Problems at the Portland Women’s March

(It turns out I’m a shitty activist.)

The night before the Women’s March here in Portland, Oregon, I am stoked. I think, “I can’t wait to march for women’s rights!” I mean, I didn’t think I’d have to in my lifetime, but I am feeling the spirit of my feminist foremothers, for sure. Maybe something feels a little off about this excitement, but I ignore the feeling and work on my sign.

The morning of the march I wait at the bus stop outside my house to head downtown. The four other women at the stop are all wearing pink lipstick, and the effect is striking, so I run into my house to get some of my own. I make it back to the bus stop in time to catch the bus and send my mom a selfie text of me telling her I’m headed to march.

In downtown Portland I spill off the bus with the crowd. I finish waterproofing my “Together We Are Strong” sign, and head towards the waterfront. As I get closer the crowd grows thicker and pinker. Soon I’m one body in a mass of people.

I try to meet up with some friends for a while, but I eventually give up — cell phone service is pretty much shot from all the extra traffic. I ask a stranger to take a picture of me with my sign. I hold up a fist of solidarity, but it feels a little …ehh. I’m not sure why yet.

My phone dies, so I start really noticing the signs. The funny: “Ovaries Before Brovaries,” the classic: “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” the anti-Trump: “Keep Your Tiny Hands off Me,” the off-topic: “Save the Polar Bears!”, and my favorites, the vaginal: “Unapologetic Brown Panocha Power!”

I make my way over to the speakers’ platform.

Even 100 feet away, I can barely hear the people speaking. The people 50 feet behind me, and the people behind them keep impatiently chanting, “Let us March!,” to the point where it drowns out the people speaking entirely. The message of the larger crowd is yelled toward the stage by a feisty woman near me, “Yes! What you’re saying is great! We agree! But we’re cold and wet and we wanna MOVE!”

And this is the first problem I notice.

Problem #1:
This crowd wants to be comfortable more than it wants to wait patiently and hear what people have to say.

Yet I can’t deny it, I am very ready to move, too.

As the marching begins and I walk among the other raincoat-wearing, sign-carrying Portlanders, I think, “Look at this great crowd! I want to see this, I want to see us.” I overhear another marcher utter the same sentiment, “I’d like to see the aerial view.” I detect a hint of smugness in myself and many of the other people there…

But I do want to get a better view, so I head up the on-ramp of the Hawthorne bridge and stand with a crowd of others. From there, I can see the mass of people coming towards us. And boy, (or shall I say: girl,) I wish that my phone were working. I wish that I could get a picture of me in front of that crowd. I wish that I had that image of me looking strong (and cute!) in front of a sea of marchers.

And then I think, shit. I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Cady Stanton wasn’t concerned with getting a cute photo of herself as she fought for the right to vote.

Problem #2:
We seem to like taking pictures of ourselves doing the thing more than we like doing the thing.

I get over myself, and get back to the moment. The marching crowd below us chants, and we chant with them, “Love. Not Hate. That’s What Makes America Great.” And from up there, for the first time, I feel what I had been hoping to feel. Above all of the grumblings of uncomfortable individuals, Portland is showing a lot of love for women. I let it wash over me.

I am glad to witness and feel that love. I go down to the street and march with the crowd for a while to take in all of the heartfelt feeling and energy. Then I jump on a bus headed home.

The Monday after the march, as I read other people’s posts, I see that not everyone feels that this event was an outpouring of love and support for all women. I read some perspectives of women of color, and there is a sentiment that the march was a “White Women’s March,” a march where white women get to wear their sassy pussy shirts, feel good about themselves, take cute pictures, and not really put anything on the line.

And yes. That is the big problem.

Problem #3:
I had been feeling like an activist for taking part in this march, but I had no (white) skin in the game. In many ways, I had been treating the march like a game of Women’s Activist Dress-up.

I realize this is why I had felt a little “off” the entire time.

Being a privileged, white, cis-gender, middle class, U.S. citizen woman, I see that there’s no way I can fully comprehend the everyday, life-long racism, homophobia, anti-trans, anti-immigrant sentiment that other women face. I can try, but I can never really know what it’s like to experience that kind of bigotry firsthand. And yeah, I risked nothing beyond getting a little bit cold by taking part in this event.

The women’s movement has been fraught with this sort of racial tension and notions of inclusivity/exclusivity from its beginning. The Portland march itself went through leadership changes as it seemed to change its stance from, “Let’s not also make this about race,” to “We need to be sure to include women of color in leadership positions.” The NAACP of Portland voiced that they would not be supporting the event.

To me all of this means that when I stand up for women’s equality, I must keep in mind and be sensitive to the struggles of all women. I had been mindful of inclusivity on Saturday, but I certainly was not being sensitive.

I apologize for my desire to use a march for equality as a cute photo op. It was deeply shitty of me.

So moving forward, what can I do? I can listen, acknowledge, and strive to understand the struggles of others as best I can. I can be humble in my privilege, call out bigotry within myself and among those near me, and let my activism come from a place of knowing that all people are equal instead of from a place where I just want to look like I care.

As I continue to listen to the struggles of those who have it harder than I do, I realize that that’s what I want from this march. Listening. I want people to listen, to pay attention to the ways that women, even privileged women, aren’t equal.

Because while I haven’t faced racism or other phobias, I face sexism constantly.

I have been sexually assaulted, harassed, followed, grabbed, and uninvitedly humped. I have been told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that no matter what, I’m never going to be as “valid” as a man. I have been culturally brainwashed to believe that my greatest value lies in having an attractive female body. And while I haven’t been raped or abused, far too many among my friends and family have.

I want this march to let men know that sexism is real and painful, and I want other women to notice sexism in their own lives. I want us all to do our part to fight inequality together, for everyone’s sake.

Ultimately I’m grateful that I was able to march on Saturday. I’m glad that I got to take part in a historical event, and I’m excited to see how mainstream the women’s movement has become. And while I may have been a shitty, petty, smug activist on Saturday, at least I know that now. I’ll work hard on getting better. We have lots more work to do.