'Moment of change' -- activists prepare for second Women's March
Jan. 11--Around this time last year, Rebecca Groble Hull was panicked about the nation's future. She feared women and immigrants would be marginalized and worried about health care and environmental protections under a new president.
Yet the Evanston woman's anxiety soon transformed to activism: She called her legislators about political issues, attended progressive leadership summits and volunteered more. She expects that activism to be on full display at the second Chicago Women's March later this month.
"Our voices matter and our voices are being heard," Hull said. "I will keep pushing, as will all the other marchers."
An estimated 250,000 demonstrators filled downtown during last year's Women's March on Chicago, a groundswell of political backlash that shut down parts of the Loop one day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Now organizers are preparing for their second rally, March to the Polls, shifting the focus from resistance against a new administration to influencing future local, state and midterm elections. Cast members from the Broadway musical "Hamilton" and Second City are expected to give live performances. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is scheduled to speak, as well as officials from the Chicago Foundation for Women, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Emily's List and other organizations.
The Jan. 20 event at Grant Park -- which includes a rally followed by a march -- is aligned with more than 600 similar anniversary marches in Washington, D.C., and across the globe that weekend, projected to draw millions internationally. Last year, several million people participated in women's marches around the world.
"There is a tremendous amount of energy around this movement and this moment," said Women's March on Chicago organizer Jessica Scheller.
While she feared fervor might fade after the first march, Scheller said she's actually seen resurgence in momentum over the last year, galvanized in part by national cultural events. Powerful indicators include the recent #MeToo campaign against sexual misconduct as well as numerous celebrities at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this week dressed in black and bearing "Time's Up" pins in a show of support for victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
"We want to bring the concerns of the everyday Chicago woman to the forefront," Scheller said. "This event is for everyone who considers themselves aligned with raising the concerns and voices of women."
Hull predicts this year's march will attract an even larger crowd.
"So many women I know have become activists," she said. "I, with so many others, (are) using our voice and our vote to affect change. This collective and positive activism gives me hope."
Organizers initially estimated last year's Chicago march would attract a crowd of 22,000, and they were shocked when Grant Park overflowed with some quarter-million demonstrators. The pedestrian portion of the event had to be canceled due to safety concerns, but many participants marched anyway.
"You can't say you're stopping the march," one demonstrator had told the Tribune. "It's too powerful."
Scheller noted the weather was unseasonably warm last year with a high temperature of 61 degrees; snow or freezing temperatures this year could affect the crowd.
She said organizers are not issuing projections for attendance this time.
"Based on our experience last year, I think it's safe to say we're going to keep ourselves out of the crowd estimating game," she said. "We are not good at it."
'Moment of change'
Chandra Szczeblowski, of Berwyn, hopes the demonstrations ignite permanent change, but she does worry about "burnout."
She attended the Women's March on Washington last year with her adolescent daughters and plans to march in Chicago this year.
"I am very hopeful this is a moment of change for the women's movement, but I've seen fervor before," she said. "I worry that social media commoditizes this, and it becomes yet another hashtag fashion statement. I have also seen splintering within groups that is frustrating."
But to Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, the marches have already spurred concrete change, including encouraging more women to run for political office.
In 2014, 19 women in Illinois ran for statewide or federal elected office; this year, 29 women are running for office at that same level, said Gainer, who founded the political organization Cause the Effect in 2014 to bring more women into civic activism and politics.
She believes the marches were a catalyst for the #MeToo movement and outcry against sexual harassment and abuse.
"Women didn't speak up about sexual harassment and they didn't run for office because both are risky, and if you didn't have support, you paid the price," said Gainer, who will be a speaker at Chicago's march. "The women's marches showed women they would have the support and they were not alone. I think these protests were a living symbol that there was more of this support out there."
Inclusion and diversity
The famous pink cat-eared cap -- dubbed the pussyhat -- became a visceral symbol of the women's marches last year.
To many demonstrators, the knit hats represented unity and equality. Some thought the hats did not represent all women, particularly women of color and transgender women.
Scheller said local organizers strive to reach out to diverse groups, noting that speakers have included women of color and transgender activists.
"I think the criticism is always valid," she said. "If someone feels excluded from something, we have not succeeded in our core mission of inclusion. Can we always do more? Can we always do better? Yes, and we're striving for that."
She added that the pink hats were a grassroots phenomenon and aren't pushed by event organizers; each participant can decide what to wear individually.
Despite some of the controversy, Dima Ali, of Oak Park, said she plans to wear her pink hat at the Chicago march.
"It has meaning to it," said Ali, an immigrant from Iraq who became a U.S. citizen in 2017. "You can't criticize these women who put their lives on hold. They did something."
While the demonstrations highlight women's rights, organizers say they also focus on a variety of social issues such as affordable health care, immigration, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, reproductive rights and access for people with disabilities.
Lynette Jackson, associate professor of Gender and Women's Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, acknowledged that some groups complained about a lack of diversity.
Jackson marched in Washington, D.C., in 2017 and says she'll be marching in Chicago this month.
"My attitude is this: If we, meaning black women, waited to be invited to everything, we'd still be waiting," she said. "Black women have always rather inserted ourselves where we need to be and gotten the job done. Black women, queer women, trans women, Muslim, Latina, Asian and First Nation women all need to be there, along with white women, early and often."