An estimated two thousand people descended on Carytown in Richmond today, joining demonstrators from all over the US to mark the one year anniversary of the Women’s March; the largest single day protest in U.S. history. Last year, more than 3.5 million people protested in marches across the globe, spearheaded by the Women’s March on Washington DC. This Saturday, only a day shy of the one year anniversary, Richmond came out in droves for the Women’s March RVA, a grassroots effort created to affirm Richmond’s humanity and demonstrate a conscious resistance against hate, bigotry, and the oppression of the marginalized.
“We want America to be kind again,” said Mary Leffler, an occupational therapist at Hanover Public Schools, the woman behind the RVA anniversary march’s inception. When Leffler started the Facebook group this December, she had no idea if the march would even get off the ground. But by the day of the march, the group had over three thousand members.
Given the current political climate, Richmond marchers united in their cry for social change even though different individuals came with different agendas. Yet according to Leffler, the unifying message is clear, “We’re still here and we’re not going anywhere.”
As thousands of people marched in Richmond, Roanoke, Williamsburg, and Norfolk, attention turned away from the nation’s capital, where far fewer people were expected than the year before. According to Monica Morris, a well-known community organizer and one of the three event planners, this does not indicate the death of a movement. Rather, it is the product of a shift from national organization to more local grassroots mobilizing.
Morris, one of the organizers of the DC march last year, chose to march in Richmond this year instead. While the Women’s march was a catalyst for a new generation of advocates nationally, they’re now turning their attention back home and focusing on local issues.
This focus on local Virginia issues was a leading theme for the anniversary of the Women’s March. From support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) – an amendment first introduced in US Congress in 1923 – to the ascendency of women in Virginia politics following November’s election – and the protesting of anti-women bills in the current session of the General Assembly – Richmond women and their allies came out to Carytown to make a change that ultimately starts at home.
As the crowd marched from one end of Carytown to the other; they were joined by Governor Ralph Northam and Abigail Spanberger, the former CIA Operations Officer running for Congress in Virginia’s 7th district. The crowd overwhelmed sidewalks and streets, drowning Carytown in cheers, noisemakers, and an eclectic mix of call-and-response chants – turning the shopping district into a wall of noise and banners.
Liz Holland, a marcher decked out in her pink pussy hat and an armful of signs said that even though she was at the DC march in 2017, this year she wanted to participate locally.
“I feel like this last election showed us that what happens locally matters a great deal to prevent what happens nationally from having too huge of an impact negatively on our country,” said Holland. “We have to fight it from the ground up. That’s the place to start.”
Another marcher, Roselle Clarke, was also in DC last year, but said she believed that the key to moving Virginia in the right direction is to keep the momentum building in Richmond. As a member of Liberal Women of Chesterfield County (LWCC), Clarke said that they help to get candidates into office. “Taking ownership for our own backyard seems to be the best approach today.”
Caroline Ross, Clarke’s friend of 50 years, said they have been doing activism for as long as they’ve known each other. “It’s depressing to have to repeat some of them over again, but we also feel like there is an opportunity here for our daughters and our grandkids to understand that we can’t take things for granted,” Ross said. “Silence doesn’t work.”
A majority of the attendees were sporting signs supporting the ERA, a consistent theme throughout the march. One group, led by Eileen Davis, a frontrunner of the organization Women-Matter, hoisted an original banner from the 1970s. The fight to pass the ERA, an amendment to the US Constitution designed to guarantee gender equality, has been a decade’s long slog. Donna Granski, another march attendee, said she has been working on passing the ERA since 1978.
“That’s a long time,” said Granski. “But every year we’re getting closer to the finish line.”
The cause has transcended generations and was on display today. One large ERA banner was supported by a long line of women, many of them young women. Each of them said they were excited to be there, especially with a turnout even bigger than expected.
Morris said that the rise of women in Virginia politics, “most decidedly came out of the march.” Last year some were motivated by comments made by male politicians, the last boost they needed before they themselves ran. “I think it’s a lot of pent-up women energy,” said Morris. It had to go somewhere.
The Commonwealth has seen many changes for women over the past year. Democrats swept state-wide elections last November, cementing an all blue down ballot ticket, including the election of Governor Ralph Northam who marched in Carytown today. Before 2017, only 17 women made up the 100 seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates. But because of the progressive sweep last November, 28 women are now seated, the most in Virginia’s history. Among them is Danica Roem, the first transgender lawmaker in Virginia; Dawn Adams, the first open lesbian in the House; Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala, the state’s first Latina delegates; and Kathy Tran, Virginia’s first female Asian-American delegate.
The Women’s March was an “awakening” for many women throughout Virginia, starting a conversation that continues today. “That’s what is happening in homes, in businesses, everywhere,” said Morris. “Women are finding their voice. They’re realizing they’re not alone and they feel justified in saying what is right.”
This conversation helped to spark the #METOO movement which exposed a culture of sexual misconduct pervasive in the US. It was a product of women raising their voices, finding an avenue for expression and defiance.
At the march, Morris said that’s what she’d heard over and over again: “I thought I was the only one. I thought I was alone.”
While last year’s Richmond march brought in a crowd of around a thousand people, this event far surpassed the previous year. If 2017’s Women’s Marches were the start of a movement, then the 2018 Richmond march exists to energize a new generation of activism.
“No minds are changed by this,” Morris said. “It’s the people marching who get enthusiastic, excited, who come in and become new activists.” Yet amongst the energy and enthusiasm of The Women’s March RVA was the community effort to organize such a meaningful event.
“There may be an assumption that a team of professional organizers are behind this event,” said Rachel Scott Everett, a local creative director and graphic designer. “In reality, it’s just a handful of regular Richmonders who are volunteering their time, skills and connections and looking to the community to spread the word and come together.”
No matter what happens in 2018, women in Richmond made their voices heard today. After a contentious year in national politics, Richmond women have returned home to start organizing locally to make a difference. How this will play out over the course of the next year remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, no one will ever take the women of the Commonwealth for granted.
Photos by Landon Shroder (LS) and Allison MacEwen (AM)