A Grain of Saul: What I learned from being a man at the Women’s March on Washington
When I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., I assumed it wasn’t for me. I’m a man, the march was for women.
But when my girlfriend asked if I’d be going to report or to march, and I said “No,” she looked at me surprised. Really? What could stop me from going to witness what might be a massive, progressive demonstration? After all, I’ve reported quite a bit on climate change, immigration, women’s rights — all things that would be on the docket down at the march.
Her surprise caught me off guard and made me reconsider how much I really needed a weekend of rest and leisure at home. So, with just a couple days until the march started, I scrambled to make plans and get a ride with my dad — a Washington, D.C. native — down to witness this gathering of people from all over the country.
As someone who does hold many progressive and liberal values, it’s tough to put into words the feeling of witnessing — and being a part of — this gathering.
I imagine it was similar to the feelings people had at Donald Trump’s massive rallies, or at the March for Life that occurs every year in Washington, D.C., or maybe even protests that came with the Vietnam War.
When the march ended, it was a raging success: more than 3 million people had demonstrated worldwide. There were zero march-related arrests in Washington, D.C. The entire demonstration that I encountered was loving, thoughtful, and perfectly executed.
But when I got back to the “real world,” I realized that the march was the ultimate bubble. I saw a lot of people online asking, “Why were these women even marching?” Many offered their opinion that “women have equal rights, what are they so upset about?”
To be sure, certain versions of these questions had bounced around in my mind. But being at the march firsthand, I had the opportunity to learn and understand why 500,000 people — many of whom were women of all ages — descended upon Washington, D.C.
Front and center at the march were two major issues: the previous conduct of President Donald Trump, and the expected onslaught against women’s health care issues such as Planned Parenthood funding and abortion rights.
When the Washington Post’s tape of Donald Trump dropped — where he was caught on a hot mic bragging about forcing himself onto women — I shared the shock of millions of Americans. It wasn’t just that he had said what he’d said, it was that Billy Bush didn’t push back on the comments, and then Trump’s apology included the hollow defense of if being little more than “locker room talk.” As I wrote at the time, as an athlete, I knew what locker room talk sounded like, and this wasn’t it. The locker room talk I know is much more akin to guys bragging about how they can please their partner or cursing up a storm while making promises to crush whatever team they’re about to play.
Speaking to women at the march, and my own girlfriend, what disgusted and scared them most about President Trump wasn’t that he’d said those comments — they expected a little more from a wealthy older man, as many women had experienced that kind of vulgarity firsthand. It was that people so readily and quickly brushed his words off as not being a big deal, as not disqualifying him to hold office.
The truth is, long before President Trump made those comments, women were feeling threatened by overly aggressive men. At bars, walking down the street, inside college dorms, even in aisle 3 at the grocery store. I’ve seen it myself, and as a teenager, I participated in it regularly — I commented on women’s bodies without invitation, used sexualized pick-up lines at parties, catcalled out car windows.
But now that Trump had been elected, many of those women felt like there were no allies in sight. How could a man say what he said, act as he acted, face the allegations he faced, and still receive the vote of so many men and women? Protestors were not just demonstrating against what Trump had said, they were demonstrating against the way it legitimized all the indecency they had felt come their way over the years.
Then, of course, there is the legislation side of this incoming administration.
It isn’t just that Trump’s administration is staunchly pro-life, threatening to defund Planned Parenthood and potentially nominating a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade — it’s the image of a bunch of older men, once again, dictating what a woman can and can’t do with her body.
As with any controversial political debate, there are nuances to this conversation around abortion, women, and the Women’s March. For one, the march organizers took a definitively pro-choice stance before the march, seemingly excluding the millions of women who are pro-life. While the decision didn’t sit well with me, I also didn’t feel ownership over any decisions like these that were being made. I was there as an ally and an aide, not as the focus of the march.
From what I saw, though, being pro-choice wasn’t just about abortion, it was about protecting the institutions that provide abortions because they do so much else. Planned Parenthood is a great example: a place that gives cancer screenings, free or cheap birth control, STD testing, and all sorts of services for men and women, is being threatened because they provide safe abortion services, too.
Similarly, the executive order President Trump signed to defund any NGO providing abortion services overseas won’t actually stop abortions. What it will do is force women in less-developed countries to take extreme measures to terminate a pregnancy. It is also likely to pull the rug out from under impoverished women who rely on those NGOs for other health care services, without any proposal about how to replace those services.
Though these issues dominated much of what I saw, there was also a greater theme and message that made me consider the experience of so many women I know: the distinct feeling that they are not equal.
Women don’t get paid the same for the same job. They don’t feel the same security walking home at night. They don’t get the kind of reasonable maternity leave provided in other countries. They are still judged first by their looks and second by their brains, are still fighting for the right to be believed in sexual assault cases, and are still underrepresented at all levels of government.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report, the United States ranks at 45 when it comes to women’s equality in economic, political, health, and education contexts. Consider that for a moment: 45th. We lag behind Rwanda, Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, and even the Philippines, where government officials are currently conducting a mass murder of their own citizens who are drug users.
When you imagine this reality, and then the reality of watching what looked like a shoe-in for the first woman as president losing to a man as brash and crude as President Trump has been, it’s not hard to imagine why so many women hit the streets this weekend.
Perhaps most importantly, I saw the absurdity of the question in the first place. I learned that we shouldn’t be asking “why” these women are protesting. We should be keenly aware of the battles that still need to be won, and we should be asking them how we can fix the mistakes of our past, and what we can do to help them moving forward in a fight for real equality.
By A Plus’ ISAAC SAUL.
A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
For more political commentary, you can follow Isaac on Twitter @Ike_Saul