Sometimes I realize I’m humming. It starts as an unconscious lips, tongue, and breath thing that I, thinking-Lea, a spectator curious about the content, happen upon with surprise. I don’t always recognize the tune immediately and have to keep humming until I identify the song.
Often during election seasons, “America the Beautiful” has been my soul’s selection, looping continuously while I’m driving, typing, walking in the woods, or washing dishes. But, its wistful lyrics - “and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea" - seemed so poignant and unattainable in 2016. Instead, something stirring, something rousing, something rebellious kept burbling up from my subconscious.
What was it?
Got it! “Sister Suffragette!” A revolutionary cry from actress Glynis Johns in the 1964 movie, “Mary Poppins.” Mary Poppins? A song of revolution? Yes!
“We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats,
Dauntless crusaders for women’s votes…
Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us,
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus,
“Well done! Well done! Well done, sister suffragette!”
Long before the election results were tallied, somewhere deep within me this rallying cry ramped up. But why? That battle had been fought and won in 1920. Not so long ago. And we are the daughter’s daughters those courageous, forward thinking suffragettes fought for. Catch me at the right moment, and I’m weepy with gratitude to those women.
Almost 100 years later, Donald Trump has been elected president. Our right to vote is not up for grabs, but he has bragged that, for him, our private parts are.
For years, I’ve warned my daughter not to be complacent about her rights, but why wouldn’t she be? She has grown up in a world where women are CEOs, surgeons, and senators, where she has known she can be almost anything she wants to be. Sure, tampons and sanitary pads are taxed while Rogaine and Viagra are not, and yes, women are paid $.78 cents on every dollar a man earns, but we’ve made solid headway.
Wait. Rewind. Having not needed a tampon in over a decade, I wasn’t aware of that tax, and while I knew about pay inequality and thought it unfair, I wasn’t really bothered by it. Why not? WHY NOT? Why have I accepted that so quietly?
Flash to January 2017 and I’m not accepting it anymore. I’m also reeling at America’s choice for president. Fortunately, so was Teresa Shook, a retiree living in Hawaii who was so disturbed by Donald Trump’s win that she posted her idea for a March on Washington on Facebook. By the next morning, 10,000 followers had signed on to join her. My sister Francie and I missed that initial call to action, but we had our bus tickets to the march secured within a month of that posting.
In the weeks before the march, I worried. About cold feet and frostbite. About the possibility of violence. About the availability of bathrooms. That was the main thing, actually. I worried about that a lot. So I added maximally absorbent sanitary pads to my Women’s March pile of gloves, woolen socks, granola bars, and dried apricots. Even if I were desperate, I doubted I’d be able to convince my lifetime-trained body to release and go in a pad, still, I felt better having a “what-if-I-can’t-find-a-bathroom” plan.
But the Women’s March committee assuaged my fears. By email, they kept me posted with updates about permits, police coverage, suggested supplies, things to avoid, march route maps, and guidelines to follow in case of disruptions. Plus, it sounded like they were renting plenty of port-o-potties. By the time I was on my knees on the floor, Sharpie in hand, preparing my poster, I was unequivocally excited. This was the antidote to Trump despair. This was something I could do.
On Friday the 20th, I drove to Pennsylvania to stay with my sister as we’d be waking at 4:15 AM in order to board the bus in Villanova at 5:30. Francie’s friend, Jen, pulled in at 5:00, and the three of us arrived at the bus with enough time to order coffee at Starbucks. Our coordinator, Kat, a welcoming, energetic blonde, checked us in as we climbed onto the bus. We settled into our seats and unpacked hardboiled eggs, granola bars, and water from our specially-purchased-for-the-march clear plastic backpacks. I had decided on drinking minimally during the day to reduce bathroom trips, and would allow myself only occasional, tiny sips.
It was 5:45 AM, so while some of our fellow marchers introduced themselves, many dozed off.
About an hour out of DC, Kat took the microphone at the front of the bus, reviewed logistics and meeting times, and invited those who wished, to share their reasons for marching.
There were teachers, physicians, healthcare workers and coaches among us, women who worked with small children and with students. One teacher spoke of a student of hers, a girl of color, who’d been accosted by two boys who called her a pussy during a sports event at their school. "You can’t call me that,” the girl had said. “Sure we can,” the boys answered. “The president does.”
“I’m marching for her,” the woman said. “For her and all my students, boys and girls. I want them to grow up in a world that values respect.”
Some spoke of marching for their daughters and granddaughters, or in homage to mothers and grandmothers who had marched for reproductive rights or even, votes for women. One woman said ruefully, “I can’t believe we still have to march... “
A mother reported her three year-old daughter’s remark upon seeing the president on TV. “Mommy, President Trump doesn’t have any parents.”
“No parents? Sweetie, why do you say that?”
“Because he has no love, so he must not have parents.”
A sad silence settled in at this. “I’m marching for my daughter,” the speaker continued. “I want her to know a world that loves.”
My sister Francie spoke of our good fortune in having a family united in our political views and in being fairly secure economically. “I’m marching for those more likely to lose jobs, insurance, and rights,” she said.
I spoke of my years at Eagle Hill, a school for children with learning disabilities. I mentioned volunteering in a women’s literacy program and on my town’s conservation commission. “I fear that these, my priorities, are threatened under this administration. I am marching for their protection.”
A woman from the Ukraine stood to speak, but was choked by tears and sat down. Later, she tried again. Still weeping, she spoke of the relief her family had felt and the welcome they’d received when first they moved to this country, and how that contrasted to the belligerence unleashed by Trump’s bullying. “I am marching because you are the America my family moved to. I fear the America this man represents.”
When we reached Washington, our bus lined up behind an armada of others angling for access to the lot at RFK stadium. Francie, Jen, and I shrugged on our coats and plastic backpacks and donned our pink pussy hats.
A week ago, my friend Ben texted to say his wife Kristen had “been knitting pussy hats 24/7.” She was unable to attend the march and wanted to support the effort. Would I like a hat? And how many others were marching with me? She would make hats for them too. Jen grinned as she pulled hers on and said, “I love that someone I don’t even know made this for me.” As we descended the steps to the lot, we marveled at the swarm of people in pink hats weaving among buses that tiled the vast lot.
Francie had printed out the march route from the Women’s March website, so with that as our guide, and thousands of other pink-hatted marchers before us, we headed for the starting point at Independence Avenue and 3rd. As we walked, people leaned from windows and front stoops to wave and thank us for coming. In one neighborhood, residents had posted black lawn signs bordered in white with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr: “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” I was surrounded by sisters, and quite a few brothers, bent on that unity.
A sand-colored tank attended by two MPs was parked at an intersection. One of the soldiers, a slight African-American woman, smiled at us, but her blocky, red-faced male cohort stared straight ahead, his expression gruff. We thanked them, as we did all police and MPs on duty that day, but his attention did not waiver.
Still, the mood was ebullient, and as our throng surged within sight of the impressive domed Capitol building, I felt my first real sense of where we were and the importance of our message. “Are you listening?” Francie called out.
In front of us strolled three young women garbed in cloche hats and ankle-length black coats with purple, green, and white sashes – suffragettes! I trotted to catch up with them and timidly started to sing. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats, dauntless crusaders for women’s votes…” They turned to smile at me, and, despite her youth, one woman knew the words. Together we warbled, our voices growing stronger together,
“Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us,
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus,
“Well done! Well done! Well done, sister suffragette!”
As we neared the gathering place, we could hear amplified speeches and cheers. Further down the block, filmmaker Michael Moore loomed large on a Jumbotron screen, and press vans lined the avenue. Shoulder to shoulder, ass to stomach, elbow to hip, breath to breath, people were packed tight. Movement was difficult, but everyone was polite and cheerful, saying “’scuse me” or “Oops, sorry,” when a toe was scrunched or a cheek poked. It was past 11:00 AM, and the program had started at 10:00, with the march planned for 1:15. We had missed hearing Gloria Steinem and the march organizers, but we threaded our way closer to the screen to hear actress and activist, Ashley Judd.
Periodically, a whisper of a whoop would start among those assembled blocks away. It would roll toward us, gaining power and volume as thousands of people took deep breaths and joined in the wave. It swelled around us, triumphant, joyful, defiant, unified, and we inhaled deeply then expelled a roaring whoop, sustaining it as long as we could, heaving it forward to those beyond us, who took it up and carried it further. On and on it went, mounting, echoing, and fading, conveying the vast breadth of the exuberant multitudes.
Since movement was limited, reading posters was a pastime both entertaining and empowering. A sampling:
“Dissent is Patriotic”
“If you cut off my reproductive rights, can I cut off yours?” (with a drawing of a pair of scissors)
“Keep Your Rosaries off my Ovaries”
“I’m With Her” with arrows pointing in every direction.
“Free Melania”…and it’s varaiation:
“Melania, Blink Twice if You Need Help”
“Mr. Trump, if my vagina were a gun, you wouldn’t try to regulate it”
“A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance”
“Love, Not Hate, Makes America Great”
“A woman’s place is in the House…and the Senate”
“Make America Kind Again”
Booming over the amplifiers, one of the speakers said, “No one is going to rise up and save us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” And maybe that’s the silver lining to this election: complacency recognized for the danger it is. Democracy requires an engaged populace, yet only 45% of registered voters bothered to turn up at the polls. Trump’s poor character and bad judgment were apparent throughout the campaign season. He hid nothing… well, except for his tax returns… and he was elected anyway. This was our responsibility, and we’ve learned a hard lesson. Now we know, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and we have to show up.
“Tell me what democracy looks like!” A call rang out, a single voice, and hundreds boomed in response, “This is what democracy looks like!” All colors, all ages, all religions, and sexual persuasions. This is what democracy looks like. In his farewell speech, President Obama urged the nation, “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift…but it has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power with our participation and the choices we make.”
The 1:15 march time came and went, and speakers droned on with poems and calls to the choir for equality, unity, rights, and healthcare. These were why we’d all traveled to DC, but wedged body to body with our fellow Americans, inhaling their exhalations while crushing dry stalks of sage and drooping tomato plants in the remnants of a crowd-pulverized community garden, the choir was eager for action. “Oh no, another poem,” moaned someone nestled into my armpit. The poems were powerful and uplifting, I’ve no doubt, but we’d heard a lot of them, and it was time to go. A baying cry went up and was multiplied by thousands. “March! March! March! March!”
“Okay,” said Francie. “Maybe we should get out of this crunch and try to get closer to the mall.” Hm. True, but challenging. Madonna started to sing “Express Yourself,” initiating a general bobbing – as close to dancing as the lack of space would allow - but even this slight shift eased the pressure and caused a ripple effect, as if many had the same thought at the same time. People started to edge toward side streets.
One block over, the crowd was still immense and slow moving, as was true of the next. Finally, we turned onto a street still surging with people, but we could stride and dance as impromptu drummers and bands thrummed on corners. We advanced to the mall, a demanding but effervescent sea of people in wheel chairs, babies in backpacks, little ones in strollers, elders on canes, women - and quite a few men manly enough to wear them – in pussy hats. Those hats made a statement and evoked a sense of unity, and again, we were grateful to Kristen for her gift.
Eventually, we turned toward the mall, thrilled to spot the obelisk of the Washington Monument rising before us. We merged onto the greenway with the flood of pink-hatted people as they swept in from side streets, and lent our voices to that soaring, soul-lifting whoop as it rolled in with them.
A massive, tiered, brown edifice reminiscent of a barge hulked on the lawn to our right as we climbed toward the monument: the new African American museum. Such a contrast to the classic architecture of the buildings around us.
“Why did they go with that style? It doesn’t fit at all,” said Jen.
“Maybe that’s the point,” Francie offered.
“Yeah. Slavery didn’t fit in with American ideals either,” I said.
Down the lawn, beyond the pulsing sea of people, posters, and pink hats, gazed the windows and portico of the White House. The Obamas had emphasized that this was the people’s house. Now the people clamored for attention, but it seemed Trump had closed the door to many. Like Francie, I hoped Congress was listening and watching.
“Tell me what democracy looks like!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
In their wisdom, the event organizers figured clenching had taxed muscles as much as marching. Upon cresting the slope between the iconic sites of our nation’s capitol, a phalanx of port-o-potties – probably fifty of them! – welcomed weary protesters. The lines were long, did we really want to wait? Despite my worry about the discomfort of holding, I’d opted to sip water sparingly, and that strategy had saved me. Still, “Don’t pass up the opportunity to use a bathroom” was a pointer in the protest guidelines, and we embraced it. As was true of the march as a whole, even people desperate to go were patient and polite, awaiting their turn and making sure they weren’t cutting in front of anyone else.
It was 4:30 and we were due back at our bus by 5:30. I was loath to leave as people continued to flow onto the mall chanting and proudly brandishing posters. “Women’s Rights are Human Rights!” “Black Lives Matter!” “Protect the Planet!” “Love Trumps Hate!” Determined. Buoyant. Powerful. In my heart and head, this is what America looks like. What I want it to look like.
Moving against a tide that rushed as strongly as ever toward the mall, we headed down Independence Avenue toward RFK stadium. Our hiking boots had been comfy, our plastic backpacks light throughout the euphoria of the day. Now, we limped, exhausted. I took off my backpack and carried it in front of me to relieve my knotted, aching shoulders. Jen checked her Fitbit and it registered 9.1 miles walked. Felt like it. Still, homeowners waved from their windows and yards and said, “Thank you for coming!” and that helped.
Again we passed the two MPs on duty before the sand-colored tank and thanked them. The woman now held a bouquet of yellow flowers. Her gruff companion seemed softened by the day’s events. He smiled broadly and said, “You did good, ladies. Safe trip home.”