Why I Marched
Reflections on the Women’s March on Washington
by Emily Meg Weinstein
Days before the election, I started a new iPhone Note. I keep dozens of notes — to-do lists, funny things the kids I tutor say, unsent rants at boyfriends past, grocery lists, promising lines — but this note was just names.
“Elizabeth, Ella, Elle, Eloise, Kiara, Kaia, Kaya, Caiya, Camryn, Katie, Kimberli,” it read. “Mia, Mya, Nia, Noa, Sierra, Serra, Sarah, Zoey, Zoë, Leila, Lila, Layla, Kayla, Cora, Clara, Claire, Clare, Phoebe, Sophie, Regan, Hannah, Hanna. Roza, Ainsley, Amelia, Isobel, Mila, Cecilia, Esmé, Lesia, Szivika, Ila, Kamela, Madrone, Rosie, Charlotte, Penelope, Abigail, Arusha, Julia, Josie, Liesl…”
It was a list of the names of my friends’ daughters, my female relatives, and every girl I had ever tutored or mentored. I added to it at stoplights, in line to pay for groceries.
I considered including the boys’ names, but didn’t. The victory would be for everyone, but this Note was just for us women and girls. I rearranged the names to optimize the rhythm.
“You can be ANYTHING,” my iPhone Note for Girls and Women concluded. “You can be the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”
I had it ready, to copy, paste, and post, when the moment came.
But the moment did not come.
Would it have made any difference, to have a woman in the highest office?
Even a woman with such a complicated history on racial justice, gay marriage, Wall Street? (A history she shares with every other career politician.)
Even a woman who was such a linchpin of the very establishment we wish to dismantle? (The establishment that has now re-established itself in a form so villainous and vile it seems plucked from science fiction, that has mantled itself in the most inhuman nature.)
It would have made a very big difference.
Was she the right one? The best one?
She was the only one.
She was the only other viable option on that ballot that day.
She was the one who had raised the millions, schmoozed the donors, paid the dues, worked the system, won the superdelegates, hired the advisors, pressed the flesh, made the deals, given the speeches, bought the airtime, sold the soul, worn the pantsuits, been the First Lady, a senator, and the Secretary of State.
She was not perfect. (No one has ever expected any of the men to be perfect.) She was highly competent. But, even if she had not been quite so highly competent —
It was either him or her.
“Voting,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “is a chess move, not a valentine.”
There is a difference. A vast one. And now we are living in a new, worse place, across that distance.
On Election Day in 2008, I stood on a New York City subway platform, listening to three African-American MTA workers discussing the Historical Event.
“You really think it’s gonna change anything?” wondered one man.
“It has to change something,” said his colleague.
“We’ll see,” said the third man. “We’ll see.”
In 1988, I was old enough to know about the election. I had watched the Oliver North hearings with my mother, the summer before. At seven, I didn’t completely understand Iran-Contra, but by eight, I understood the concept of voting, the binaries of win and lose, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican.
My father listened to Howard Stern in the morning, driving us to school. “Let’s see who’s on Howard,” he would say. Maybe I even heard our current president make some of his charming remarks.
In the afternoon, my mother listened exclusively to public radio while she took us to our lessons and appointments. Not NPR — further left, Pacifica. All summer, all fall, she explained Bush the First.
Just as bad as Reagan. Worse. Reagan was a moron, a bad actor, but this guy, his vice president, was smart and bad. The director of the CIA! My mother explained what the CIA did, and what the Reagan Administration had done, in the earlier eighties. The School of the Americas. The proxy wars in South America. Guerillas. Contras. Death squads. Massacres.
(Later, I would learn that Democrats also authorize and cover up their share of overt and covert wars, none of them just.)
Even worse than Reagan, I pondered. Reagan had been president my entire conscious life. We hated him in equal measure to how much we loved the New York Mets. He sounded so unintelligent on television, as if he were speaking to small children, like Mr. Rogers. In fact, the president was in the early stages of clinical dementia.
We didn’t know, then, how his bad policies would cause the worsening economic inequality, that, accelerated by the complicity of neoliberal Democrats, has led to this. We didn’t know there could be something even worse than a demented president — a deranged one.
But Dukakis was no good, my parents said. He couldn’t win. Even worse than Mondale. Ugh. Oy vey. What was wrong with the Democrats?
The morning after the ‘88 election, I asked my dad. “Who won?” and he said, “Bush.”
It was the only other time I cried at the results. “Dad, Dad,” I said. “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? What is going to happen to us? He ran the CIA! He is VERY BAD!”
“Nothing is going to happen to us,” my dad said. “Because we’re privileged.” (He really said this. He has always told the truth.) “It’s people who are less fortunate than us who are really affected by who the president is.”
I thought about this. He must have been right, because all this time we had had the bad president, the stupid president, the worst president until the worse one (though all the grownups were always agreeing that Nixon had been the very worst), everything was okay, for us. That was why the stories of the guerrillas and the massacres were such a surprise. And later, the stories about the drugs and violence in the neighborhoods were such a surprise. Because they happened in other countries, other neighborhoods, far from ours. Or near to ours, but far away in other ways.
“Nothing is going to happen to us?” I asked.
“Nothing is going to happen to us,” my dad said, turning the dial. “Let’s see who’s on Howard.”
Nothing is going to happen to us. Then to whom, I wondered, was it going to happen?
I didn’t become instantly conscious, but I started thinking about things, even trying to do things that were related to the things I thought. When the first Bush started the first Gulf War, I was in the sixth grade. I sat, silent, while everyone else stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I never stood for, or spoke it aloud, again.
In eighth grade, Clinton was inaugurated. By the time Lewinskygate broke, I was a freshman in college. Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the Pentagon Papers, came to speak at my school.
“I would be more concerned,” said Ellsberg, “about where the president drops his bombs than where he puts his cigars.”
It made me think about how sex could be used to distract us from violence.
Nothing is going to happen to us.
At the college, I learned about the people it happened to, and what happened to them.
The Saturday Night Live sketch with Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock rang painfully true to me and many of my other white friends. We scream, cry and panic, as if this is all new, and our friends of color tell us, with patience we don’t deserve and fatigue we can’t bodily understand, that this is how it has always been for them.
My grandmother took my mother to a civil rights march on Washington when she was fifteen years old. They marched with their African-American neighbors and friends, the Allens. My grandmother, Ruth, brought her daughter, my mother, and Ruth’s best friend, Ruby, brought her daughter. They got tear gassed and ran from the police, into the DC Metro.
My high school American history textbook was very boring on the inside. It contained many unmemorable facts about the gold standard. But on the outside, the front and back cover was one big black-and-white photograph of the 1963 March on Washington. The Mall, the monument, the Memorial, the reflecting pool, the people. The words in the book put me to sleep, but the picture gave me chills.
I had learned in lineage and school that when things were unjust, you marched on Washington. When things changed, they changed when people marched on Washington.
This was unjust. It had to change. So I texted my girls, all women and mothers now, and we bought tickets, to march on Washington.
“Women’s March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogues About Race,” read the headline in the New York Times. It might have said, “Women’s March on Washington Opens Important Dialogues About Intersectionality.” The implication, in the hand-wringing, was that feminism would be undone, rather than evolved, by these dialogues.
A widely circulated Instagram post by Brooklyn blogger and activist ShiShi Rose was cited in the Times article as a reason one white woman decided not to attend. The white woman, was “stung by [Rose’s] tone.” This further amplified — and wrongly legitimized — the white fragility. A better, truer story might have been that Rose’s voice and her courage to raise it, far from turning all white women around, informed and inspired us, giving us more and better reasons to march.
A friend posted a similar piece on Facebook, called “Why I Am Skipping the Women’s March on Washington.” She said the piece expressed some of what she felt.
“I know this will be a very unpopular sentiment amongst many of my white woman friends,” my friend wrote, above the link, “but if we are actually friends, I hope you can hear it.”
It must be, I thought, reading it, harder to live these experiences and feel these feelings, than to read or hear about them.
It might be uncomfortable, at times, to face and reckon with the differences between our lived experiences, but not as uncomfortable as living blindly with injustice, and pretending that what is unconscionable is comfortable.
It might be uncomfortable to read about the complicated feelings of our friends of color, to know about their anger, to sometimes be the object of it, to know the depths and specifics of their suffering, to think we have in any way been the beneficiaries or agents of it. But not impossible. It may not be habitual for me to face and name my own privilege, my white privilege, my cisgendered privilege, my straight privilege, my economic privilege, my ability privilege, and my own equally intersectional ignorance of that privilege. But it is not impossible. It is hard to face and name my white fragility, the profound limits of my understanding and even my empathy. But not impossible.
It will be hard to evolve the historically problematic feminist movement toward real intersectionality. But not impossible.
As long as the conversation is still possible, the relationship is still possible. And the conversation is always possible, as long as it is not violent. Violence is what makes conversation impossible. A difficult conversation is not the same thing as violence.
It is not only hard for us to have these conversations and experiences, as we fight these fights. It is good.
It is not only good. It is necessary. It is what we are fighting for.
That is why, in all of this, I maintain that an anger that is specifically white or specifically male is not really what is important. It is not important at all, except insofar as it is something to be destroyed by the Force of our collective love, power, struggle, and will.
The white, male anger is not, really, part of the conversation. We do not owe it a safe space. It is this very anger that makes the space unsafe.
The anger of white people and men and white men about the way our country is changing is not merely anger. It comes from fear, and it leads to hate, and suffering — and violence.
This anger of white people, or men, or white men, does not stem from legitimate injustice. The erosion of white supremacy is not an injustice. The erosion of white supremacy is justice. The erosion of the patriarchy is not an injustice. The erosion of the patriarchy is justice. The specifically white and/or specifically male anger is what is unjust, and unjustified.
The tantrums of men and boys who are offended by the way I use my voice and what I say when I use it are not my problem, though they may become a problem for me. I do not owe these feelings my time or attention, other than my resistance to the violence they produce, and the extension of whatever protection, help, or solidarity I can offer the people who are most vulnerable to that violence.
If the erosion of male supremacy is hard for men, then that is a burden they should bear with pride, not complaint. If the erosion of white supremacy is hard for white people, then we must recognize and name the source of that anger for what it is — it is race hatred. It is a desire to preserve white supremacy.
If you are a white person or a male person who is sad or angry that you no longer wield a certain power tied to your race or gender, and you feel afraid of what life will be like if you have to share this power with people who are not white or male, hire a therapist. If you cannot afford a therapist, punch a pillow. If this change is hard for you to bear or feels like it is happening too fast, start a meditation practice.
Of course, it is not so simple. The patriarchy, the white supremacists of the alt-right — they have long been able, and are empowered still, to make their anger our problem. That is the awful, historic magic of power — it enables the powerful to indulge their many vices — greed, rage, bloodlust, violence — on the bodies of others and the planet itself, without repercussion, and then spin the liberation of the very people they have oppressed, silenced, enslaved, raped, or murdered as a threat to their own humanity.
I don’t yet know how to ensure that the anger management problem of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “our sick white brothers and sisters” is their problem, and not ours, but I do know that the erosion of a white and male supremacy — and a straight, cisgendered, heteronormative, English-speaking, abelist, capitalist supremacy — is the bringing of our tortured nation to some semblance of justice. Anger, or fear, about that justice is in no way justified. That anger and fear is a part and parcel of the violence — it is the very source of the violence — of which our country has such a long and ugly history.
We slept all the way from Philadelphia to Washington. When the sold-out train pulled in to our nation’s capital, hundreds of women, all wearing sneakers, woke up, stood up, and rose to join thousands, to become millions.
A female police officer on the platform wore a pink pussy hat. She cheered. We cheered back. The overwhelmingly female yawp reverberated in the station, its pitch higher than any co-ed stadium roar.
It was pointed out that the cops do not wear hand-knitted pink hats when Black folks take to the streets. When Black folks take to the streets, the cops wear riot gear, and use their weapons, and make arrests, not friends.
I had mapped us to the starting point, but soon we did not need a map, for the march had started when we disembarked the train. As we made our way to the National Mall, I turned back to look at Union Station. Behind us, stretching for blocks, was a solid line of people, pouring out of all the doors. Ahead of us, a sea.
Once we were on the Mall, I looked up and saw the steps of the Capitol building, hung with banners still in place from the inauguration I had ignored the day before.
On January 20th, at the stroke of noon, I had posted a Bible quote: “And Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), coupled with a Bob Dylan line, from “Masters of War,” “Even Jesus would never/Forgive what you do.”
No one read or liked these posts, but I wanted to enter them in the digital ether of the historical record, words to mark the moment when I had no words.
Now, twenty-two hours later, the banners on the Capitol were enormous in person, terrible and terrifying. I see the Nazis in everything they do. In the absurdity of his haircut, in the fat squints of his pasty puppeteers, in the obfuscations of the press secretary and the telltale blinks and frozen smile of that mendacious Barbie doll, in the edicts and orders and propaganda and lies, and in the banners under which all this occurs.
I know those same banners might have hung for Our Candidate. But if she had stood in her rightful place on that dais on that day, in her white suit with her golden helmet hair only a few shades off that horrible orange, the banners would not have meant the awful things they mean.
The fences for the plebiscite were all still in place. Yesterday’s front-row seats to the death of the Republic sat empty, and all white.
Chloe took my hand and squeezed it, like she had on graduation day, marching through the university gates, and on all those summer nights we crossed the bridges of Brooklyn with bare shoulders and brown-bagged beers, and diving into the phosphorescent dark of the Pacific, and right before her wedding, when we lined up to precede her down the aisle, and the time she was postpartum and delirious, and her new baby was crying, and we were singing him a Simon and Garfunkel song.
The top of the Washington Monument was shrouded in fog. “The nation’s phallus!” I’ve always joked about the obelisk. It felt appropriate to see its sharp end effaced.
The texts were still going through. We were only a few blocks away from our other friends, waiting for us at our meet-up spot on the steps of the Air and Space Museum. We only had to travel the length of one more museum, but the sea of people was packed so tightly it was a solid mass. We wiggled and wriggled, and said “excuse me,” but we could not make headway.
I knew we would not find our friends until the end of the day. So we talked and sang and chanted with strangers.
That is what I wish to explain — the sheer number of people. More than I have ever seen. More than they said there would be, and more than they said there were. And they kept coming.
Despite this crush of people, cushions of air and space appeared around every baby stroller, wheelchair, and walker.
We found some breathing space near the Port-A-Potties and chatted with a couple from Pennsylvania. He was a Brit and she a German, but they were both U.S. citizens. Everyone else in their conservative county had voted for the blowhard.
I climbed up on a pile of pallets and could see that the whole Mall was packed as far as I could see in every direction. An older couple from Denver was sitting on top.
“I don’t even like crowds,” sighed the woman. “But I had to come.”
“Me, neither,” I agreed. “But me, too.”
There was a commotion, a cheer. Someone shouted “Katy Perry!” But it was actually John Kerry. On his first day as a private citizen, he marched with us. He, too, was robbed, and us along with him, in a different year. The crimes against democracy that have brought us this regime are so many and so great that the theft of that election, in 2004, is now, incredibly, one of the lesser.
We could not see the Jumbotron, or hear the speeches. (I watched them all the next day, sick after the journey and convalescing on my parents’ couch, plane postponed. Gloria! Angela! Michael Moore! Linda Sarsour!)
We helped an older woman with a cane up the steps of the National Gallery, and were rewarded with hugs. She listed a long history of marches in our short journey. We stayed inside a moment to warm up and use the men’s room, the line for the ladies’ being even more absurd than usual. When we emerged, it was time to start marching.
But there was nowhere to march. The whole route was already packed, and yet the Mall, from which we were meant to march, was also packed. And the people were still coming. So we went to Pennsylvania Avenue, which was not the Women’s March route, but the inaugural parade route. It was cleared of cars, not by the officials, but by Us, the People.
We were standing on the bleachers that had been installed for the parade, the ones that had borne empty witness to the illegitimate motorcade. A bystander observed, to someone on the phone, “There are way more people here than yesterday.”
We clomped down the bleachers to re-join the march, but as we did, a human tsunami roiled down the street. Behind them, still coming, came more, until the whole avenue was one chanting throng.
In front of the Newseum, a museum that “promotes, explains, and defends the five freedoms of the First Amendment,” the crowd undulated, most appropriately, under the First Amendment, etched in stone.
The silent words read:
“CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; OR ABRIDGING FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS; OR THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO PEACEFULLY ASSEMBLE, AND TO PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES.”
And the crowed chanted:
“Tell me what democracy looks like!”
“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”
Onlookers stood on the museum’s balconies, watching the free speech on exhibition, outside the museum’s doors.
We thought maybe we could march on Constitution Avenue, the one remaining thoroughfare, and move toward the Washington Monument, or even the Lincoln Memorial. Constitution met Pennsylvania at a diagonal, but when we turned the corner, the marchers were pouring onto Constitution, and the Mall was still full.
Later, we found out it was like this in New York, in Los Angeles, in Oakland, in San Francisco, in Seattle, in Chicago, in London. The reports were all the same. So many people showed up to march that instead we simply gathered, for our numbers filled the length of all the routes, and all the streets adjacent.
Finally, the texts came through. Our friends Ellen and Oliver, who had been packed into the rally since first thing that morning, had dispersed. Megan had waited two hours just to board a Metro train with her 2-year-old daughter, Esmé, and now the two of them had gone the furthest of all of us, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, in the matching hats Megan’s mom had knitted, in their matching superhero capes that Megan, a professional crafter, had made.
We had all marched together to the Rhode Island State House in 2000 to protest the stolen election, but the Bush Administration shadowed our whole twenties. We had all marched together to protest the war in Washington, in 2003. Ellen and Oliver had just met, living and working there. In 2004, they saw Barack Obama take the national stage at the Democratic National Convention. In 2006, I stood up at their wedding as Ellen’s maid of honor. Now, they have two daughters, whose names were in my iPhone Note for Girls and Women. Whose Status I so very much wished to Update.
It was Oliver’s 40th birthday. I had placed a single summit beer to end our flat walk in a stars-and-stripes climbing chalk bag. We went to deliver it, and hugs. And, finally, to get some coffee.
But is it a movement? sneered the internet.
If you have filled the streets so thoroughly that you are packed too tightly to move, then it is a movement — or at least the beginning of one.
If we did that once, we can do it again — and again and again and again and again.
I could not bring myself to delete the iPhone Note with all the names of all the girls and women. It lives on in the Cloud, on all devices, waiting to be brought to Earth.
I am adding to it once again, at stoplights and in line to pay for groceries. New students, new daughters. More names, more girls, maybe even one day, one of my own.
I will keep adding to my Note, until it is time to update our status.
And when that moment comes — when we bring it forth from history yet unwritten, yet unmade— I will be ready.