The signs read “Men of quality do not fear equality,” “A woman’s place is in the resistance,” and “Not my Cheeto.” Women wearing hand-knitted pink hats stepped off Muni buses, others squeezed their signs onto BART escalators, some locked their bikes to racks along Market Street. By 3 p.m., tens of thousands had joined the rally, overloaded cellphone service shut down, and space to stand in San Francisco’s main square became slim. Just as speakers took to the stage to stand up for women’s rights, the skies opened and the rain poured down. The ink bled on protesters’ signs, rivers of water filled the gutters, and the downpour drowned out the audio.
It didn’t matter. The Women’s March of Jan. 21, 2017, was the largest protest in San Francisco’s history — and this weekend, it’s happening again.
But it won’t be the same. A lot has happened in the United States in the past year, and many of the issues women and their allies face have changed.
“Last year, the march came from a place of a lot of mixed feelings: anger, frustration, and hopelessness,” says Sophia Andary, co-leader of San Francisco’s Women’s March. “This year we want to provide more of an action. Last year, we said we had to get out there and make a scene, and say we were not going to stand for this. This year, we want to give some guidelines.”
Those guidelines fall under the umbrella theme of “Hear Our Vote,” to encourage women to participate in midterm elections, and get more involved. While the past year has seen the birth of the #MeToo movement and the rise of women leading new resistance movements, it’s women in politics who may have the longest-lasting effect on the future of our country. Danica Roem was the first openly transgender woman to be elected to a U.S. state legislature. Maxine Waters has become a household name. When Oprah gave a heartfelt speech at the Golden Globes, thousands immediately called for her to run for president. The political future of our country is looking very female.
But while women run for everything from PTA to U.S. Senate, they’re not always voting. According to The Status of Women in the States, only 54 percent of women in California are registered to vote.
San Francisco Women’s March Communications Head Martha Shaughnessy has a theory why.
“In California, we take our blue state for granted,” she says. “But San Francisco is such a bellwether community for what people expect. … There are so many things that we represent. We’re all really bolstered by what we saw in the 2017 election. The number of women running for all levels of government all over the country is far beyond what we’ve ever seen before. We hope that we’ll have a more informed voting population coming out of the march than came in.”
That emphasis on information is key to this year’s Women’s March, and the list of speakers features some of the wisest women-identified activists in the Bay Area. Cecilia Chung of the Transgender Law Center — who was featured in the ABC miniseries When We Rise — has worked on issues of trans rights and HIV awareness for decades. Olga Talamante, executive director of the Chicana/Latina Foundation, is often called a “heroine of the Latina community.” Jennifer Friedenbach runs the Coalition on Homelessness, a powerful nonprofit in S.F. that empowers those living on these streets and advocates on their behalf to politicians. Even supervisors Hillary Ronen and Sandra Fewer will also take the stage.
Choosing the lineup was not easy.
“We wanted to be community-focused, and highlight people from the Bay Area,” Andary says, explaining why she chose local activists, as opposed to nationally-known feminist scholars. “What are the issues that we’re all facing?”
Those areas, Andary stresses, are not just ones that affect us as individuals. “It’s about being intersectional,” she says. “It’s about understanding that just because something doesn’t impact me, it might impact other people.”
Being aware of the power we have to vote is particularly important in California, which is estimated to have more than 3 million undocumented immigrants.
“We talk a lot about voting, but we have to be aware there are a lot of community members who are not able to do that,” Andary says. “We need to elect people who will help them get citizenship, not kick them out.”
The speaker list — and Andary’s commitment to supporting women of color, trans women, and undocumented immigrants — offers a much-needed breath of fresh air for the Women’s March movement, which some reporters and activists across the country complained afterward was a show of white privilege. Without a clear message other than “show up and be heard,” people brought their own agendas to the march, which most likely contributed to its massive size. Some women held up signs featuring anatomical drawings of vaginas and statements of “pussy power,” isolating many of the transgender or gender-nonconforming people who’d shown up. The white women who attended did so with little fear of the heavy police presence, which was triggering for some women of color, whose communities have been disproportionately targeted by cops. And while organizers made some very big efforts to provide transport for people with disabilities so they could join in the march, the crowds were often reluctant to make space for wheelchairs. In other words, it was a reflection of our nation, which is less than perfect.
But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we all have a lot to learn. There is baggage to be unloaded, prejudices to examine, words to consider more carefully. The path forward — politically and socially — is not clear, and we’re bushwacking our way through some hefty male privilege to earn our spots on the stage. While last year’s Women’s March was an amazing feat, it wasn’t perfect. But it’s also not going anywhere, and it shouldn’t.
“Women are feeling reinforced that we have each other’s backs,” Shaughnessy says. “And we’re going to keep showing up.”
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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The Women’s March is Saturday, Jan. 20, 11:30 a.m. at Civic Center Plaza. Speakers begin at noon, and the march down Market Street starts at 2 p.m. More details at womensmarchbayarea.org.