Taking It to the Streets at the Women’s March as ‘a Way of Learning’

January 22, 2017

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle
Gill Wright Miller, a professor and chair of the women’s and gender studies department at Denison U., shepherded six busloads of students and others to Washington for Saturday’s event. An "embodied" activity like participating in a march, she says, "is also a way of learning."
Gill Wright Miller wore several hats on Saturday as she took in the crowds, songs, chants, and signs at the Women’s March here. There was the actual one on her head — one of the knitted, pink "pussy cat" hats that she and tens of thousands of others had donned as an emblem of protest against the coarse words President Trump has used when describing women.

She was also there wearing several metaphorical hats: college professor, scholar of feminism, protest veteran, and, with the help of several students from her "Feminist Theory" class last semester, organizer of a six-bus caravan that brought 323 Denison University students, professors, alumni, and others on an overnight ride from the Granville, Ohio, campus to D.C. so they could spend the day experiencing the march on the National Mall.

The buses left Denison at 1 a.m. and dropped the groggy passengers at a suburban parking lot a little after 8 a.m., where they boarded Metro trains to downtown Washington.

"There is historical significance to participating, for the grassroots experience if nothing else," said Ms. Miller, a professor and chair of the women’s and gender studies department at Denison, as she and about a dozen of the students and alumni prepared to walk to the site of the march.

Their experiences had already begun; jammed into a packed Metro train car, several of the students said they had joined in with their fellow passengers in the singing of "freedom songs" — "This Land Is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful" — on their ride into the city.

"It’s very communal and I love it," said a jubilant Sara Hartsock, a junior from Los Angeles majoring in women’s and gender studies. On the train, she and some of her friends had been given buttons from the American Civil Liberties Union that read "Dissent Is Patriotic." In return, her roommate, Ali Rose, gave away some of the posters she had designed. Each featured a silhouette of a woman’s torso with words including "Stronger," "Feminist," and "Why We March" printed on the image.

(Mark Abramson for The Chronicle)
Sara Hartsock, a junior majoring in women’s and gender studies at Denison, carries a banner as students and professors march in Washington. Ms. Hartsock, who helped organize the trip from Denison, says participating in the march is a way of "letting this administration know that these people are not going to be silent."
Ms. Hartsock was one of the students who helped organize the trip, hoping the march would be seen as a sign of solidarity with people of color, of different sexual orientations, and those with mental and physical disabilities. It’s "a way of "letting this administration know that these people are not going to be silent." she said. "We’re not protesters, we’re protectors."

Ms. Miller, who attended Denison as an undergraduate (class of 1974) and has taught full-time there for 36 years, after beginning as a guest artist in the dance department, saw it all as a delightful educational adventure, the bus ride included. "It feels like it’s necessary to experience what it takes to get yourself there," she said. An "embodied" activity like participating in a march, she said, "is also a way of learning."

Thanks to her, the students and others arrived well-equipped. Denison not only provided them with Metro cards, which many carried in red Denison nametag pouches of the sort you get at conferences, but also plastic Denison ponchos, which Ms. Miller rushed out to buy when she heard an earlier forecast that called for rain. ("Mother duck" was another hat she confessed to be wearing that day.)

Denison covered the costs for all the students, a total of about $40,000, out of an endowment in the women’s studies program. Ms. Miller said she wanted to ensure that students of all incomes could afford to come. She also encouraged students who weren’t so enthusiastic about the idea of the march to attend for the experience, although it appeared that few if any did. Nonstudents paid $60 each to cover their costs.

Some of the students didn’t exactly tell their families of their weekend plans. One young woman "told her parents she was going on a ‘school-sponsored field trip,’" said Ms. Miller. Meanwhile, the mother of another student contacted the professor and asked if she could join the trip with her daughter. She did.

Ms. Miller said she understood the tensions some of her students felt. In 1970, when she joined the her first protest in Washington against United States involvement in the Vietnam War, she said her father, who was a captain in the Air Force, wasn’t very happy with her. But she considered it a formative part of her becoming an adult (and the first of many subsequent marches she has taken part in over the years.) She hoped the same would be true for many of the Denison students attending the Women’s March on Saturday.

Gridlocked by the Crowd

The plan had been for the Denison students and professors to gather at an intersection near the stage, where speakers and entertainers would kick off a morning program. But the size of the crowd — with estimates as high as more than 500,000 — made getting to a particular spot nearly impossible, at least for Ms. Miller. Still, she seemed both resigned and a little exhilarated by the realization that the hundreds of Denison students might by then be scattered among the friendly throng. "They’re twenty-first century students," she said. "There are very few experiences that aren’t prescribed for them."

Ms. Miller spent most of her day jammed into a crowd where the speakers couldn’t be seen or heard, but surrounded by people and signs that left her with plenty to drink in and share, as she passed the day with a reporter and a former Denison student, Stephanie Gray Wilson (class of 1988).

Ms. Wilson, who is now an associate professor of psychology at Capital University, in Columbus — rode the bus with her 16-year-old daughter Ellie. ("She told me she’d be disappointed in me if I didn’t come," Ms. Wilson explained.)

Although billed as the Women’s March, the crowd and its passions were far more eclectic — and in some cases cheekily anti-Trump. Many of the signs reflected that: "Immigrant Daughter." "We Shall Overcomb." "Keep Your Theology Out of My Biology." "Climate Change Is Real." "My Daughter Deserves Better" (Ms. Wilson’s favorite). And one that said, simply, "Nyet."

Students who were in her 'Feminist Theory' course in the fall, Ms. Miller says, 'have now been able to exponentially expand those conversations we had in class' about the election.
Ms. Miller said she was thinking especially of the 13 women and two men who had taken her "Feminist Theory" class in the fall, when so much of the class had focused on the significance of a woman running for president as a major-party candidate for the first time and then losing to Mr. Trump, whom they considered far less qualified. She hoped they were getting the chance to chat with fellow protesters, just as she was doing. "Those 15 students," she said, "have now been able to exponentially expand those conversations we had in class" about the election.

But the inaction was getting to her. Spying a young man who had balanced himself atop a garbage can to get a view from above the crowd, the petite professor made her way to the spot and enlisted some of the crowd to help her do the same. Yelling out "Denison" and then "Cool," she stood up there for a minute, taking photos of Capitol building behind her and the cloud-shrouded Washington Monument about 10 blocks in front of her, and reported back what she saw in a voice of amazement. "There is no end," she said, describing streets in all directions jammed with people.

The crowd was so big that until protesters began streaming away from the Mall into the side streets, forming impromptu march routes of their own, the main crowd of Women’s March attendees had no place to move to.

Ms. Miller’s phone buzzed with a text from a colleague back at Denison, who was watching the march on television. "Must be a great feeling," the text read.

Was it? "To know this many people care enough to make their way to Washington, D.C., is a great feeling," Ms. Miller said. "But just standing here, not moving, that feels like a metaphor. We have to be careful about inaction."

Finally, after more than four hours, the crowd began to actually make its way toward the Washington Monument. The two professors and Ellie joined in the chants — first, "This is what democracy looks like," then, "Love not hate, that’s what makes America great."

The D.C. march was one of dozens of women’s marches that took place in cities across the country on Saturday, and on six other continents. Was it also a seminal moment in the history of feminism? Ms Miller said she expects it will be. "I do think this will catapult feminism into another era," she said.

One of the critiques of "third-wave feminism" — the term refers to the current era of feminism, the third since the suffragette movement and the activism of the 1960s and ’70s around the Equal Rights Amendment — is that it hasn’t been inclusive enough to "build community and yield this notion of the individual to leverage the power that comes from the sake of the whole," Ms. Miller explained.

But the array of interests and causes represented at the march was significant. "I was concerned it wouldn’t coalesce," she said. But "you can see all the different political agendas coalescing around human dignity."

That gives renewed relevance to feminism, said Ms. Miller. "This is going to launch us into a global era."

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.