At a rally focused on electing more women to office at Corpening Plaza in downtown Winston-Salem, Girl Scouts wove cookie-filled wagons through a maze of bustling campaign volunteers registering voters, cool-seeming college students, protest veterans, socialists in red and occasionally past a person in a wheelchair, also navigating plaza sidewalks enclosing muddied grass from recently melted snow.
They were among the several thousand people who gathered for the Triad Women’s March on the Polls on Jan. 30 in commemoration of the original Women’s March on Washington, held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration last year. Hundreds of thousands filled the streets of large metropolises and small towns alike last weekend, a considerable showing for the anniversary of the largest single-day protest march in recorded US history that also sparked demonstrations worldwide.
On a stage facing the BB&T Financial Center, a slate of political speakers from Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, to state-level NAACP officer Daphne Holmes-Johnson, to Al Heggins, the first — and current —African-American woman mayor of Salisbury, emphasized mobilization efforts to elect more women and progressive candidates in this year’s midterm and local elections, interspersed with performances by youth spoken-word poets from Authoring Action, the Dan River Girls and others.
Many speakers focused on the theme of personal responsibilities tied to citizenship. One of them was Ruby Richter, a Latinx businesswoman who extolled the leadership of Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, in response to the US government’s lackluster response to hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. She said Cruz inspired her to become more political, a determination she and many attendees resolved to fulfill in the past year.
“I’m concerned about the direction our country is going in and I realized last year and the year prior I needed to do more than just reading and voting,” 31-year-old Becca Fogley said as she marched. “I’m especially concerned about what’s going on with immigration and how we treat refugees and DACA [recipients]… I don’t have to look far back into my family’s history to see a story of how this country being welcoming allowed dreams to be realized.”
Fogley’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Lebanon in the first half of the 20th Century and maintained a humble grocery store in the front of their home to make ends meet.
“They were able to live the American dream in a way that is far less accessible today for people who would come from similar backgrounds.”
Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, addressed systemic barriers to equitable participation in society, particularly gerrymandering which disproportionately affects people of color and immigrant communities.
“We have seen legislative districts so ruthlessly gerrymandered that your voice, my voice, our choice is often null and void,” she said. “I’m here to say the constitutional right of one-person, one-vote will not be surrendered.”
Although federal courts struck down North Carolina’s legislative and congressional maps as unconstitutional partisan and racial gerrymanders, the US Supreme Court on Jan. 18 overturned a lower court’s decision ordering a redraw of partisan congressional maps, preventing the state from redrawing maps before 2018 elections, and Republicans appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision to adopt new state legislative districts drawn by the independent special master on the grounds that there isn’t time to fix the racially-gerrymandered maps before the election.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Anderson said. “North Carolina deserves fair maps in the 2018 elections.”
Though only so many voices can be heard in an hour-long speaker lineup, there was a conspicuous absence of dialogue around justice for undocumented women, sex workers, women who are incarcerated and the myriad struggle of trans and nonbinary Americans whose unique vulnerabilities which have increasingly become included in mainstream discourse.
“I was going around trying to expand the meaning of reproductive health and rights and trying to remind people that women’s issues should include trans people,” said 28-year-old Lorie, who declined to give her last name. “If you’re fighting sexism, that means you’re fighting for anybody who is being oppressed by strict gender roles and sexism and that will include trans people, even those who don’t identify as women.”
Trans-exclusionary chromosomal and genital-centric definitions of womanhood such as signs reading “XY supporting XX” and the popular but controversial pink pussy hats garnered scrutiny again this year.
“The [hats are] racist and transphobic because they don’t represent all transfeminine and transwomen and how their genitals are, and it also doesn’t represent what all women’s genitals look like [in terms of coloration],” said 22-year-old Alexx Anderson, who participated in the march. “It’s very centered on cis, white women. There were no trans speakers, either. When you’re talking about equitable pay, trans women typically don’t make more than $11,000 a year.”
Despite criticisms, many attendees of color reported largely positive experiences at the march.
“It’s an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many like-minded people,” 23-year-old Jordan Johnson said. “I didn’t feel excluded, but sometimes I wish there was a little more representation of people of color.”
Her 19-year-old sister Randall-Grace said, “There was a white woman with a sign that said ‘Yes, queen!,’ which was uncomfortable, but for the most part it was positive and there was a ‘Black Lives Matter’ chant.”
As much as feminist critiques of rhetoric and representation defined the day, concrete action plans focused on the electoral system overwhelming dominated the march’s ethos, in line with the theme of most affiliate marches.
“I think there’s an assumption that people here are simply talking and not doing,” Vogler said. “There are a lot of women and men here who, in addition to marching, are writing and calling representatives, showing up to meetings, doing work around increasing voter access, challenging gerrymandering. To look and see this march and think that’s all that’s happening would be a misconception of what this is all about.”