being knocked off the wall so we decided to get a head start on the march and began making our way to the street. Only to be stopped by a solid wall of people. We couldn’t move; there was nowhere to go. At one point we were pressed so close to the people around us that I could inspect my neighbors’ dental work.
It sounds uncomfortable, and at times it was. There were a few people who got pushy and impatient, some because they were trying to maneuver a wheelchair through the crowd or get a child to the bathroom, and some were clearly feeling panicked and claustrophobic. Totally understandable. My friend could not even tie her shoe because her arms were pinned to her sides. A few of us formed the tiniest circle we could manage around her and another woman bent down to tie it for her.
This is where my yoga and meditation practices came in handy, I truly believe. Yoga helped me keep my balance and meditation helped me keep my head. “This will pass. We’ll start moving soon,” a mother from Brooklyn reassured her young daughter. Their whole family (dad, older sister, grandparents) was standing near us. The mood was remarkably upbeat, polite, and energizing.
Every so often, a chant would break out: “Start! The! March! Start! The! March!” We did not know at the time that marching was impossible because there were so many people clogging the streets. Here is an aerial video I saw later of the spot where we were standing. See that metal pyramid thingie? There I am!
I couldn’t access the Internet so I texted my husband to find out what was happening. His reply, cut and pasted from the AP website: “With the crowd so big organizers cannot lead a formal march towards the White House.”
Many people had climbed up on top of Porta-potties and into trees to get a better view. “Tree people!” we called. “Tell us what you see!” “No one’s moving!” they called back. A short time later, another chant broke out: “Go that way! Then turn left!” Slowly, slowly, we began moving toward the Mall. Soon, we were actually marching. At last!!
By that time, we had to start the walk back to the meeting point so we wouldn’t miss the bus home. But we got what we came for. I know I did. Going to the march helped me clarify my role in all this. In my life, in my work, and in our democracy. (How’s THAT for a bold claim?!)
I realized it’s not my role to become a political analyst or pundit. We’ve already got one of those in my family. It’s not my role to share strong opinions or convince other people to believe what I believe. It’s not my role to explain or interpret or defend. My role is to show up and share what I see. My role is to shine a light on the positive, while not ignoring the negative.
Standing on that wall in downtown Washington, I saw a sea of people. So many pink hats with pointy ears. So many signs—funny, angry, hopeful, creative, colorful signs. I saw a rainbow of people—white people, brown people, black people; gay, straight, and transgender people; people in wheelchairs, people in headscarves, people with babies; people with white hair, purple hair, rainbow hair.
I read a comment by one of those strangers on the Internet: “We live in the greatest country in the world. What on earth is there to protest?” To answer that, you had only to look around at the signs carried by those millions of marchers:
Not My President. Dump Trump!
The Electoral College Is Going to Ruin this Country
Keep Your Tiny Hands Off Our Public Lands
Keep Your Laws Off My Uterus
Keep Abortion Legal
Keep Guns Out of Schools
Bridges Not Walls
Climate Change Is Real
White Silence = Violence
Black Lives Matter
Respect Women of Color
Japanese Americans Against the Muslim Registry
And one of my personal favorites, older women carrying signs that said: I Can’t Believe I Still Have to Protest This Shit.
It wasn’t all protests, though, and it wasn’t all angry. Many signs bore positive messages, such as: Love Trumps Hate; This Is What Unity Looks Like; We the People Are Greater than Fear. One of the most remarkable things about the day was that I saw no hecklers, no fighting, no vandalism, and I would read later that there were zero arrests. While attendance numbers are still being collected, some experts are calling the Women’s Marches across the U.S. the largest day of demonstrations in American history.
So back to my role in all this. While I started out in my career as a journalist and a fact-checker, what really interests me are personal narratives. I believe that first-person stories are what really touch people’s hearts. You can argue with a person’s politics, you can debate their opinions, but you cannot deny a person’s experience or feelings.
Especially now, in this climate of mistrust and made-up facts, if I can share my story and my family’s story and provide some perspective by giving an honest account of my experience, then I believe I am doing a service to my readers.
I went to the Women’s March in Washington scared and uncertain and, like my mom, a little embarrassed (who, me, an activist?). But mostly I felt excited and proud. In the conclusion of his farewell address, President Obama said of our democracy:
Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed.
On January 21, 2017, I saw it up close. I was energized and inspired. And my faith in America is confirmed.