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Folio — From the April 2017 issue

The March on Everywhere

The ragged glory of female activism

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The D.C. Metro was jam-packed at eight the next morning. People were practically embracing strangers to make room for other strangers. Trump and Putin were French-kissing on five different pins. One hat said make racists afraid again. One pair of sneakers showed a uterus painted in pink glitter glue. The left foot said pussy. The right foot said power. A voice over the loudspeaker said: “Women’s-rights fighters from all over the world, welcome to your Red Line!”

We marched past the Capitol — which I barely recognized at first, because we were marching past the back — and then down to Independence. We did not need directions. We just followed the human stream. Our friend Erin, five months pregnant, put a sign around her neck that said feminist future, with an arrow pointing down at her belly. I saw a sign that said viva vulva. I saw a sign that said fight like a girl. I saw a sign that said i’m with her. It had arrows pointing everywhere.

At the Women’s March on Washington (detail) © Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

At the Women’s March on Washington (detail) © Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

A woman my age wore a sign that said fourth-generation feminist. It made me wonder who counted, whether feminists existed before the phrase itself was invented. My grandmother was raised on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, bathing once a week in kettle-heated water, and grew up to work in a university laboratory. She was one of the founding members of the Shattuck Neighborhood Action Coalition, in Oakland, California, a community where she put down roots decades before it started to gentrify. She led cleanup missions around Bushrod Park, collecting piles of garbage for trucks to haul away, and had everyone over afterward for soup and homemade bread. Until her diabetes made it impossible, she delivered voters-alliance newsletters to eighty homes in her neighborhood. She wore bright flowing skirts and we took walks together pretending to be aliens from the planet Algernon, trying to figure out the purposes of all these mysterious objects: garden hose, fire hydrant, wind chime. She believed in the latent magic of the proximate, and in community as something actively built, not passively inherited. She put her body and her time — her self — into work she felt was important.

As for my own mom, I have always understood her commitment to social justice in worshipful, often cinematic terms. She fell in love with her first husband while they were protesting the Vietnam War in Portland, Oregon, at a liberal-arts college where the students figured out ways to make their sex lives count toward the P.E. requirement. At one demonstration in San Francisco, where federal agents started photographing the crowd from nearby buildings, she and everyone held up their driver’s licenses.

I grew up hearing stories about the season she spent picking crops in the south of France, with the woman I eventually realized had been her lover — which only made these tales more intoxicating, their days spent harvesting olives and Roma tomatoes, staying in a small cottage in the woods, getting paid in jugs of wine, stacking the fireplace with roots at night and watching their knotted, whirling patterns burn. My mom told me about a strike she had led among the olive pickers, who were forced to work long hours in the brutal cold wearing only cotton socks as gloves.

As I saw it, my mother had repeatedly shown up for something larger than her own life. She’d been desperate to join the Peace Corps. She worked as a precinct leader for the McGovern campaign, in 1972, while she was pregnant with my oldest brother. (She called him George while he was still in the womb.) She brought my brothers, just five and six years old, to rural Brazil when she was doing her doctoral research on infant malnutrition. She spent decades working on maternal-health research and advocacy in West Africa, and I carried in my mind’s eye a vivid memory that wasn’t mine: the night in Togo when she accompanied a woman in obstructed labor to the hospital in Sokodé, driving along muddy, rutted roads while the rain pelted down.

It wasn’t just the things she had done that I admired but the spirit in which I imagined her doing them: selflessly, putting her own comfort aside, choosing the path of most resistance. Her life in social justice was always intertwined with her life as a primary parent. She was committed to her children — and to children who weren’t her children.

In her early seventies now, she is still at it. As a deacon in the Episcopal Church, she recently protested unjust immigration policies by giving communion through the mesh of the border fence in Tijuana. She was also arrested with unionized hotel workers in downtown Los Angeles, wearing her clerical collar as she was handcuffed. As I construct the story of her life, it shimmers with valor, with purity of motivation, and with endless, altruistic work.

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is the author of The Empathy Exams (Graywolf Press). Her essay “Giving Up the Ghost” appeared in the March 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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