Have you ever been a part of something big? Like, truly big?

There’s an electricity in the air that you can’t explain, there’s this feeling when you look at other people around you and you exchange a glance: you feel it, don’t you? Sometimes it can be positive electricity, like waiting for your team to make the final score that will win them the game. Sometimes it’s negative, like gathering after a disaster to try to decide what to do next. But it’s always there, and it’s something you feel even if you can’t quite describe it.

The traffic grew steadily thicker as we drove into downtown Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday, something my boyfriend and best friend and I have done countless times before. We saw more and more Planned Parenthood stickers on cars and women in pink hats and holding posterboard at stop signs and we honked at them and waved, you are not alone we said, with unspoken words. There come times in our lives when we know we have the opportunity to participate in history, and it was clear from the onset that this would be one of those moments: we could stay home and watch it unfold over social media, or we could take our own signs and our own feet and march for ourselves, for the women who wouldn’t, for the women who couldn’t.

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson

The Gathering

For someone who participates in a lot of traditionally masculine hobbies, it was new and unique for me to see this many women all in one place. Many wearing pink hats, women of all colors, women pushing strollers and women in wheelchairs, young children who may have not even been born when we stormed the capitol in 2011 to protest the infamous Act 10, very old women who had been here before and were not afraid to stand up again.

It took us almost an hour from our arrival at the gathering place to begin our march down State Street; 10,000 women had clicked “Attending” on Facebook and 17,000 more said “Maybe.” In total they estimated there were 75,000 to 100,000 of us, and it was clear from the crowds that this was more people than anyone had guessed. We passed the time by reading signs, learning why the people around us were marching, and reveling in the spectacle of it all while drummers we couldn’t see beat a low cadence from across the crowd.

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson

The March

Moving slowly gave us the opportunity to duck in and out of various groups, meeting different women (and sometimes men) along the way. In the beginning we found ourselves among children who had made their own signs, all hand lettered and sometimes with sloppy spelling. They told us in their own words why they were here, why they were marching. Several mothers we talked to assured us that the children had come up with it all themselves, and it was not difficult to believe: children often understand things that adults have a difficult time seeing.

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson

As we made our way into another group down the street I took a moment to talk to a woman carrying a sign declaring that she had marched for women’s rights previously back in the 1970’s and that she was now returning to march again with one of her seven granddaughters who was marching for the first time. A reminder that the fight isn’t new, and that while we have made progress we still have a long way to go. There were so many different signs, different reasons to march, different causes all central to the well being of women, but one in particular caught my eye:

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson

I did not talk to the young woman holding this sign, though I regret it. A part of me wanted her to know that her story was heard, that I acknowledged her hurt and that we were going to do what we could to prevent this. Instead it struck me like bricks: the statistic that one in five women is a victim of sexual assault is harrowing enough, but in a crowd with a low estimate of 75,000 people… assuming even half of those were women, that’s still statistically 7,500 women at one gathering who may have been sexually assaulted. That alone was enough to stop me in my tracks. Even if that number was false, even if the statistics in this case were off, that is still too many women. Even just the one standing behind me was too many.

Though I knew my personal reasons for marching, this sign alone really hammered it in for me: even if women are granted other rights, even if things are going well, how can we truly be equal when women are taught not to dress a certain way or not put ourselves in precarious positions and men are not taught to avoid this kind of behavior? How can we say that women are fine, that we do not need to rally together when our sisters are being raped and assaulted?

It isn’t okay, and it was not okay for me to be in this crowd knowing how many of these women may have been suffering or may yet suffer still.

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson

 

The Rally

We did not stay at the capitol long, but we remained long enough to hear State Senator Lena Taylor, a champion for civil rights here in Wisconsin, speak and introduce the rally, followed by State Representative JoCasta Zamarripa, the first Latina elected to our state legislature and an openly bisexual woman. Two women of color, two women with different experiences and lives here to help us unite as one group of women standing up for our rights. 

Though Madison, Wisconsin is a largely white area, it is an area that understands social justice and feminism. We did see many signs featuring ovaries or other things that might be unwelcoming to transgender women, but there were an astonishing number of signs being held by white women proclaiming “WHITE FEMINISM IS OPPRESSION” and “IF IT ISN’T INTERSECTIONAL IT’S NOT FEMINISM;” being the fact that the issues that affect white women are often minor compared to the larger issues facing women of color and disabled women. It was heartening to see how many white women bore signs proclaiming that Black Lives Matter or that refugees and Muslim women were welcomed. We still have a lot of work to do, but it gave me hope for the future: for the fact that so many women here understand the weight of what we are doing, of who we are marching for, and that this thing is bigger than ourselves.

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Manda Collis

The night of the inauguration was rough. I did not vote for our current president, and though I was ready to accept the results the rush to pass executive orders and the eerie nationalist speech made me uncomfortable. And in the days since there has sometimes felt like little to hope for, but this march was important. It showed us that we are not alone, and it gave us hope. And though we saw a world of Star Wars signs this weekend, one in particular that quoted Rogue One still stands true: “Rebellions are built on hope.”

We may have a rough road ahead, but the important thing is that many women (and men!) came out to this event as their first step. They may have never marched before, may have never cared about social justice. There is still work to be done, but we know this: hundreds of thousands of women banded together for a common cause, and that alone is a sign that we are not all doomed.

Sometimes knowing that we aren’t all doomed is the seed. We just need to nurture it and help it grow.

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson

January 21, 2017 – Madison, Wisconsin • Photo by Nick Peterson