My two young daughters, my husband, and I were among the 125,000 people who gathered on Boston Common on Saturday morning to march (or to try to march, anyway – to the surprise of no one, Boston’s comically skinny and winding streets were no match for the masses). We brought a double stroller, tiny outerwear for every conceivable weather condition, and enough Cheerios and raisins to feed a small army. Seemingly the only thing we didn’t bring with us was that critical activist must-have: the sign. I had contemplated making one the day prior, but I kept coming up blank. Maybe something about hearing the phrase “American carnage” undulating from my car radio zapped my creativity and wit. But on another level, there was part of me that wasn’t quite sure how to name what I was bringing with me to the march.
To be honest, participating felt fraught. I was irritated at the exclusion of pro-life organizations from official partnership in the national march. On the most basic, most practical level, it struck me as a monumental missed opportunity for coalition building among groups of women long alienated from one another. What a chance it could have been to finally see one another as more than single-issue voters, to celebrate the complexity of our political and religious identities. Isn’t it sort of the point of feminism to get behind the idea that there are as many ways to be a woman as there are women? Besides, what could have been a stronger statement against the vacuous pro-life rhetoric of the Trump administration than the open inclusion of pro-life organizations in the protest?
But, imperfect as it was, standing in solidarity with those sure to bear the brunt of the new president’s chilling contempt for society’s most vulnerable was too important to me to stay home. So I came, Cheerio-laden and signless.
Toward the end of the day, I spotted another mother holding her infant daughter in a carrier and a large sign in her hands. It read: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” Below was a picture of her bright-eyed daughter. On the other side was a list of ways the Affordable Care Act had been critical for her pregnancy, birth, nursing, motherhood, and the life and health of her daughter.
Hers was the sign I would have made. In many ways, her story was my story. My oldest was born after three consecutive miscarriages. Without the tens of thousands of dollars worth of complicated testing that helped my doctors finally get to the bottom of what was preventing my body from carrying my babies to term – tests covered by my insurance that my husband and I would never have been able to pay for on our own – it’s unlikely that my daughters would be here. That mother’s sign spoke in a powerful, practical way to the interconnectedness of all life and all creation, and to the truth that society’s concern for its least powerful is a litmus test of its goodness. Our strength comes in recognizing the unbrokenness of that proverbial garment of life. That, to me, is the work yet to be done.
A few years ago I participated in an anti-racism workshop that concluded with the mantra, “The work is not the workshop.” The workshop itself was powerful and challenging – so much so that it would have been easy to fool ourselves into believing that participating in it was the same as doing the work of justice it demanded. But it wasn’t. It was only after the workshop ended, after we all went back to our workplaces and schools and churches, that the real work needed to begin.
In the same way, the Women’s March was not the work. That’s not to dismiss it. Just the opposite: if its purpose was to direct our eyes toward the work yet to be done, to propel us outward to take up what theologian M. Shawn Copeland calls the wrenching task of solidarity, then mission accomplished. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in a movement in which I felt not quite comfortable and not perfectly at home. Dissonance can be fruitful, if we allow it to be. Instead of coming away feeling complacent, I rode home on a crowded bus more convinced than ever of the need for authentic solidarity among women and more energized than ever to work for it.
I research religious ritual in contexts characterized by pluralism. The beauty and genius of public rituals – like a women’s march, for example – is that they create space for ambiguity. In the act of walking-with, standing-with, being-with, they can become sites of embodied encounters and unexpected relationships. They allow for the emergence of the unanticipated, the unexpected, the almost-impossible. So here’s my best hope for the Women’s March: that the coalition building can happen after the fact, recognizing in retrospect that for a short time we all stood and walked together for similar and different things but ultimately for a vision of the common good that begins with the smallest, the weakest, the most vulnerable.
Susan Reynolds is a PhD Candidate in Theology and Education at Boston College.