Womxn’s March on Seattle
Judkins Park, Central District to Seattle Center
January 21, 2017
Essay by Sharon Cumberland
There are at least 130,000 women and men who will tell the story of their Womxn’s March on Seattle this past Saturday, and I’d love to hear them all. Here’s mine:
I’m a woman in her 60s whose pussy (and boobs and butt) have been grabbed more times than I want to recall, whose unwilling body has been pinned on sofas, in the backseats of cars, and at parties on coat piles in back bedrooms, whose mouth has been invaded by alien tongues, and whose right to say NO has been repeatedly disregarded by people with bigger muscles. You might think that at my age these indignities would have subsided, but I was felt up a couple of Sundays ago in the narthex of my church by a homeless man who asked for the hug of peace.
So I was fully prepared to wear a pink Pussy hat and “grab back” on Saturday. I spent all week thinking of slogans to write on my sign—and I saw some great ones in Judkins Park: “Real Men Don’t Grab” “You Can’t Grab Our Rights” “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights” “You Can’t Comb Over Sexism” “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” “I [heart] My Cuntry” “When Women Rise the Nation Rises”.
But it occurred to me that I already have a hat worth wearing to an anti-abuser and protest rally—my mortarboard. We all have one of those, especially since they give them out for graduations from kindergarten to college—a flat or floppy hat with a tassel that sends a message: “I earned this by achieving a level of learning that makes me smarter than I was before.” Becoming educated is one of the great freedoms this country offers its citizens—nothing to be scorned in a world where women are routinely barred from going to school, either because of their sex or their economic limitations, and therefore confined to home or to low-level jobs.
Yet the Republicans have scorned educated people for decades, calling them eggheads or elites, and making them out to be living in ivory towers and out of touch with the world. Many Republicans are committed to ignorance: they deny science, climate change, racism, and the danger of guns in our culture. Trump and his minions deny all evidence that Muslim Americans are solid citizens, or that immigrants of all colors bring the same benefits to America as our Irish and English and European ancestors.
I think Trump made it into the White House because our education system failed the voters. All through the election campaign Trump made absurd assertions without offering evidence that anything he said was true. Gullible voters believed him because they didn’t know enough to say “Prove it!” Of course, many didn’t care—they voted with their emotions instead of their brains. So I decided to march in my academic robes, to stand up for my students and colleagues at Seattle University and to make a pitch for universal education and educators everywhere. On one side of my sign I wrote: “Knowledge is Power—Not Elitism” and on the other I wrote “Demand Evidence”.
My mortarboard is the floppy variety, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where I earned a Ph.D. in English. I’ve got a nifty medieval-style gown that goes with it, with velvet trim and poufy sleeves, and a gold-lined hood that goes over my shoulders and hangs down the back. Some of my colleagues warned me that it was going to rain and I’d be dragging my lovely gown in the mud. But I thought, so what? I DON’T live in an ivory tower! Let my robes get some honorable mud on them!
So on Saturday—which turned out to be dry and sunny, against all predictions— my nephew, Paul, dropped me and my niece, Laura, and an SU colleague, Eli, as close to the action as he could. All along the way we saw streetcars trundling by, packed to the windows with people and signs. The bus stops were crowded with marchers ready to go, and the sidewalks clogged with patient, Pussy-hatted people headed for the park. Not since the Seahawks’ Super Bowl parade have I seen such a river of people filling the streets—and while this crowd seemed optimistic and excited, it had an edge to it—a sense of determination that bucked me up and gave me courage.
We piled out of the car at 10:15 and made our way into the park, but we didn’t make it out again until 12:30 because the crowds were so vast that it took an extra hour just to trickle over to Jackson and then down to 4th Avenue. We could hear the speeches but couldn’t see the podium past the ocean of signs and Pussy hats of every color, variety, and ingenious construction. The only speech I remember is the Muslim woman’s, who spoke movingly about the hate crimes being committed against mosques and girls in hijabs here in Seattle. (What? Here? I was ashamed.) She encouraged everyone to visit mosques and make an effort to get to know Muslims in the area. Education, I thought—we need to educate ourselves.
Being dressed in an outrageously fabulous outfit meant that lots of folks came up to me and talked to me. I met half the English Department from British Columbia University in Vancouver; a woman whose lawyer sister was a Republican but who so honored evidence that she thought my “Demand Evidence” sign would get her to be a Democrat; teachers of every level, K through college, carrying signs like “Nothing is More Dangerous Than Ignorance” and “Make America Think Again.” I ran into SU’s Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences in a pink Pussy hat, and the chair of my department with her wife and their wonderful daughter in matching home-made Pussy hats. I found one of my own students, Molly, at a church that had generously opened it’s facilities for marchers. The church carillon played folk songs, and as we marched along singing “Oh, Susanna” a little girl cried out “That’s my name!”
As we stood at the top of South Jackson, waiting to move down the hill, a distant roar seemed to build somewhere below and move toward us. At first we couldn’t figure out what it was, but as it approached us we realized it was a massive sound wave of marchers yelling, passing the shout along the line. When it reached us we started yelling, too—nothing coherent, just cathartic hollering at the top of our lungs. Then many arms suddenly pointed upwards—there had been helicopters hovering all day—but instead what we saw was a pair of eagles circling over head. Round and round they soared as thousands called up to them in gratitude—a blessing, from any standpoint.
As the walk progressed, I ran into friends from all areas of my life—school, church, the poetry world, the LGBT community. I even ran into Tom Douglas, who was handing out water and tea in front of the Dahlia Lounge. I was so weary by that time that I didn’t recognize him. I just thought it was cool to get some water from a guy in a Pussy hat who looked like Santa Clause. When people called out “Thanks, Tom!” he called back, “This is the home team!”
One of my favorite encounters was with a guy named Otts who was posing with a gold Whiting and Davis evening bag and a sign that said “Purse First.” What does that mean? I asked, thinking it was cute but a little off message. Boy, was I wrong. He flipped his sign over and showed me a black and white photo taken at a pro-Nazi rally in Germany, of an elderly Holocaust survivor rushing up to a skinhead and bashing him with her purse—a fearless woman using the best weapon at hand to fight a dangerous, vicious man. What could be more on message?
Then I saw two beautiful boys arm-in-arm with a sign that said “Pro-Choice IS Pro-life!” and then two beautiful girls sitting arm-in-arm on top of newspaper dispensers with a sign that said “Stronger Together.” It still makes my heart ache to see shades of Hillary, but she is the President-elected-by-the-people and my hope and prayer is that she will somehow help us keep rallying and fighting the dangers ahead. Several of the college professors I met said “I wish I had worn my regalia!” Wear it next time, I said, because I know there will be a next time.
My niece started to count how many people asked me to pose for a picture and show both sides of my sign, but she gave up at around 30, and that was just the first hour before we left the park. By the time we made it to Seattle Center, after five hours of marching, I had been stopped for photos at least 100 times. Some fellow marchers were New Yorkers who recognized the CUNY insignia on my gown and reminisced with me about NYC. Others were taking photos of interestingly dressed people or the wonderful variety of placards. But most encounters were like the one I had at the end of the march when we were headed home, wearily wondering where to sit down and get food and drink. A woman came running after me calling “There she is! There she is!” She said she saw me get out of the car on 23rd and Charles St. six hours earlier and had been looking for me ever since. Why? I asked. But she didn’t say, just snapped away saying “thank you, thank you”. But by then I knew why—she wasn’t looking for me, of course, but for what I symbolized.
I was a walking symbol of higher education, of education in general, of being smart, of being female and smart, and of being proud to have good brain in my head. All along the route people called out “Thanks, Professor!” and “Beautiful!” and “Right On!” After all the Hillary-bashing and fear-mongering against smart women in the election, it was a relief for all of us to say “I’m educated, I’m smart, and I’m proud!” Obama was one of the smartest presidents we’ve ever had, and Hillary would have matched his smarts as well as his awareness of the issues that prevent women, children and immigrants the essential educational opportunities they need to become solid citizens. Now that we’re cursed with one of the least civilized, least well-read, and just plain stupidest men ever to be in the White House, we need to fight against the lie that educated people are unrealistic, pointy-headed dreamers. We are the brains of this operation and our country needs us more than ever before.
I hope the next time we march will be as peaceful as Seattle Womxn’s wonderful, serious, massive march was on Saturday. One sign I saw said “1968 is calling—don’t answer.” The young people around me didn’t know what it meant, but we oldsters, who marched against the Vietnam war, know very well what it means: Don’t succumb to violence. How well I remember the tear gas, the Billy clubs, and the electric fear of peace marching in those days—not to mention the sexist slogan “Chicks Up Front!” In case you’re too young to know what that means, threats of violence against marchers were so prevalent that the girls were lined up in front of the march in hopes that the police and pro-war counter-protesters would hesitate to beat up girls. Our corporate feminist consciousness was not yet fully raised—we still let ourselves be used as human shields. It was some sell job about women having nurturing natures and protecting their men. The flip side of that coin is how much we like having our pussies grabbed. Don’t worry, 1968—we’re not answering. We’ve got our Pussy hats on and our mortarboards on. 2017 is calling—and Trump had better watch out.