Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:9
I am not a rabble rouser, but my rabble is roused. I don’t usually talk about politics here, but I am going to now. I don’t have to explain myself, but feel the need to do so (probably because as a personality test I took this week indicated, I care too much about what people think of me.) This is why I was one of over 17,000 people who marched in the Woman’s Solidarity March in St. Petersburg today. Two reasons: History and Missions.
As a historian, I spent some time studying women’s rights. A hundred years ago, women had to petition the court for custody of their own children when widowed, submit reports to judges on how they spent their deceased husband’s money and saw their requests for divorce from abusive husbands denied. Some women were even sent to insane asylums with the diagnosis, “Change of life.” Women could not work in fields that were restricted to men, gave up jobs when they married because they were expected to be homemakers and in some states (including Florida), could not buy or sell land without a man’s name on the deed. The road to obtain the right to vote for women was an extremely difficult fight, women went to prison, suffered torture and indignities that people of any nationality should not endure. I am grateful to those women who felt strongly enough to do that for me.
I think of my grandmothers who were in their late 20s before they could vote. I think of the way that they cared for the sick and helpless, often putting others needs before their own. I owe a debt of gratitude to my grandmothers and all the women who worked so hard to make this world a place where I could go to college, earn a degree, chose to have children and to work outside the home. Those are choices women didn’t have a right to make for themselves. That’s why I marched.
My work as a historian also led me to study the United States before, during and after World War I. Prior to the war, many Americans believed that it was a war that didn’t concern them. It was being fought across the ocean and though our allies, who we had pledged to help and they, us, were being attacked, America chose to turn its back until the war began to impact our own economy. Then, we reluctantly jumped in, but as soon as the war was over, America turned its eyes back home again. The campaign slogan of the winning presidential candidate, Warren Harding, in 1920 was “Return to Normalcy.” Normalcy meant isolationism, a closing of our borders to immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1924 refused to allow Asians or Arabs from any nation into America and set quotas for Eastern and Southern Europeans, Africans and Hispanics. The rhetoric of that decade sounds very much like what we hear today. In fact, in 1918, a wall between Mexico and the United States was proposed.
While my study of history makes me aware of the decisions of the past and the effects those decisions made, mission trips tendered my heart to people being marginalized and ignored. My sisters in those countries suffer greater indignities than I can imagine. Their lives are not valued, they are caught in the crossfire, both literal and figurative, of politics. While all they want is a safe place to raise their children and food to feed their families, we talk of walls and border control, while throwing out more food than some people have to eat. It is quotas, not walls that keep them out. Perhaps some people are right, there is not room for more in this vast United States. Then, why are we not doing more to help others instead of spending millions of dollars on campaign ads and t-shirts insulting each other?
So, today, I marched. I marched for my grandmothers, long gone in their earthly bodies, but living on in mine. I marched for Bili’s mother and his sisters. Truly my sisters though their skin color is different and they live on the other side of the Gulf. I marched for other sisters seeking freedom, too.
And though today was not a political march, but a march for social justice, I marched so that the leaders of the most influential free country in the world might see that their actions not only affect me, but my children, my future grandchildren and those I love across the ocean. That my brief walk through St. Petersburg might temper their rhetoric and teach them that in the end, love wins.
That’s why I march.
As for the march itself, it was a peaceful demonstration. Though more people attended than could fit into the park where the rally began and the march ended for those at the front of the line before the ones in the back even got to the street, marchers were respectful and pleasant. They thanked the police officers holding back traffic, helped each other over curbs or rough places in the road, cheered for sailboat captains who breezed back and forth in the bay, sang songs and were congenial with each other.
Teenagers led chants, young mothers pushed strollers with babies, fathers pulled wagons with toddlers, elementary school children marched with their grandmothers and the elderly used walkers or wheelchairs for support. I saw a middle aged father pushing his twenty-something daughter in a wheelchair. I saw older women wearing signs indicating this was not their first march for women’s equality. I saw a little girl carrying a sign that said, “Bring back Recess.”
All races, genders, and ages were represented. Though they supported diverse causes as evidenced by their signs, no one argued with their fellow marchers. If you had asked people’s opinions on one current event or hot topic, you would have gotten 17,000 different answers. The day was all about coming together, not for pro-life, pro-choice, equal wages, political parties, even recess, but for people’s rights to express their opinions in a healthy, diverse climate. And for everyone to treat their neighbor like they want to be treated themselves.
The highlight of the day for me was sitting in North Straub Park, an almost 5 acre urban park and watch marchers line three sides of the park. Marchers on both the east and west sides stretched as far as you could see. Then, the east side shouted together and the west side responded. Eventually, all three sides roared together creating a sound that you usually only hear at a sporting event. A shout for freedom. It struck me to my core.