Roar in Her Name

Did the Women’s marches matter?

In bed with my laptop on Saturday morning, I searched for the live stream of the Women’s March on Washington and clicked open a video window, mindlessly, the way I would flick on a light. Will was next to me, his thigh comfortably pressed against mine under the white and orange flower-covered comforter that I had lugged from college far into adulthood, and which Will and I had intended to replace for all two years of living together. I wanted to get something sophisticated and androgynous, perhaps a plain gray duvet cover, or one in rich royal blue, and a chair by the window to match. Maybe the comforter could be grey and the shams grey with a blue trim to match the chair. I entertained such banal comforter-related thoughts as a black woman with shorn white hair and two long, silver earrings took the podium at the women’s march rally and began to speak.

“My name is Donna Hilton, I’m formerly known as inmate 86G0206.”

Her voice was full and deep and called my mind back from the question of sham color.

“This march is about us,” she said, “the people, the women in this country who refused to be marginalized, sexualized, and abused, and silenced.”

“March!” She said, or rather yelled, or not quite yelled but demanded, but not in a negative way. Sang. Shouted. What is the word for a strong woman’s speech? A call. A sermon. A heart on the table. A roar.

Donna Hilton finished,

“Let’s walk in our greatness because we are beautiful. We are amazing. And we are not silent anymore. “

Next up at the podium was a blonde woman wearing a shirt that said in big orange letters, RUN LIKE A GIRL. Around her stood a stage packed with women waving. She motioned around the stage and boomed in a deep, raspy voice, these are the brave women who fight for us every day in Washington. She pointed to the audience and said, here’s the thing, YOU should be the ones writing the laws. YOU should be the ones writing the policies. In between her sentences she seemed to whisper to me, I am powerful. My room and comforter dropped away, and I existed fixated on her lips, desperate for the words like a dehydrated person at a dripping faucet. She introduced the next speaker, our brand new FABULOUS senator from California, Kamala Harris, who climbed up and sang out: “Alright! Alright alright alright! What a beautiful sight I see.”

A pressure rose quickly from my belly into my chest and up through my throat and head, and I was caught, bewildered, with tears dripping down my cheeks. I tugged the orange embroidered hem of my girly comforter up around my mouth and released three breathless sobs, soaking the silly orange fabric. Will sat next to me offering his miraculous, bottomless support: a patient silence, inviting me with his gentle touch and calm breaths to let him know what was on my mind, whenever I was ready. I worked for a number of minutes to put the feeling into a coherent sentence, and then I said,

“I can’t remember the last time I saw three women in a row speak on stage. And with strong voices.”

When I heard myself say it out loud I felt a fresh rush of hot tears. I stared at a blurry Kamala Harris through a layer of water and wondered how it was possible that I had arrived at a point in my life where seeing three women speak powerfully on stage could shock me to tears.

***

In the weeks leading up to the Women’s March on Washington, I had struggled with questions of the march’s legitimacy, fueled by an enticing logic-and-reason skepticism prevalent in my group of friends. Around a long table at a restaurant called Flour and Water, leaning over our appetizer of Little Gem and Butter Lettuce, we debated how effective it really was to march in protest–and in protest of what? We pointed out to each other, picking delicately at our handmade Pumpkin Tortelloni, that if, hypothetically, one were to go to the Women’s March, what would she write on her sign? There is no clear agenda we said, no clear asks, and therefore it may be wasted effort, and potentially counter-productive. One of my friends made the point: what if we all spend our energy going to this march, and then a month later there is a cause that really needs us, but everyone’s will and effort has already been spent. The outcome of this march could actually be negative.

Now, here’s a skill that I’ve always valued: the ability to objectively assess an issue and draw a compelling logical conclusion. Logic is reliable, unlike emotions; it’s straightforward and clean. As I thought about the Women’s March and whether I should go, I could reasonably argue that I should not. I am a woman, but one who has had access to all the best resources our country can offer. I went to an academically rigorous all-girls school for eight years during middle and high school, an institution whose every dollar and breath was focused on empowering me to be whatever I wanted to be. My first job out of college was at a consulting firm, which was comprised of some 80% men, but my company sent me to women’s events in fancy hotels with panels of female executives to help me navigate that world. My logic suggested that, given all these blessings and advantages, I do not deserve to march in advocacy of myself, no matter what obscenities had been spoken about women by our president. And I would love to march in advocacy of other, less advantaged groups, but is that what this march was even about? As discussed, the singular goal of it wasn’t clear–so could the march have unintended negative consequences? I reasoned it could (see above).

And yet, I knew I would go. Because I wanted to. The week before the march, I found myself continuously returning the to its website and the Facebook page for the San Francisco event. One night as I scrolled through the march platform, staring at my bright screen in the dark living room, I recalled a time in 2012 when I attended my company’s annual Women’s Summit. It was held in a ballroom in the Fairmont Hotel at the top of Pacific Heights where all the windows look down on the sprawling city. Packed shoulder to shoulder on pink-cushioned chairs, a hundred women in pencil skirts watched five female executives on stage talk about how they had made it. Speaking in a high, nasal voice, one panelist told a story about when her son threw her blackberry in the toilet. Another mentioned that her daughter had asked if they could please stop moving around so that she could stay at the same school for more than a year. Another woman on the stage said in a matter-of-fact tone that she had given up many close friendships to climb the corporate ladder. At one point, the discussion–like at many women’s events I have attended–veered toward tactics for how to say ‘no’ in a ‘yes voice’ to men who proposition you in the workplace. As I sat on my own pink cushioned chair in my own pencil skirt, I noted that one of the five panelists wore rubber-soled boots instead of pointy-toed high-heels, and I remember feeling that those boots represented a single ray of hope.

It was only watching Kamala Harris three years later say, there is nothing more powerful than a group of determined sisters, feeling my mind lunge toward an unfamiliar and overwhelming sense of inspiration like a wanderer in the desert who sees a watering hole, did I realize that the women’s event in the Fairmont was the last time I could remember hearing three women in a row speak on stage. And only then, by way of comparison, did I realize that the Fairmont women hadn’t been shouting, or preaching, or singing, or demanding but not in a negative way. Or putting a heart on the table. Or roaring. Or whatever we want to call it.

***

In the afternoon on the Saturday of the women’s march, a group of friends came over to make signs. We were more men than women. Our signs said: Who Run the World, Feminist as Fuck, and Dignity, not pussy-grabbing. We piled out the door and snapped a couple photos on the stairway, holding our colorful signs and smiling for the camera as clouds gathered overhead. As we headed toward the subway, I felt wholly an imposter. I had never marched for anything before, and I told myself that it was so lame this was my first time marching. A woman who concerns herself with sham color cannot reasonably take to the streets. We don’t even know what specifically we’re marching for. Also: why am I going to a women’s march with more men than women? We arrived at the Cole Valley Muni stop where there were more people than could fit on a train. A live pianist slammed out dramatic crescendos on an upright he had dragged out to the street. Trains passed packed full so that no one could get on, and yet everyone smiled as the train cars sailed by, waving signs at the grinning riders. Cars honked as they drove through the intersection.

Once downtown, we lingered in the back of the crowd through the rally, catching here and there a word or a note as it floated across the chilly breeze. The forecast was for rain, and the mist began while we stood, becoming chilled in our rain jackets. Soon the welcome words came from the stage that the march would start. We turned 180 degrees from the rally stage toward the San Francisco capitol building, an ornate dome. Her nooks and crannies had been lit up pink, and the dome glowed warm against the wet, grey dusk. I said to no one in particular, do you think that’s for us? My friend Ben heard me and replied, of course it’s for us. It felt unbelievable to me that an object so official could express what seemed like love. I stared at the pink dome through the rain. It towered over a sign that said “Make Misogyny Wrong Again,” and for a moment I imagined it not as the dome of the capitol, but as a giant, beautiful, life-giving breast. Then I felt embarrassed about that image, then I felt proud, then embarrassed again. As I stared at the dome, the sky opened, and rain gushed onto my hood and into my clogs and soaked my socks, and the crowd began to move forward.

As we poured down the streets of San Francisco, even the broadest of which looked narrow now, packed wall to wall with people, my own world became small and immediate. I could only see the wet rain-coated backs of the marchers in front of me, the low, grey sky above, the droplets of water rolling down my smooth black shoes onto a small, moving patch of asphalt below.

Behind me to the left, a woman yelled out shrilly: my body, my choice.

A man next to her shouted a deep response, her body, her choice.

The woman yelled again, this time joined by a handful more women, my body, my choice.

And then a half dozen men replied, her body, her choice.

Then tens of women yelled: my body, my choice.

And fifty men cheered: her body her choice

And I tried it softly: my body my choice

And a hundred men bellowed: her body her choice

I said it louder: my body my choice, and I felt awkward saying the word “body” so loud.

But then came the bass strength of the response: her body her choice.

I considered whether I deserved to yell this, whether I deserved to hear such an overwhelming supportive response. I tried it louder, surrounded by a new wave of high-pitched yells, my body, my choice.

And they came back even louder, her body, her choice.

And then we cheered, my body my choice, and they hollered, her body, her choice, and it ricocheted off the skyscrapers on our flanks, and it filled Market Street, that broad boulevard that cuts diagonally across the San Francisco grid, my body, my choice, and the sky sobbed out a choral ballad of gorgeous rain, her body, her choice, and the police stood on the sidelines in bright green jackets and looked on, my body my choice, and those police would later report that everyone at the march was ‘so kind and happy,’ her body her choice, and I thought: yes I deserve this, and yes we deserve this, we all deserve this, my body my choice, and I could hear Will’s voice in the crowd, her body, her choice, and that unique support I get from Will was miraculously everywhere around me like a hug, my body, my choice, and I pulled back the hood of my raincoat and looked up, her body, her choice, and let the rain fall on my face. I couldn’t remember the last time I had walked outside in a downpour without rushing to the protection of the indoors.

I yelled full-throated now, my body my choice, not so much yelling, but singing, preaching, shouting, demanding but not in a negative way, putting my heart on the table. Roaring.

Everyone deserves the dignity of hearing their kind roar.

Around me, a reliable, vibrating bass section boomed into the darkening night, her body, her choice. Everyone deserves the dignity of hearing someone else roar in her name.

____

Deep gratitude to Yvonne Leow for feedback and encouragement.


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