Women's Marches Draw Thousands Across Montana

Jan 21, 2018

Thousands of people gathered at events across Montana Saturday to participate in this year’s Women’s March. Each event had its own organizers and theme.

In Missoula, pink hats, red sashes, and sassy signs peppered downtown Saturday morning, as an estimated 3,000 people gathered for the second Women’s March. Last year, a centralized march held at the state capitol drew an estimated 10,000 people. But this year, 9 cities hosted coordinated rallies.

Disability rights activist and local business owner Jenny Montgomery was one of a number of diverse keynote speakers in Missoula.

“Intersectionality. Equality. Refusal to be silenced. Responsibility to future generations. Responsibility to the vulnerable. Responsibility to the planet that sustains us. It is these values which bind our movement together and which we will not rest from defending," Montgomery said.

This event this year was framed not as a protest, but as a “celebration of a year of activism, and Montgomery ticked off a list of local accomplishments.

“An overwhelmingly female body of volunteers welcomed over 30 refugee families to our city. We elected a female majority city council. Women-run health clinics are evolving affordable care models that bypass insurance," she said.

Erin Erickson is the founder and director of Missoula Rises, the group that organized the local march and coordinates activist efforts on a range of social issues. She says this year, "especially in Missoula and the state, we’ve really unified, which we haven’t seen before. Where we have all these progressive groups that are able to come together under the same tent. That's really what shows me that we’re not a moment, we’re a movement that’s happening.”

Joby McCarthy, who’s been dancing on the streets since before noon, says she feels and sees that shift too.

“This year, we’re taking our anger and we’re doing activities with it," McCarthy said. "We’re gathering together, we’re writing letters, we’re protesting, we’re sitting in Senator Daines' office until we get better healthcare. There’s so many things I’ve seen women do.”

Salish singing and drumming at Caras Park in Missoula during the women's march, January 20, 2018.
Credit Josh Burnham

Across the country, Women’s March organizers are trumpeting how last year’s march spurred women to run for elected positions, and that level of change has been happening here.

Julie Merritt is adjusting to her new role as a Missoula city council member. She says she never thought about running for public office until last year, as she watched other women in the community get more politically active after the 2016 election.

“That really inspired me to say yes, I need to step up,” Merritt said.

Missoula city council member Julie Merritt says she never thought about running for public office until last year, as she watched other women in the community get more politically active after the 2016 election.
Credit Olga Kreimer

But while the women’s march is meant to symbolize an awakening of empowerment for women and minorities, that change isn’t happening fast enough for many women in Montana.

Yellowstone Public Radio's Jackie Yamanaka reports that in Billings, the women's march spotlighted the often overlooked fate of missing and murdered Native American women.

Native American women, men and children led the one mile march through downtown Billings. Blackfeet Tribal member Marci McLean said that act sends a message.

"That’s powerful," McLean said. "That speaks volumes for what Billings is ready to do together. I don’t know when the last time was in Billings or in Montana when indigenous people were at the front of the line. We led the way and we will lead the way as indigenous women into the future."

The women and girls wore traditional skirts, some were decorated with ribbons. It was to call attention to the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Native American women and men in the U.S. and Canada.

Native American women, men and children led the one mile women's march through downtown Billings January 20, 2018.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

McLean said it’s not an issue many people know exists. She wants investigators and elected officials to be held accountable so the families with missing or murdered family members can have justice.

"I think we have to be silent no more," McLean said. "We have to speak up and we have to speak loudly. A lot of Native Americans, it’s not in our personality to speak loudly and to be on the streets yelling things. But, I think this is such an issue that is so important that we do have to be on the street corners yelling loudly."

She said Native people also have to start talking to each other to address all of the issues they face, including conversations about drugs and alcohol. She says she lost a sister to drugs and her son to drinking and driving.

"I’ve lost over 13 family members; and probably 90 percent of them had something to do with drugs or alcohol, to some degree," McLean said. "And that’s just since 2007. So it’s hard. It’s a hard issue, but we can do it, you know. We’re resilient people. Look at what our ancestors have been through to get us here today."

Marchers carrying signs during the women's march in Billings, January 20, 2018.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

McLean is the executive director of Western Native Voice, a non-partisan, social justice organization based in Billings that works for Montana’s tribes. She wants the energy and enthusiasm to continue beyond this year’s Women’s March.