We’re a year out from the start of a Utah movement. Can we maintain it?
Nearly a year ago, on the first day of the 2017 Utah Legislative Session, thousands of Utahns descended upon the state capitol building to oppose the presidential election of a famous sexual predator and to advocate for women’s issues in Utah—including the reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment. It wasn’t just that the first female presidential candidate for a major party had lost an election that had people outraged, it was that she lost to a vulgar, insecure man who disparages women left and right. With him in the White House, many women all across the country felt betrayed and pessimistic about their future. Women in Utah shared these feelings, and rapidly organized together to plan the largest protest to ever fill the capitol, swarming the grounds and packing the building. For me, attending was a complicated but invigorating experience, especially since I had almost missed it.
I woke up the day of the march with a ten hour workday in front of me, and had lost all hope of attending the widely publicized protest. By a stroke of luck, I was granted a two hour break just as the march began, and I sped to the avenues to catch the tail end of it. After parking my car, I skidded on foot across streets of frozen slush, nearly falling several times as I ran up 4th avenue and then down the stairs near City Creek Park. My wordy, battered cardboard sign had “Women’s rights are human rights” and “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” scrawled on each side, and I was very late.
As I ran, I heard a voice at my side.
“Isn’t it marvelous?”
An elderly woman had fallen into step with me as we rushed to meet the group. Her eyes were keen as she and I panted in the frozen air. I had never seen anything like the crowd we were approaching, and it didn’t seem like she had either. Her eagerness was infectious, and we joined the crowd of people as they began the slog up Capitol Hill.
People raise their eyebrows when I tell them that march was a kind of spiritual experience, but the unity in the air that day was so distinct that I don’t know how else you could describe it. The sky was white as thick snowfall descended upon us, a creature with thousands of feet that slowly climbed the hill. Pink hats with pinched ears speckled the crowd. Husbands and wives strapped infants and toddlers to their chests, carrying them through the cold. Signs waved above our heads, from “Not a whiner! I just want equality and a healthy earth!” and “I march for my daughters,” over a picture of three young, beaming girls. Haggard looking men lined the sidewalks, wearing signs covered in condemnations from God and bloody pictures. I vividly remember one of them rattling, “Don’t kill your baby! Don’t kill your baby!”
As we finally crested the hill, I looked over a sea of heads. The Capitol looked like someone had kicked over an anthill; black dots covered the grounds, hid the stairs, and crammed the front doors. I jogged through the dense crowd, eager to make it in before the building filled up. I swam up the stairs and wedged myself through one of the doors, suddenly able to hear the boom of the speakers in the rotunda.
There was barely room to maneuver once inside, but I managed to weave my way up to the speakers stand filled with the triumphant leadership of the Utah Women Unite activist group. Chants reverberated off the marble as they waved the signs that I had the earlier privilege of designing for them (though without receiving the promised payment, ironically enough.) They had pulled off an impressive organizational feat, gathering us together to send a message to our legislators on their first day back at work. As female representatives from the State House and Senate told their stories, I felt like our interests were safe in the hands of those hardworking women, and I was proud to be united with the thousands of people around me.
Indeed, it did feel like we were all united, or at least it did in that moment. We had all turned out for a big feat of activism, and yet it was still uncomfortably easy for many of us to go home after it was all over and still have things feel somewhat “normal.” A lot of us who attended the march had never been to a protest before, and many never felt personally threatened by society until the election that fall. Sure, we finally showed up, but just like me that Monday morning, we were a little late.
One’s activism is likely only as strong as one’s ability to listen and change. Everyone at that event has been blind to injustices before, and recognition of that is the first step of growth. There were people in that crowd who remain unsure whether or not they will be deported, who experience slur and stigma as they express their gender, who have seen their indigenous communities silenced, just to name a sliver of the nuanced issues at hand. We may have all been there under the banner of women, but the experiences of “women” manifest differently from race to gender to economic status to ability, and while we stood in strong protest that day, the work must continue within.
That’s not to say that I’m not implicated in this as well. Just because I showed up with a thoughtful Audre Lorde quote on my sign doesn’t mean that I’ve filled my intersectional quota and am “good.” I have just as much to learn as anybody, and the greatest lesson so far has been that while I have struggles due to being a woman, womanhood has varying and complex experiences that are not encompassed solely by my own.
I’m hopeful that we will continue on this path of change as a society, and I wish to see growth among activists as well. Movements go through growing pains, but it troubles me that a year out from the 2017 Utah Women’s March, I can hardly bring myself to check in on the online activism groups due to the constant bullying and and recreation of the status quo within them. It’s not that any one person is at fault, but we are in a time where narrow perspectives may stall any hope of tangible change.
As it stands, I have seen several women in my state become so inspired by the movement that they have filed to run for office, become engaged on campuses, and become dedicated citizen lobbyists. It’s an exciting and exhausting time, but I am hopeful that women in Utah will rise up to create and claim places for themselves as leaders of our state. I will always think back to my experience at that march as a beautiful, swelling experience, and I hope what good we accomplished that day will set a higher standard for our future.