Anger and Empathy: The Lasting Accomplishments of the Women’s March on Washington — Part I

By David Himmel

"Anger and Empathy" is a three-part report, which will be published over the next three days.

“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” — Shirley Chisholm

Do White Men Dream of Equal Rights?

They came from all over. Crowded in cars, crammed in planes, stuffed in buses. Hardworking musicians and mothers and lesbian farmers. Writers and filmmakers and vintage store owners. CEOs, actresses, bartenders and Lyft drivers. Hundreds of thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands of us.

It’s been a month. A lot has happened. And of all that has, the Women’s March on Washington may still the biggest thing to happen during the Donald Trump presidency. Not because of any sweeping political change it caused (it didn’t) or for accomplishing anything of any real tangibility (none of that either) but for what it inspired in, and proved to, the millions of people who came into this new presidency paralyzed and panicked with fear.

I was driving a Toyota Prius at 70 miles-per-hour eastbound along Interstate 90 when Donald J. Trump was sworn in as our 45th president. The electric car belonged to Dean Berdusis, a Chicago-based filmmaker. He rode shotgun, freshly awake after having taken the first few hours through the pre-dawn dark from Chicago. Our staunch feminist friends, Jessica Comfort and Nicolette Fendon, occupied the backseat along with pillows and foam handles from their protest signs, which were invading the middle seat’s headspace from the Prius’ hatch. Dean’s steady-cam was in hand and we were all on the record. Through Nicolette’s organization, we were Washington D.C. bound for the Women’s March on Washington. If this march was going to do all it was poised to set out to do, we were going to be a part of history and capturing that on film was necessary.

It’s perfectly acceptable to laugh that we were three lefty Chicagoans and, Jessica, a lefty from Portland, making the trek to a lefty kind of protest in a lefty kind of car like a Prius. Had my wife not been slammed with work deadlines on that Friday morning, we would have had to caravan meaning that I’d have driven my Volkswagen GTI ahead of Dean’s Prius, thus making us seem a little more moderate, which is where I fall on the political spectrum. But my wife stayed back. She would go on to represent our interests at Chicago’s march.

But what were our interests? The Women’s March on Washington's Mission & Vision Statement says in part, “We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call all defenders of human rights to join us.” This sounded reasonable to me and was why I wanted to march. But the March's inspiration was stuffed with so many ideas and causes, all of them rooted in women’s rights, which I’m in favor of, too. Because women’s rights are human rights. Right? But would anything actually be accomplished? And would I really be welcomed? Would Dean? Could the mission and vision provide me with enough assurance that someone with my skin color and the organic equipment to easily pee standing up not be seen as an enemy?

We are white men. White men make up the Patriarchy. And while Dean and I have always been progressive enough to reject the Patriarchy, we are, without question, white men, and we ran the risk of getting pelted with questionable glares among the female marchers. This was my concern, anyway. And I knew that if that happened, it wouldn’t be fair. I’ve found myself in trouble before when discussing women’s rights with women. My questions have, at times, been perceived as attacks against their motivated feminism. And I never wanted to attack feminism or its motives. I only want to better understand the parts of feminism that I cannot inherently understand because, plainly, I’m not a woman. Biologically-cued experiences prevent me from knowing what it’s really like.

My potential discomfort be damned, though. This was bigger than me. Discomfort is the price one has to sometimes pay for doing what’s right.

People will say that we should support Trump, that we should give him a chance. He’s our president, after all, and we should stand behind our president. That is, of course, absolute nonsense. Trump has had chances to show us the kind of leader he will be and at every step, he’s shown himself to be petty, shortsighted and irrationally dangerous. And all this before he grimly swore the Oath on Lincoln’s bible. And it’s been a swift decent toward fascism in the month since. Only a fool couldn’t have seen this coming. The entire fabric of this American experiment in democracy is made of descent. If we don’t challenge our elected leaders and hold them accountable we, by our actions, denounce—reject—American democracy. To blindly fall in line with the nation’s president is to say that our Founding Fathers should have just paid their damn tea tax.

Since the November 8 election, Jessica and Nicolette—and my wife and so many others—had been smothered in the heavy and wet blanket of depression. The disappointment, the fear, the shock of that Tuesday was overwhelming. It was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when our female companions realized throwing off that blanket was a real possibility.

Vehicles full of women—and a few men— with proclamations taped to the inside of windows or scrawled in glass marker: “D.C. Bound!” “Women for Washington!” Despite the unnecessary navigation being used on the iPhone, I had brought along my 2016 Rand McNally atlas—I upgrade to the current issue every year. My fellow passengers laughed at me, mocking my old-fashioned preference of navigation when we loaded up back in Chicago, but page thirty-five, or Illinois and Indiana, came in handy for Nicolette to write “D.C. Bound” in thick, black letters using a permanent black marker squirreled away for potential later use on impromptu signs. Two black hearts and a large black Venus symbol were drawn underneath. She held it to the window. We honked and waved at the allied vehicles full of reasonable pilgrims descending on the Capitol, President Trump and his Brotherhood of Evil CEOs.

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Inside one particular rest stop, it was like Dean and I had crossed over into an alternate dimension where women were the lone gender and species. The place was a buzzing and happy hive of vibrant feminine energy. They posed in groups for photos wearing comfortable clothes for the car—yoga pants, sweaters and pink pussy hats. Groups intermingled. They were laughing and hugging and high-fiving. When I exited the quiet and empty men’s restroom, Jessica, Nicolette and Dean were leaning against a wall, their new cups of Starbucks coffee in their hands, grinning big and wide at all of the activity.

Back in the Prius, we were in the final stretch. It was dark but there was that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel Jessica and Nicolette had been stuck in for more than two months. Dean steered the Prius along hilly roads packed with brake lights. The rest of us buried our faces in our phones. A post on Nicolette’s Facebook feed informed us that the new Trump White House had already removed webpages from its site dealing with healthcare, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and others progressive topics. Some of the Election Day anger and depression returned to Nicolette and Jessica, but it quickly shifted to empowerment.

“I feel like it’s a weird juxtaposition,” Jessica said. “Like we’ve been driving through the states that put this man in the White House. Like we started on enemy territory and now we’re fucking invading the territory.”

Nicolette said, “You can feel like an island. But you see all these women from all these states and you don’t feel so alone.”

“We’re all going to get our periods at the same time,” Jessica said. “We’ll ride a tidal wave of blood down Independence Avenue!”

To be continued...