Darlene Leong Neal stood body-to-body in a sea of pink cat-eared hats. She was surrounded by nearly 500,000 marchers in Washington, D.C., all waiting for the announcement to take that first step.
Neal had made the 700-plus mile trip with 12 others from Nashville to participate in the Women’s March on Washington, and after what seemed like hours of waiting, they heard the news from the stage — the march was on.
“We got the instructions from the stage that we’re all going to turn around together to march out,” Neal says. “There was maybe one step, but we had arrived. Once we took those baby steps, we’d done it. It was beautiful. Even in that scenario, all the people who wanted to march were excited about those baby steps.”
In a few days, Neal will dust off her protest signs to join the thousands of Tennesseans expected to turn out for the second anniversary women’s march and conference in Nashville. This past year, the first organized women’s march of the modern movement started as a grassroots idea to bring together people who were frustrated by the fact that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the election. It quickly came to represent the movements for affordable birth control, better access to health care, equal pay for equal work, rights for transgender Americans and so much more.
The march came together in about two months, and the idea was co-opted by every state in the country. Organizing began on Facebook before spreading to pockets of people in communities around the United States. The Women's March became the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. A total of 673 sister marches were held, five of which were in Tennessee.
This year, the Women’s March — referred to this year as Power to the Polls — is being held in Las Vegas, as Nevada is a swing state that will be determinant in the way Senate seats are filled in the 2018 midterm elections. The march in Nevada will be the genesis of a national tour focused on getting citizens registered in their precincts.
The purpose of the march is to “[uplift] the voices and campaigns of the nation’s most marginalized communities to create transformative social and political change,” according to the official Women’s March website.
“Women are the caretakers, so for every marcher, there may be a different reason to march,” says Kristin Dillard, a volunteer coordinator for the march. “My reason to march might be concerns about the environment. Yours might be folks that are hungry. Someone else’s might be folks that are undocumented. Anyone who doesn’t have the perfect privilege of being male, white, straight, Christian and born in America is on someone’s mind as they are marching.”
This past year, like many at the Women’s March, Dillard was a first-timer. Her involvement, she says, was a reaction to the results of the 2016 presidential election.
“I committed to D.C. before I even knew there was a Nashville march. The vibe there was nothing like I had ever seen before,” Dillard says. “There were 600,000 people standing body-to-body, no moving for about three or four hours. We were just communing with the people around us and hearing each other’s stories about why we were all there, what we were going to do moving forward.
“I have always, for my whole life, been expectant and couldn’t wait for someone else to do the right thing and fix [whatever needed fixing]. And then … I woke up. I realized I am somebody, and I can do something.”
Dillard’s response — what Neal refers to as righteous anger — was not uncommon among march organizers, activists and the “average Jane” after the election.
“I look at my experience and see that last year, so many of us were primarily motivated by righteous anger,” Neal says. “Now, I see so many of us having moved to a space [where] outrage is not the primary motivator. We’re still pissed, but now we’re a lot more strategic about it. We’re mad, but we’re going to win.
“We’ve learned individually as activists and organizers that we need to be more intentional and collaborative with other groups and individuals because how do we build power for change? Together. It is literally the only way.”Neal, who has been working in the advocacy world since she started a food bank as an 18-year-old, said she has plans to be a part of that collaborative effort for the rest of her life. “I’ve got a really loud voice. That’s one thing I do have,” Neal says. “I don’t have access to corridors of power, but I’m willing to stand outside and ring the warning bell. The main reason I march and do this work is because it’s not politics — it’s personal. I think that’s what it comes down to for a lot of people who march. It’s a very personal expression of my morals, my values. I value all of us, and I don’t feel good when I see people being left behind or left out,” she says.
“I march for my sons. Especially as a mother to boys; I have to do this for them. There is no choice. That’s how compelled I feel. I am under a moral imperative to do what I can do to build the world that I know they deserve. I know them. I know what they’re capable of, and they’re not going to get there in this world. What are my options? Get me a hammer. If I have to tear something down before I can rebuild? OK. I’ll do it. I’ll leave the prettier stuff to other people.”