WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tessa Fowler turned 9 on Saturday, and thousands of women sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
The daughter of Kelly Fowler, 36, newly elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, Tessa was born on the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration and had been eagerly looking forward to the inauguration of the United States’ first female president on her eighth birthday. After Donald Trump won the election in November 2016, though, something happened at school that turned her away from politics. “There was a little bit of bullying that went on. … She did come home different. She came home telling me that she was going to go back to playing with dolls,” her mother said Saturday, in front of the Lincoln Memorial before the Women’s March on Washington. “I knew that I needed to do something for her.”
So her mother took her to the Women’s March the day after her birthday — and Trump’s inauguration — last year. It turned out to have a transformative impact on them both. A public school teacher turned home renovator and real estate team manager, the Virginia Beach resident from a military family had begun calling her local representatives after Trump’s win, without much response. The march, she said, “changed both of us.” “The next week, I said, ‘We need to do something about this representation that doesn’t listen.’”
“As much as the march was for her, I thought, it was for me. And it was everybody,” she said. Thus began Kelly Fowler’s nine-month journey, running for office and moving from the streets to the statehouse. In November, she became one of 15 Democrats to win a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, 11 of them women.
On Saturday, she addressed the 2018 Women’s March on Washington, holding a sign that read, “I marched. I ran. I won.”
After she spoke, the crowd, at that point not yet at half-strength, spontaneously began to sing “Happy Birthday” to Tessa, stumbling and laughing when they came to the line with her name, thousands of female voices raised in unison and directed toward one little girl.
It was a far, far smaller March on Washington this year, sponsored not by the Women’s March Inc., based in New York City, but by March Forward Virginia, a state-based organization that sent a contingent to the last march on D.C. They gathered around — and also on — the frozen Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall, despite many warnings from stage that the marchers please step off the melting ice. At its peak, they numbered in the thousands. Interviews with those in the crowd showed most came from the Potomac region stretching from Northern Virginia to Southern Maryland.
While few of them had run for office, many had spent the past year doing organizing work in their communities.
“When the Women’s March started in 2017, it was more of a moment, right? It hadn’t really become a movement,” said marcher Renee Greenwell, now an organizer with Indivisible Arlington. “I guess we got to see the birth of a movement. … We have gotten substantially more engaged. I talk to the staff of my congressional and Senate representatives pretty regularly, to the point where they recognize me.”
The pink knit pussy hats were out in force, and so were hand-crocheted snowflakes and snowflakes pinked out of paper. The idea, said Susie Ana Paula Velasco, 19, is a response to the conservative taunt that liberals are”snowflakes,” suggesting they are “soft.” When the snowflakes get together, however, Velasco said, they turn into “a big storm, a big blizzard.” Ann Lalicker, 19, who attends George Washington University with Velasco, carried a sign with snowflakes on it that read, “And though she be little, she is fierce.” Kristen Floyd, 36, Stephanie Voith, 23, and Renee Voith, 25, kept their eyes on the prize and had come down from Baltimore sporting signs reading “Grab ‘Em by the Midterms.”
The march was just one of 250 around the country organized by March On, the coalition of 2017 sister marches that took place around the country on the same day as the first Women’s March on Washington. In Las Vegas, the leaders of the New York City-based Women’s March organization launched an effort to register 1 million new voters from historically disenfranchised groups. Marches in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City drew enormous crowds.
The goal of the day was to further encourage women to run for office, to highlight the need for year-round voter registration and civic engagement efforts, and to work to lift the voices of community groups, March Forward Virginia co-founder Emily Patton told Yahoo News.
Cutouts of pink sharks — an apparent reference to the claim that the president hates sharks, made in a 2011 interview with InTouch by the porn star Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, who has said she was Trump’s mistress — floated above the crowd in Washington amid the signs and banners. “Trump Scared of Sharks? Wait for the Blue Wave,” read the sign of one person dressed in a shark costume.
— Erin Ruberry (@erinruberry) January 20, 2018
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and an array of Democratic House leaders spoke, using the opportunity to decry the government shutdown, as did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y, who had emerged even before Trump’s election as a leading advocate against sexual violence and has since cemented her position as the most vocally feminist United States senator.
A year ago, “We saw the rebirth of the women’s movement,” said Gillibrand. “Men and women came together across the country and across the world for the single largest global protest in history. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my entire political career.”
She encouraged the crowd to stay active. “The only time our democracy has ever worked is when regular people just like you stand up and demand it. Do not wait for a white knight to march on Washington or the party to solve the problem. You will be waiting forever! It is the grassroots, it is you who will create the message!” she told the crowd.
“Run for president!” a voice in the crowd cried out when she was done speaking.
Groups of students from Howard University and George Washington University in D.C. posed for pictures, and art students from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond hoisted aloft an enormous papier-mâché bullhorn with the hashtag #MeToo on it.
“I’m 63. This is my Selma. That’s what I say to people back home,” said Laura Umphenour, who had missed the Women’s March on Washington last year and traveled all the way from Springfield, Mo., to catch it this year. “I was too young or too ignorant” to be part of the earlier civil rights movements, she said. But now she knows: “If you’re silent, you’re complicit.”
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