By Rachel Lankester.
Back in the autumn I decided to make a trip to New York in January. I used to live there and have wonderful friends in the city. I always try not to leave it too long before I go back to what I consider my second home. And there was a weekend conference I wanted to go to last year, but I’d been unable to justify the cost of the plane ticket. But now the time was right, my ticket was booked, and I’d be arriving two days before the inauguration of President Trump! I told the conference organisers I could only attend one day of their event. As soon as I learned of the Women’s March on Washington, I was determined to take part.
I landed in a city seemingly in mourning. There was a sense of impending dread for the coming inauguration day, when what previously had seemed impossible to many, was about to become reality. My friends were shell-shocked at the imminent transfer of power to a man whose values appeared so directly in conflict with those of New York, despite him having made his home there. They were full of worry for the future of their country and annoyed daily at having to negotiate the security around Trump Tower on their doorstep.
On the day of reckoning I sat with a friend and watched the inauguration in disbelief on TV. Many Democrats refused to watch or listen to it. But I wanted to know exactly what the new man in the White House had to say. It was more of the same but now even darker. He talked of carnage in America, still the world’s richest and most privileged of countries despite its problems. Surely carnage was a word to be used for the situation in Aleppo not the USA. If too many people were being shot, why didn’t he enforce gun control? What was he talking about? We sat in disbelief listening to Trump’s bleak vision of his country.
I’d spent the previous two weeks trying to find transport from New York to Washington. I’d scoured websites and left messages on forums. I’d exchanged messages with new contacts on Facebook. Train tickets sold out weeks ago. All the buses were full or leaving from somewhere so far away I’d probably not sleep at all the night before. Then a conversation with my friend led me to Dr Viola Kanevsky, a New York optometrist who’d organised a bus for her family, friends and any others who wanted to join her. I later discovered she’d organised medical missions too. She seemed the perfect guide for my revolutionary escapade. So on Saturday morning I caught a bus from 72nd and Columbus at 5am to take me to DC.
My darling friend Nancy and her daughter Camrin were my travel companions. Nancy had kindly brought a board and multiple coloured pens for me to create my own banner. Have you ever tried to create a banner on a bus? I’m not the most artistic at the best of times, but somehow I managed it!
Halfway, we stopped at a service station deluged by buses packed with women. Inside the building they queued for the loos, or for coffee, wearing bright pink pussy hats. The poor man standing outside the gents trying to stop women from going in was doomed to failure. We sidestepped him and headed for the stalls beyond. When we returned that evening, they’d made that gents restroom into a women-only one!
Everyone wanted to help us women. Except the US border officials it seems. While on the bus, I received an email from a Canadian Mutton Club subscriber telling me her sister’s pink pussy hat had been confiscated by the US border police! Yes really.
After four hours we arrived in DC and joined crowds already several hundred thousand strong. We stood listening to speeches broadcast over screens around the centre. There were so many people, they’d had to change the march route. We waited till early afternoon for the crowds on the official march route to clear, so we could also march that route.
We’d been sent very specific instructions to be compliant with security regulations around demonstrations and marches. These included transparent bags of certain sizes or very small non-transparent ones. The previous day I’d searched for and bought a small bag no more than 6″ x 8″. So I expected there to be a heavy security presence checking our bags around the site. But in the whole time I was there, I only saw nine police officers. And one of those told me there were over 1 million people involved in the march.
There was certainly a high security presence the previous day, ready to clamp down on the slightest hint of protest. There’s a video circulating of police spraying pepper spray directly on a disabled man, an elderly woman and a child. But no security for the Women’s March. Not that it was needed. I have never encountered such a peaceful and loving crowd.
I’m normally claustrophobic and hate crowds, but I never felt the slightest fear that day. But I did wonder why there were so few police around. There were no media trucks either which seemed bizarre for such a massive event. I saw three press crews, each consisting of just two people, one with camera. And no helicopters overhead either. We later discovered they’d been banned. Perhaps to stop those aerial crowd shots that were proving so controversial for Trump and his press secretary, giving rise to new alternative facts in this new alternative universe.
When the crowds dissipated we marched the full route. The atmosphere was electric, and yet also gentle and warm. There was no jostling, no pushing, only women and some men inspired to protest against misogyny and call for women’s rights. And women’s rights didn’t just mean abortion and contraceptive rights or the right to equal pay and to not be assaulted. Women’s rights are all rights. We make up half the planet after all. We marched against climate change, racism, xenophobia, protectionism, and for LGBTQ and native American rights, for health care etc. We marched in solidarity with all marginalised groups. We were there to show Trump we were watching.
Here’s why Nancy and Camrin were marching:
The crowd was a very vocal one. There were some wonderful chants along the way:
We passed a fence with the White House beyond through the trees. Others had left their banners there, rather like a memorial. I propped my banner up with the many others already lining that fence. It seemed a fitting place for it.
When we finally reached the end of the route, we headed towards the nearest subway station. We’d received a text message telling us our coach was not allowed to go to our designated rendezvous point at the RFK Stadium. Instead we had to travel to the very last stop on the subway to meet our bus. There were so many people, we tried three different subway stations before we found one we could actually get into. But even with that level of crowd, there was still no trouble. Everyone tried to help us get to where we needed to be.
Since that day I’ve read many reports about the march and seen lots of postings on social media. I’ve read the disparaging comments from people who persist in describing the marchers as hysterical females, silly women who need to suck it up and accept the status quo. But like many women and all those who joined me on the march, I refuse to accept the status quo.
It was a real eye opener being in the US at this time. Especially in New York, a city that welcomes outsiders, that embraces them and envelopes them in care and support. I know that. I was an outsider there too. I was delighted to see the Mayor of New York speak out against Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the country.
It gave me great joy and hope to march in Washington and to witness the other women’s marches across the world. Now is our time. As one of the banners on the march said, “Leave fixing the world to the men? I don’t think so!” I have this idea that Trump’s election may actually prove to be the turning point the world needs. We must all embrace personal responsibility for the freedoms we enjoy. If Hillary had won, I think women would probably have sat back and trusted her to sort stuff out. We tend to trust our elected officials to kinda do the right thing, even if we don’t agree with them. We have seen from Trump’s first week in office just how dangerous that is, not just for the US, but for the world.
Women are more engaged now in the political environment than ever before. Many are ready to stand up and fight for the kind of society we want. The women’s marches were an incredible manifestation of the peaceful power of women. I truly believe our time has come and women need to gather together to support and empower all marginalised groups. We need to keep the momentum going.
I never intended Mutton Club to be political (and I usually hate how pink is always associated with women’s issues) but we’re all about empowering women and promoting our voices. The Women’s March Movement is all about that too. (So I’ll just have to go with the pink!) This is only the start. Our work is just beginning.
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