I’m With Her: Reboarding the Feminist Train to Build Local and Global Sisterhood

Boarding the Train to the Boston March. Pictured are Emily Nielsen Jones with her sister and two sister-friends.

One of the tricky things about the progression of feminism in America is how it has gone from being a fringe movement to being a taken-for-granted social norm. Because of this, it is easy to forget that gender equality still needs safeguarding.

Women once took to the streets to seek the right to vote and own property, to not be deemed as subordinates, to be treated as full human beings in their own right.

My 80’s wall decor.

Now women have taken to the streets again. It turns out we still need feminism, and this new wave of the movement can hardly be considered fringe. Far outstripping predictions, roughly 1.2 million marchers gathered in Washington, DC and 3 million more in cities and towns across the US. Over 5 million marched together around the world.

Aerial view of the Boston March for America with a decidedly pink hue, drawing in over 200,000 marchers.

There were many factors that  made the women’s march a stunning success:  the incredible organizing of the march leadership, the adept use of social media, and women stepping up to fund behind-the-scenes.

But the real contagion that got millions of us to board crowded buses and trains didn’t happen online or out on the streets. It happened in a tender, heartbroken place inside.

A few highlights of the “Donald Trump” gender norm paraded before us in the long 2016 election – This is NOT what democracy looks like!

From the beginning of the 2016 election season, internal alarm bells rang as I watched the gender issues play out on the national stage.  “Lock her up!”  “Trump that bitch!”  

Thankfully, I have not been alone with experiencing these internal alarm bells. So many of us have had the same alarm bells going off not only in response to unsettling gender dynamics, but also to Trump’s overall psychological instability, flair for demagoguery, and demeaning comments to so many different groups. So much about Donald Trump seems to mock the very fabric and ideals of our democracy.

My Women’s March Signs & Inspiration

As much as I wish the outcome of the election were different, let me go on record saying Thank you Donald Trump for re-awakening the sleeping women’s movement. 

The women’s movement has now been shocked out of dormancy. We now know we still have much work to do to create a world where there is no need for feminism.  Whether the “f” word is used or not, millions have re-boarded the Feminist Train with a reawakened sense of urgency.

Make Way for Ducklings Greeting Marchers in Boston

What was it that got roughly 1% of the American population into the streets on that January Saturday?  What kicked so many into gear on January 21st were those internal alarm bells ringing on overdrive. It was a massive case of heartache at the prospect of losing essential features of American democracy.

As a child of the 70’s, the trajectory of my life was shaped by the optimism of the women’s movement of that time. Thanks to the passage of Title IV in 1972, I played sports, unlike my mother who did not have that opportunity. In the 80’s, I watched my mother go back to work in computer programming with the help of an initiative at IBM which reached out to women who had left the workforce to raise children.

My mother was not a vocal, out-there feminist. She didn’t march like many of her contemporaries, but she quietly lived out the values of feminism for her three daughters to see and internalize. She enthusiastically signed us up for sports and joined in with us.  She helped us process and reject the demeaning gender messages of the Southern Baptist Church we attended, and encouraged us to think for ourselves. She modeled what it meant to partner with our father in marriage and in life, and how to navigate all those subtle yet stubborn manifestations of patriarchy. Before “mansplaining” was a thing,  my mother in her own way helped us learn strategies to subvert and spot male presumption a mile away.

Feminism 70’s style

And last but not least, my mom bought us that iconic pink Free To Be You And Me record, which played in the background of our lives, seeding positive, empowering subliminal messages. That album launched us into the world with a presumption of equality and progress that might have been a little too rosy.

Many women of my mom’s generation were dealt a serious blow by this election. I feel their shock, too, but what they are feeling is more acute, more visceral: they remember the days when it was normal for women in the workforce to be subjected to sexual assault, where you had to keep quiet about it and keep a smile on your face. They have living memories of their own mothers having very few options outside of the home. In so many different ways, my mother’s generation did their part to give their daughters a better world with more opportunity and dignity that changed how we saw ourselves and gender norms.

I look back on my childhood and see that I was the beneficiary of progress made by my grandmother’s and mother’s generations. They marched quietly through the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, doing what they could to keep the needle moving forward, for themselves, but mostly for us, their daughters.  They boarded the feminist train that so many younger generations of women today do not realize only moves forward if all of us stay on it.  

I do not want to let our mother’s generation down. I feel a maternal sense of protectiveness toward our mothers and want to honor the strides they have made for all of us by doing my little part to get on that train and get it moving in the right direction again.

My mother is now a grandmother and she marched with and for her granddaughters’ generation.  My incredible 75-year-old mother drove three hours to meet my sister before dawn in Raleigh, North Carolina to board a bus for six hours to DC.

My mom & sister taking a break from their 12 mile trek through DC

This is what feminism looks like in 2017.  

This is what democracy looks like.

My Sister and Friends Boarding the Train to Boston.

Like many, I was overcome with emotion as I boarded the  packed-to-the-gills train into Boston with my sister and my daughter and a group of friends.

My Daughter & Her Girl Posse About to Board the Train to Boston.

This is what feminism looks like in 2017.  

This is what democracy looks like.

Like many, if I had not had the march on January 21st, I might have descended into a dark hole. I admit to having knit nine pink hats (my sister knit 15 and my mother 5) and handing off skeins of yarn to knit away some of this angst.

Yes, even this is what feminism looks like in 2017!

A “Knit In” Two Days Before the March .

This is what democracy looks like.

Led by a global sisterhood, we came together, as Gloria Steinem often says, as people who are no longer ranked, but are rather linked together by our common values and ideals and our determination not to go back. In all of the sister marches, women walked miles through a crowded sea of pink hats and signs.

In Boston, I was overwhelmed by joy and peace — a sense of solidarity, a sense that we were saying, let’s look out for one another, let’s keep bending the long, slow arc of justice not just for women but for all of us as human beings and as Americans.

One of my favorite posters.

Everyone came with their own unique message and intentions—some hysterically edgy and feisty, while others more sublime. All of us were united in our intention to not be passive but do something productive with those unsettling, foreboding alarm bells.

My mom and sister in DC with part of their bus group from NC.

This is what feminism looks like.

This is what democracy looks like.

This is what America looks like.

Each and everyone of us, free to be ourselves without fear of being diminished or marginalized, and with full expectation of an equal seat at the table of life.

May it be so.

Thank you to all of the boys and men who showed up in solidarity at the march, sporting pink hats and supportive signs. Thank you to all you male allies who serve as role models to boys, reminding us all that feminism is good for all of us.  Thank you to everyone who works to throw off the chains of any group that is marginalized.

Surrounded By A Sea of Pink.

Thank you to all of the women and girls whose internal liberty bells have been ringing, kicking us back into gear to take to the streets and re-board the feminist train that our forebears set into motion so that we could presume our own equality and be outraged by things that should not be normal becoming normal. All of us have something at stake in this ongoing struggle for a world that does not limit or demean or seek to force us into a mold not of our choosing.

As I have engaged with women’s groups and NGO’s working globally to empower women and girls, I have heard an eerily similar refrain: hard won progress for women and girls’ basic human and democratic rights is being rolled back. Due to a rise of religious fundamentalism and nationalism, women’s equality is being framed as a battleground between tradition and modernity.

With Trump now in power, we find ourselves in closer alignment with  women across the globe, where gender norms are sliding back in shocking ways:  the comeback of the burka, the rise and “medicalization” of female genital cutting, and shocking stories that fill our news feeds every day of girls being forced to marry their rapists, and sold into sexual slavery.

The advance of both feminism and democracy depends on us all tuning in to hear Lady Liberty’s alarm bells ringing within when equality and freedom is threatened.  We must be ever watchful for all of the sneaky ways that the needle of equality and freedom can so easily slide backward right before our eyes.

I wish feminism could one day be on auto-pilot and not be so prone to endless regressions, but for the forseeable future, let us proudly stay on the feminist train. Let us listen within for the timeless ring of Lady Liberty’s bells.

I’m With Her.  Lady Liberty.  I see her in my sisters, my mother, my aunt, my daughter, my nieces, and in the vast sisterhood which surrounded me at the march.

Doesn’t This Say It All?

She is what feminism looks like.

She is what democracy looks like.

She is what America looks like.

It is she who has been ringing the liberty bell in each of our hearts getting us to board a bus or train to march shoulder-to-shoulder in packed crowds with friends, family, and complete strangers. Let us hold onto and cherish the beautiful accomplishment that so many helped make happen on January 21st. But let us expand its impact and not lose that sense of solidarity we felt on the buses and trains and as we marched.  Let us stay on the feminist train that our mothers and grandmothers set into motion for us.

On this train, let us join together, hand and heart, across generational lines and across all the dividing lines of race, class, gender, and ideology to work harder than we have to truly be linked not ranked and together imagine and make real the better world we all seek.

Let us continue to band together to do big and small acts of resistance to stand up for our neighbors and our cherished American values and ideals when they are threatened.

My sister & me in front of her favorite sign : )

Let’s remember too to laugh and find joy and to persevere in the strange acts of dissent we find ourselves in.  And let us keep marching because—as we have seen everywhere—if the feminist and the democratic train is not moving forward, it will go backward. Our democracy is built on ideals which, as we are seeing now, are very fragile and precious and continually, in every generation, in need of being safeguarded.

Let us also not forget that equality does not happen without funding. The incredible success of the Women’s March for America would not have happened without women giving at all levels to make it happen.  We can all be philanthropists and activists.  Giving along with doing awakens joy and solidarity and a sense that we are making history.

My sentiments exactly.

It would have been so incredible for my mother and her generation (and all of us) to see a woman in the oval office. That was not in the cards for this election, but may we each do our part to create a world where this is possible soon. Movements of justice don’t happen without a lot of behind the scenes investments of all types: organizing, fomenting, inviting, and funding. May we all keep doing our part to make sure that this incredibly historic march truly becomes a movement.

I’m With Them.

May our daughters look back on this march with pride and say, thank you mom, thank you aunts, grandmothers and so many friends for marching for the better world that we all seek.

Author: Emily Nielsen Jones

Emily is a donor-activist engaged in promoting human equality, justice, and peace around the world. She is particularly passionate and engaged in the nexus of faith, gender, and development and working to mobilize our faith traditions to more fully and unambiguously embrace gender equality. In her role at the Imago Dei Fund, Emily has helped the foundation adopt a “gender-lens” in its grantmaking with a particular focus on partnering with inspired female change agents, locally and around the world, to build bridges of peace and create a world where girls and women can thrive and achieve their full human potential. Emily is actively engaged in the women-led philanthropy movement, is the author of numerous articles, and is a member of Women Moving Millions and the Women's Donor Network. She is the recipient of the Christians for Biblical Equality 2013 Micah Award and was named a 2014 Women’s eNews “21 Leaders of the 21st Century” honoree. Emily serves on the advisory boards of Women Thrive, New England International Donor Network, the Boston Women’s Fund, Union Theological School, Nomi Network, Girl Rising, Tostan, and Sojourners Founders’ Circle. She was a proud supporter of the Women's March for America and is looking for ways to make sure this becomes not just a march but a movement.

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