Five times throughout history when women marched in protest
For many women, the weeks and months ahead loom like a four-year tunnel of darkness. We anticipate loss of rights, loss of well-being, harm to those we love and erosion of values we hold dear. Fear coats our eyes like an oil slick. What comes next? Will we pull away from one another, like beads of water? From our small huddles, debates ensue.
From all sides, the chatter condenses to one question: How do we move forward? Yet, when examined more closely, this question is as slippery as a beam of light that scatters when reached for. Who is "we"? What constitutes "forward"? These are not questions with solutions, they are dilemmas, as one writer puts it, we answer with our lives. We march for them. The women who will march on Washington have posed a powerful calculation in response to the tasks ahead: "Gender justice is racial justice is economic justice."
But this movement forward may not be so simple. Finding the strength of our convictions, like any athletic endeavor, requires training and teamwork. In the months ahead, if we find our fear outpowers our courage, we must listen more deeply for the footsteps of those who have come before. Their courage lights our way.
Women who march in order to speak: The Suffrage Parade of 1913
On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, thousands of women poured into Washington D.C. As leaflets handed out that day declared, these women had come from around the country to "march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded." Although women had been organizing for voting rights for several decades, the famous 1913 march marked a new era in the women's movement: to not only be heard, but to be seen. In the streets, at that.
The decision for women to march for their political beliefs shocked many, and marked a new strategy for women. The sheer number of spectators reflected the widespread incredulity that women would march for their rights. While a forceful column of 5,000 women from around the country marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday, March 3, 1913, spectators, mostly men, lined the streets, gaping at them. A few blocks away, president-elect Wilson arrived at Union Station, expecting crowds to greet him. When his staff inquired where everyone was, they exclaimed, "Watching the suffragettes!"
Meanwhile, the spectators, shoved, jeered and tripped the marchers. Some police officers, too, took to beating and harassing the women, telling them to go home where they belong. Although many women were hospitalized from the day's parade, the march toward suffrage was only just beginning. Seven years later, and many more pickets and processions, the 19th Amendment, recognizing women's right to vote, became law.
Women who march to broaden justice: the women behind the March on Washington, 1963
On the afternoon of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, Anna Arnold Hedgeman stood amidst a sea of shining eyes -- people moved with laughter and tears -- and listened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Like so many, she was touched by King's words. Hedgeman, a black woman and civil rights leader, had been instrumental in bringing King to speak at the march.
She was also the only woman invited to the administrative committee for the March on Washington. It wasn't only the heat of that August afternoon that made Hedgeman weary, it was the long toil of her work leading up to this month. Since the 1920s, Hedgeman had been working for racial justice and women's work, organizing women workers through a YWCA in Brooklyn, alongside other women civil rights leaders, such as Dorothy Height, Daisy Bates and Rosa Parks. She became a member of the National Negro Congress.
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, recruited Hedgeman to help him organize the first attempt at the March on Washington. Yet leading up to that day, Hedgeman had to hound Randolph to include women leaders in the days event, including women like Height, who led the National Council of Negro Women. Thanks to Hedgeman's insistence, a few women, including Height, stood on stage while King spoke. (Bates, a key leader of Little Rock's integration battle, was able to squeeze in 142-words.)
Hedgeman listened to Dr. King's words swell with song. "Go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," he said. Singer Mahalia Jackson, a close friend of King's, stood nearby. That afternoon, as King paused, Jackson called to King, "Tell them about that dream, Martin!" Leaning into her words as if they were jazz, King looked out over that crowd and offered history its most famous lines: "I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."
As Hedgeman and Jackson, Heights, Bates and King all knew, this movement was not about the strength of one person's vision, but rather the strength of the grip between one another, the way we call each other forward.
As she listened to Dr. King, Hedgeman wiped her eyes and knew the work was far from over. The next day (despite calls from male leaders to wait to resume organizing) Hedgeman and her colleagues in the National Council of Negro Women, National Council of Catholic Women and the National Association of Color Women's Clubs, held a summit titled, "After the March, What?" Three years later, Hedgeman helped found the National Organization for Women and pushed the group to focus on the needs of poor women. Today, NOW is one of the partner organizers of the Women's 2017 March on Washington. Hedgeman's insistence will be there in spirit.
Women who march for dignity in work: Bread and Roses Strike, 1912
On a cold January afternoon in 1912, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, thousands of young women took the longest, shortest walk of their lives. They walked off their jobs. These women, most of whom were 14- to 18-year-old immigrants, simply would no longer tolerate the long shifts at the Everett Mill factory, the treacherous working conditions or the inhumane treatment from company managers. And that January day, the young women took off their aprons, told the mill officials very simply, there was not enough pay.
Nearly 60 percent of the people in Lawrence worked at the mills, but the living conditions were terrible; half of all children died before age 6, and the life expectancy in Lawrence was nearly half that elsewhere in the area. Multiple families crammed into a single apartment.
Neither the bleakness of life in Lawrence nor ethnic divisions, however, alienated the women of Lawrence, most of whom worked at the factory. Instead, the miserable conditions united these women. They spent their scarce hours outside of work chatting at the town grocery store, cooking together or watching each other's children. In the morning, often when it was still dark out, the young women would gather at a street corner to walk to the mill together.
As one girl explained in the book "Women, Work and Protest: A Century of U.S. Women's Labor History," "Well, we'd get our girlfriends together and we'd walk each other to the mills. We'd talk about everything, but always, too, about our pay."
From these friendships, the young girls developed the collective courage to stand up for their working conditions. News of their walk-out spread quickly through the town, and by the end of the next day, nearly 10,000 workers in the area followed suit. In the following weeks, more than 30,000 workers went on strike.
Although militia swarmed the town, and even killed Anna LoPizzo, the women were not scared away. They led marches, delivered fiery speeches and held banners demanding both living wages and dignified treatment. They sang, "We want bread and roses, too." As one reporter observed, the women's tenacious spirits made them formidable. "They are always marching and singing. The tired, gray crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their mouths to sing."
After Congressional hearings, the mill acceded to the workers' demands for better wages and working conditions. Shortly after, President William Taft ordered an investigation of the industrial working conditions throughout the nation.
Women who march to bring back what has been taken away: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, 1977
In the 1970s, shortly after a military regime overtook the Argentinian government, 30,000 students and activists opposed to the military dictatorship "disappeared." Naturally, their mothers were worried. Many traveled from the countryside to government offices in Buenos Aires, demanding information about the whereabouts of their children.
"My son is a young person who thinks and acts politically," one mother explained in the book "Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo." "I don't care what party he belongs to because I am not defending a political party. I am looking for my son who has the right to think." The mothers were met with hostility.
Discouraged, but not deterred, a group of these mothers met in a central square in Buenos Aires, the Plaza de Mayo. Although gatherings of more than three people in the square was illegal, walking was not. When police began harassing the women, they grabbed each other by the arms and started walking in circles around the square. "There was nothing illegal about that," Hebe de Bonafini, one of the co-founders of the group that was to become Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, told BBC News in 2012.
Soon, every Thursday morning, more and more mothers, wearing white headscarves, gathered in the square to march, often holding pictures of their children. Although the mothers faced intimidation and violence for their persistence, they continued to demand information about their children, unwilling to allow them to simply dissolve into history. Eventually, through organizing and activist networks, human rights groups around the world began to take note of not only the disappeared youth, but the mothers who marched for them.
To this day, mothers and would-be grandmothers continue to gather in the square. They no longer inquire about their children's whereabouts. Now, they demand their children's assassins be brought to justice.
Women who march to insist peace is possible: Palestinian and Israeli Women Wage Peace, 2016
In the summer of 2014, fighting among Israelis and Palestinians rose to new levels of horror. In just 55 days, more than 2,000 people were killed. Half a million people in Gaza were forced to flee the area, and 20,000 people's homes were destroyed.
Disturbed by the persistent conflict and the lack of women involved in peace-efforts, a group of Israeli women began meeting to organize for pro-peace solutions. In one of these meetings, the members decided to call an activist from Gaza to learn what was happening on their side. As Israeli activist Hamutal Gouri told a Christen Science Monitor reporter, "[We] discovered that although our perspectives differed, we had a lot more in common."
Palestinian women, too, found common ground with Jewish women. During a night of bloodshed, Amal Abou Ramadan, a Muslim woman from Jaffa, found herself comforting a Jewish woman, a complete stranger, on the street, according to the Monitor. "She was crying and shouting, she needed someone to hold her, so I did," Ramadan said. "I didn't know her, but it didn't matter. We are all brothers and sisters."
This belief in the unity between Palestinians and Israeli and the possibilities for peace guided nearly 3,000 Israeli and Palestinian women to march for two weeks from Israeli's northern border to Jerusalem in October 2016. For these women, hopelessness was not an option. Marching was. As they marched, the women chanted, "We won't stop until there's an agreement."
From Israel and the streets of Washington D.C., to the plazas of Buenos Aires and the mills of Lawrence, women have marched for their rights. They have not stopped, even when the struggle is long, dark and teeming with doubts. Yet these women teach us to keep going, to keep reaching toward the somewhere beam of light, even though, like light scattering at our fingertips, we may never reach it. We simply move nearer to it. These women teach us to not fear the darkness, but rather to use it as a way to stand closer to one another.
This weekend, the years to come, are a pilgrimage, which is to say, a journey one begins alone and returns otherwise. We get there by walking.