Voices From The Women's March In Helena
On Saturday morning, a crowd some estimated at 10,000 gathered in Helena for the Women’s March on Montana, an event held in solidarity with the hundreds of Women’s Marches going on around the world.
By 11 am, streets near the capitol were teeming with folks wearing pink pussy hats, bundled in winter coats against the frigid temperature, and carrying homemade signs. Patty Dickerson was carrying one:
“What does it say? We need to talk about the elephant in the womb.”
Dickerson came from Bozeman with a group of friends.
"It’s about women’s rights, reproductive rights, it represents a lot of respect for women and our bodies,” Dickerson said.
Another sign, which said “Grab him by his Putin,” was carried by 66-year-old Helen Paulson, from Helena. She’s been involved in public demonstrations like this since the 1960s.
But this particular event felt different, she said.
“There’s a real positive mood here," Paulson said, "a lot more upbeat and light. Of course you can also feel the power here.”
As the crowd converged to begin the march, many people were happy to share their reasons for showing up, and the messages they wanted to send to the new Trump administration and their elected leaders in Montana.
68 year old Karen Davidson, from Bernice said, “I think the world as we know it changed yesterday.”
I asked her what she was hoping would happen by being here today.
"Just that we are heard," Davidson said, "(that) it’s noted that we are here and we are not going to take what I think is going to happen lying down.”
The “we” she’s referring to wasn’t just older women or seasoned activists who came out in droves.
Beau Downing was there with his two young sons. He was shocked when Trump won the election, and had been hoping his kids would see the first woman president. But since that didn’t happen, he said, “We’re here because I want to raise my boys in a society where folks understand that equality is important and it starts with them. I think it’s extremely important that this many men have turned out to support women.”
A number of people said this was their first time ever hitting the streets for a cause, like Kathleen Cooper, from Billings.
“Trump has made us activists.'"
Cooper says she didn’t feel like an activist before.
“Not like this, you didn’t feel like you needed to be one. Now I feel like we have to fight for our rights, women’s rights.”
As the thousands and thousands of colorful and spirited marchers started parading under a brightly shining sun, co-organizer Rebecca Weston was standing on the back of a pick-up truck, taking in the sight.
“I’m crying. This is unbelievable.There’s like 10,000 people here," Weston said.
Weston had just spent the last two months building this from scratch, and seeing it all come together was a big moment.
“Clearly this energy needed to be tapped, she said. "It’s like a pressure point. It’s such a great way to start.”
The Montana Women’s Chorus kept the masses moving as people made their way down the street in front of the capitol.
In the crowd, there were lots of teachers who were there to support their female students, or were inspired by them to attend, older folks in wheelchairs being pushed by their adult children, huge paper mache puppets.
And people talking about everything from protecting the planet from climate change, to immigrants’ rights, to making new traditions with their loved ones.
Juniper Davis came up from Missoula to attend the march with three generations of her family
“It feels really profound to be here with our family and to know that over the generations we become more solidified in our family’s support of human rights and women’s rights and we want to share that with the younger generation and make sure it’s part of our family legacy,” Davis said.
Eventually, the marchers made it to the steps of the capitol building, for a rally peppered with speeches from directors of local human rights and social justice organizations, tribal leaders and Montana First Lady Lisa Bullock.
Addressing the crowd, Deb O’Neill, the other co-organizer of the march, also shared a personal story about being sexually assaulted.
“The only reason why anyone is raped: Rapists," O'Neill said. "That’s the only reason. The rest is victim blaming, victim shaming, rape culture and locker room talk.”
She called on everyone present to do their part.
“It is up to each and everyone one of us to shut that down," she said.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester also phoned in his support, and a life size cut-out of the first congresswoman, Jeanette Rankin, presided over the festivities.
As the sun sank behind the capitol, the crowds started to thin out, and marchers made their way back towards their buses and carpools.
Many were already reflecting on how to build on the momentum from the day in their own communities.
Michelle Mitchell, who is Salish, is a teacher in Great Falls who spoke at the rally. She hopes to see some real action come out of this weekend.
“It can’t be this one cool march that everybody went to," Mitchell said. "It has to be continued. We have to keep working we have to keep going forward and staying together and staying strong to support whoever’s under attack at that time.”
Bree Sutherland came away from the Women’s March feeling even more motivated to continue their work as a trans activist and advocate in Helena.
“This is what makes me proud to be a Montanan," Sutherland said. "The fact that we stand up for the rights of everyone in Montana.”
Volunteers and organizers are planning follow-up events in many towns around the state.