“Here I am at 79, I’m going to be an activist,” says Deanna Eisinger, a retired grade school teacher. “I think we need to ruffle feathers and raise some consciousness.”
Recently out of the hospital after an asthma attack triggered her atrial fibrillation, Eisinger is not going to let something like an irregular heartbeat stop her from speaking up. She is going to carry a sign in the Jan. 21 Eugene sister march to the Women’s March on Washington, the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
“I’m planning to go; I may not be able to walk the whole route but I’m going to go,” says Eisinger, who lives on a farm in Lorane. “We have to keep resisting and speaking out. I’ve never been a loudmouth but I’m changing. At my age I don’t care what people think.”
Trump’s election means that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did not break that final glass ceiling and become the first woman president. According to the World Economic Forum, 59 other countries have had a female head of state, but not the U.S.
Trump’s election also means that the man who once bragged that when he sees good-looking women, “I grab them by the pussy,” is our nation’s leader.
His election, despite losing the popular vote to Clinton by more than 2 million ballots, put a man in office who has vilified Mexicans and Muslims and whose campaign statements won Pulitzer Prize winner PolitiFact’s 2015 Lie of the Year award.
The post election worries are well-known: The hateful election cycle rhetoric, fears that women’s reproductive rights will diminish and chances for equal pay will be reduced, worries about immigrant rights and anxiety Trump will start World War III with a tweet: The list goes on.
As a result, a lot of people — and women in particular — woke up in the days after the Nov. 8, 2016 election motivated to speak up, act out and make changes. So the Women’s March on Washington was born.
“I’ve been a woman now for 53 weeks,” Bethany Grace Howe muses. “And now I’m hopping into the deep end of the pool.”
Howe is one of a group of eight Oregon women who decided after Donald Trump’s November election that they needed to stand up for women’s rights — all women — and recognize “that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country,” as the official statement for the national Women’s March on Washington goes.
Howe, who is a doctoral student in journalism at the University of Oregon and is transgender, says that while the march is not a protest, “It is naïve to pretend it’s not a response to the election.”
The national march came together, if not spontaneously, then organically, nearly overnight. A retired attorney and grandmother living in Hawaii named Theresa Shook created a Facebook event page for a march before going the bed election night and invited 40 of her friends, who invited their friends.
The idea hit the “Pantsuit Nation” Facebook page and the numbers exploded, (though the march itself is unrelated to Pantsuit Nation). More women began to create pages to sign up to march.
Fashion entrepreneur Bob Bland was one of those women who administered a page early on. In a statement on its origins, the march’s website says that, “The reality is that the women who initially started organizing were almost all white.”
Many of the organizers refer to themselves as admins, taking the language from Facebook where administrators run pages.
In addition to the exploding number of marchers, what also soon exploded was a discussion of issues such as diversity and racism — the name that Shook chose, Million Woman March, is also the name of a 1997 gathering of about 750,000 African-American women in Philadelphia, and some saw using the same name for the new march as cultural appropriation.
And as the Women’s March origin statement says, “It was, and is, clear that the Women’s March on Washington cannot be a success unless it represents women of all backgrounds.”
By Nov. 11 the name had been changed to the Women’s March on Washington, and as Oregon organizer Erin Barnhart wrote that day on the state march admins’ page, “This cannot be a white feminist march; it must be intersectional, in name, participation and spirit.”
Intersectionality is way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power, and is the theory that people have multiple intersecting identities that reflect related systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. Oregon admin Howe calls it “the ability to understand there is more than one lens through which to view things.”
Barnhart had an Oregon Facebook page up for the event by Nov. 10.
On the national level, Bland brought in an experienced and diverse group of activists and organizers to take the lead on the national march: Tamika Mallory, an African-American gun-control activist; Linda Sarsour, the Muslim-American executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; and Carmen Perez, the Mexican-American head of The Gathering for Justice, a criminal-justice-reform group.
More sister marches sprang up across the country and then across the world. “It’s what got me out of bed,” Barnhart says. “I started volunteering two days after the election.”
Barnhart works with nonprofit groups and is an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon, teaching online classes to AmeriCorps members.
Barnhart says that about 1,500 people from Oregon alone are expected to travel to the march in Washington D.C. And Oregon itself has sister marches planned for Ashland, Astoria, Bend, Coos Bay, Eugene, Florence, Newport, Portland and Salem.
Like the original national group, the state organizers were mainly white women. So Barnhart says she made it a point to reach out to women of color and LGBTQIA people, she says, and get them involved. She contacted organizations that served specific audiences and asked them to get the word out.
And that is where intersectionality comes in. Barnhart says that for many marchers, “coming to this march, this is the first political action they’ve ever taken.” Barnhart says her goal is try to get great tools and resources into their hands and help them to be “stronger allies, learners and listeners going forward.”
Shortly after Barnhart offered to be an Oregon admin, Eugene resident, SLUG queen and mother of two Constance Van Flandern offered to organize as well, and she too became a state admin helping bring people to Washington, drawing on her experiences dating back to her childhood in D.C. and her mother’s involvement with the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Van Flandern remembers growing up in an era where daughters were told, “you are equal” but where women were not truly viewed as equal. She points to a national failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment as a part of that inequality.
The ERA, which would have amended the Constitution to guarantee equal rights for women, was passed by Congress in 1972 but not ratified by the states. “People seem to forget that the ERA was never ratified,” Van Flandern says. If and when the ERA is ratified she says, then that’s legal recourse for when women are not given equal human rights.
Women are still passed over for jobs and objectified, Van Flandern says. “Why?” she asks. “As a group — though not every individual — we are physically less powerful. So we are to be dominated?”
Eisinger, who is of Van Flandern’s mother’s generation, remembers being told that same “you can be anything you want” thing and says she sees today’s young women believing “that kind of lie.”
She says, “Well we can vote, I can get a job, we are working on equal pay.” But many young women “don’t realize how insidious the whole inequality of women is.”
Eisinger’s family expected her brother to go to college but not her. She finally put herself through school at the UO at age 37 and became a teacher. In the early ’80s she remembers participating in a teachers’ strike and another teacher saying to her, “I like what I do; I think the pay is OK.”
Eisinger told her, “This isn’t for us; this is for the people who come after.”
She says, “I didn’t want to strike either. I didn’t want to be out on the picket line. I wanted to be in the classroom, but there are sacrifices you have to do to advance society as a whole.”
A bird lover, Eisinger didn’t participate in any protests until the Malheur occupation last year. That weeks-long drama drew her out, she says, as birds and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are very close to her, emotionally. Now Eisinger will march again, with her granddaughter at her side, because, she says, “men are still in control of women’s bodies.”
Bringing together the different generations and types of feminists and creating inclusivity is a key challenge of the march. A member of an older generation of feminists may see the suffragettes as heroes and want to march in white, wearing banners, but they will march side-by-side with a newer wave of feminists who argue suffragettes put their rights ahead of those of people of color and that early women voters used their enfranchisement to bring racists into power.
Van Flandern explains that as the march strives to be intersectional and diverse, it also strives to give marchers the understanding and abilities to be better allies and listeners.
Howe doesn’t see herself as one of the groups who doesn’t have a voice. A blogger for the Huffington Post and writer for local publications, including EW, she says, “As transgender, I don’t feel left out of the media, ever.” She laughs, “I went from being a boring white guy to trendy.”
[aesop_image imgwidth=”50%” img=”https://www.eugeneweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/20170112coverstory-2.jpg” offset=”-30″ credit=”Photos Todd Cooper” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”Bethany Grace Howe” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]
And Howe, also a former teacher, explains how she sees the effort to bring diverse voices to the march. She compares it to a classroom in which there are extroverts who are used to talking all the time as well as groups of kids who need to be drawn out. “You can say, ‘I want you to speak up,’” she says. “But after centuries of being told to be silent, just saying, ‘I’d like you to speak up,’ isn’t enough.”
Also, Van Flandern and Howe agree, when someone speaks up and criticizes the status quo, even well-meaning activists can feel threatened. Howe says, “I want you to feel like you can say what you have to say, even if I feel threatened by it.”
Van Flandern adds, “It’s a messy grassroots process,” because after all, Democracy is messy.
The march is open to not just women but those who believe in and support the rights and humanity of women and girls, organizers say. It seeks to be a march made up of self-identified women and girls, people of color, immigrants, members of the LGBTQIA community, people with disabilities and self-identified men and boys.
A Jan. 2 article in The Week proclaims, “Why the Women’s March on Washington has already failed,” and calls it a “a feel-good exercise in search of a cause.” The article questions not whether many people will show up, “but whether they have the seriousness of purpose to be taken seriously.”
At last count, more than 150,000 people have said they are going to the D.C. march alone, and countless people like Eisinger will participate in sister marches.
Van Flandern and her co-admins recognize the criticisms but don’t flinch from them. “I’m glad people read it,” she says of the article, “I completely disagree.” She says the point of the Women’s March on Washington isn’t just the march itself but the tools and community that are being created as a result.
“When the shit hits the fan,” Van Flandern says, “we will be reaching out to the community locally and across the nation.”
Howe adds, “We have the mother of all mailing lists.”
A policy platform is being discussed at the national level, Barnhart says, and the Women’s March is looking at what it can do beyond Jan. 21.
“I have a poster board and I’ve been thinking and thinking of what to put on it,” Eisinger says. “I want to be broader than just anti-Trump. Something like, ‘this is not normal or never normal.’”
Women don’t really have the respect men have, she says. “By and large it’s a man’s religion, and it’s a man’s business world and you can break that glass ceiling only if you are allowed to by a man.”
Reflecting upon Trump’s “grab them by the pussy,” comment, Eisinger says “a lot of men were appalled by it, and wouldn’t say it themselves, but maybe think we are making too much of it.” But, she says, “it shows the deepest disrespect.”
She adds, “It could be so much better and should be.”
The Eugene march starts at noon Jan. 21 at the U.S. Federal Courthouse, 405 East 8th Avenue. The national Women’s March on Washington starts gathering at 10 am Jan. 21 at the intersection of Independence Avenue and Third Street southwest, near the U.S. Capitol. To get involved with the local effort, go to Women’s March in Eugene page on Facebook and for national and state information, go to womensmarch.com.