Women’s Wave

It’s Washington, D.C., Jan. 21, 2017, and attorney Emma Collum is helping to coordinate the more than 27,000 women who had taken buses north from all over the state of Florida to participate in the inaugural Women’s March. Incidentally, the event made history as the largest and most logistically complex mass assembly this nation has ever seen. Battalions of fired-up progressives crossed the Beltway to challenge the very legitimacy of the incoming Trump Administration, which was even then hopelessly mired in scandal. The Women’s March headquarters was, quite naturally, the Watergate Hotel—at least, the parts of the hotel that weren’t earmarked for inauguration festivities.

“I had to go up there a week before the march,” Collum said. “I was in the basement with about 30 other organizers. There was definitely a difference between what we were doing and the celebrations that were happening on the first and second floors.”

Two years later, it’s a different story, and that story is being written by women who have been empowered and emboldened by the snowball effect of the Women’s March’s early efforts. The band is back together for the third annual march, taking place in dozens of cities around the United States this Saturday, Jan. 19. There are at least nine “sister marches” in Florida, with two in NEFla. These demonstrations mark the crucial next step in the political evolution of the local feminist community.

No one really knew exactly what the original Women’s March would look like until it happened, and by all accounts, it vastly outperformed even the most optimistic projections. It was an epochal day in American politics as well as the politics of this community. In Jacksonville, between 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered. Another 2,000 showed up in St. Augustine. Those numbers, while impressive, were dwarfed by the turnout in other parts of the state: at least 5,000 in West Palm Beach, 10,000 in Miami, 10,000 in Sarasota, 14,000 in Tallahassee and 20,000 in St. Petersburg.

The national numbers were absolutely insane, wholly unprecedented: 22,000 in Houston, 25,000 in Charlotte, 50,000 in San Diego, 50,000 in Austin, 50,000 in Philly, 60,000 in Atlanta, 75,000 in Madison, 100,000 in Oakland, 100,000 in Portland, 150,000 in San Francisco, 175,000 in Boston, 175,000 in Seattle, 200,000 in Denver, 250,000 in Chicago, 400,000 in New York City and 750,000 in Los Angeles. What began as an expression of discontent with an American election quickly became an international affair, with satellite marches in at least 150 cities outside our borders.

All in all, the inaugural Women’s March was, without question, the largest mass gathering of people at any time for any reason in the history of the world. Not since 9/11 had the nation’s collective consciousness been so fully in-sync with itself. And this time it was for relatively good reasons. What began as a protest of Trump morphed quickly into a celebration of the participants themselves.

Shockwaves reverberated around the world, but the epicenter was Washington, D.C. Just one day after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, more than one million people massed on the National Mall, and The Resistance was born right before his eyes. All reports indicated that the White House was, as the kids say, “triggered,” thrust into a state of reactionary panic from which it has yet to escape.

Skeptics on the left and right were quick to dismiss the day’s events as an outpouring of emotion without real action to back it, social media activism at its most extreme. But they were totally wrong. The Women’s March led directly to an unprecedented surge in political activism among those who were there. It ultimately played a key role in the Democratic takeover of Congress last November. Out of 237 women on the midterm ballot, 95 of them won, many coming from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In fact, there’s a bidding war for female talent on both sides of the aisle, as the future of American politics is now crystal clear for the first time in a long while.

Women’s March Florida is a registered 501(c)4 nonprofit that exists separately and distinctly from the national organization; many other states are set-up similarly. Collum, the president, founded the group the day after Trump was elected in November 2016.

“It started with asking volunteers to get buses up for the inaugural march in Washington,” she said. “Along the way, as we started spreading out into a statewide network. What happened was we would have these meetings to get people excited about getting on the buses, and these meetings would become circles of women and allies talking about their concerns, much of which came from the vitriol related to the election.”

There are now nine chapters across Florida. Each is run independently, according to their own internal priorities. The degree of overlap among cadres remains unclear, but certainly the general perception of the Women’s March as a monolithic movement run from the top down is patently false.

Andrea Reyes, co-chair of the Women’s March immigration subcommittee, has been working with law enforcement and the community to address allegations of rampant wrongdoing at ICE facilities in the area. She’s also been helping fundraise for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. She views her involvement with the Women’s March as critical in raising awareness of these issues, a theme repeated by her peers in regard to their areas of interest.

“It does help to have a known name,” Reyes said. “It’s been really nice, because we have the support, the advertising, the promotion of the events through social media.”

Almost from Day One, however, the Women’s March has been criticized both locally and nationally as too white, too passive, too centrist. Progressives are most vociferous in their attacks, while the right still maintain a slightly mocking attitude that barely conceals the very real fear it has of a radicalized female base—fears that were confirmed last November. In the conservative imagination, the Women’s March is by its very nature too radical, too vigilant, too intersectional, as can be seen from conservative media’s frequent critiques of original organizers like Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory.

The progressive critique has taken on a life of its own, becoming a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that continues to color perception of the group. Local organizers take it personally, as they should, and they push back against what they assert to be a false narrative.

“We have reached out extensively to the black community,” said Bonnie Hendrix, captain of the Jacksonville chapter of Women’s March. “If you look at our list of speakers last year, it was very diverse. We had more voices from the black community than we did from whites.”

“Something that was really important to us,” said Collum, “was that if we allowed the march to be just about white women who could afford it, then it would be an ethics failure.”

From the outset, intersectionality was a primary goal of the movement on both local and national levels, with special efforts made to reach out to women of color, organized labor and the LGBTQ community.

“It was really important to us that the voices that were going to be heard were the ones that most mattered,” said Collum.

“A lot of times, when you think of feminism, you think of white feminism,” says Mary Cobb, whose St. Johns chapter has taken the lead in pushing for intersectionality in the Women’s March. “At first, I didn’t really get it. The more I worked, and the more I progressed, the more I saw the truth in that. People who are oppressed, we need to put more focus on them, because their victory and their liberation is tied up into mine.”

Cobb helped establish an anti-lynching memorial in St. Johns County (stolen on the eve of its dedication) and has brought those interests to bear in the Women’s March movement. She helped put together this year’s St. Augustine March, organized by Women’s March St. Johns and Indivisible St. Johns (though Cobb will be joining the national march in Washington, D.C. on the day).

This year’s marches, dubbed The Women’s Wave, will be held this Saturday, Jan. 19. Nine sister marches are planned, with the biggest one in Orlando. The Jacksonville event is sponsored by the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, one of the truly essential organizations in this community. It begins with a rally at Hemming Park at 11 a.m., followed by a march to the Supervisor of Elections Office on Monroe Street and then a return to the park. There, the rally resumes with art by Hope McMath and Yellow House, music by Mama Blue and a slate of speakers including Audrey Gibson, Tracie Davis, LJ Holloway, April LaNubian Roberts Ranna Abduljawad of the Arab American Community Center of Jacksonville, and Coalition for Consent founder Christina Kittle.

More than a dozen grassroots organizations have already reserved tables to work the crowd that day. With local elections in full swing, and a number of prominent women vying for key political positions (like Sunny Gettinger, Tracye Polson, Katrina Brown, Lisa King and particularly Anna Brosche, who’s now officially running to be the city’s first female mayor), one should expect a strong crowd and a level of energy that might even exceed previous years. Best-case scenario is that party politics are set aside in favor of presenting a unified front with bipartisan appeal.

Hendrix took the lead in getting everyone together for the conference call that comprises the bulk of this article.

“We’re gonna have a strong focus not only on the core women’s issues like reproductive rights, healthcare and immigration,” she said, “but gun violence, which disproportionately affects marginalized communities.”

Of course, this is a serious concern for women as well, given the explosion of domestic violence in Northeast Florida.

A sister march, led by Andrea Lee, is being held in St. Augustine, where attendees will gather in Davis Park at 10 a.m. before marching over the Bridge of Lions to Castillo De San Marcos, where the actual rally will commence around noon. Speakers include Dr. Dorothy Israel, Paige Mahogany Parks of Transgender Awareness Project, Cheryl Anderson of Everytown for Gun Safety, poet Joanna Brown, Monique Sampson of UNF’s Students for a Democratic Society, Marianne Wareham of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, St. Johns Education Association president Michelle Dillon, Women’s March St. Johns leader Trish Becker and the legendary Dorothy Pitman Hughes, whose famous photograph with Gloria Steinem is iconic among feminists and emblematic of intersectionality within the movement.

“We’re all in this together,” says Hendrix. “We may wear different T-shirts, and we may wear different labels, but we’re all fighting for the same thing.”

Two years in and the fight has only just begun for the Women’s March and its affiliates, but so far they are winning, bigly.