This Is What Democracy Looks Like and It’s Beautiful

Aimee McQuilkin Girls

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We caught wind of the Women’s March on Washington two months before it was set to happen and cashed in our saved air miles on four tickets to D.C.. I was travelling with two dear friends and my 16-year-old daughter who shed tears when I told her what we had to go do. I hadn’t had a gut reaction like that since I don’t know when.

I had never attended a march before, wasn’t even sure what it entailed beyond the physical act of walking with a group of like-minded individuals. I just knew I had to be there. I refused to let the election results diminish my belief in democracy and desperately wanted to show my daughter that sitting by and hoping for the best when your values were being challenged is never an option, and this felt like a start. I openly acknowledge my white privilege; I was hoping to use that power and privilege to give voice to those who needed it.

It was two weeks before the March that a group of us met after work to discuss why we were going, how we could support each other as a group of women from the same community. We talked logistically of metro maps and regulation backpack size, and then we dove deeper into our feelings of fear. Fears of the future under this new leadership. Fears of crowds and stampedes at the March itself. Fears of not being inclusive enough in this time of intersectional politics. We gathered inspiration from a man who spent time protesting at Standing Rock, who told us we could not afford to believe in our fears. We could choose to not invest in them. Rather, we were to invest in one another. Care and look out for one another, and to even honor those we find ourselves in conflict with. This is where our power lies. This became our mantra.

It was the day before we left that I first wore my pussy hat, knit by a friend for me to bring to Washington. As I was leaving a grocery store, a woman coming out behind me told me she liked my hat. Does she know what it stands for? I wondered, does she think it’s cute or is she going to provoke me? As I headed to my car, she added “I wish I could go to Washington.” I stopped. I turned around and looked her in the eyes. We both smiled. I started to cry. I didn’t know her, I had wrongly judged her and I was so off the mark. This was the beginning of investing in each other.

Back to the pussy hat.

Macy gave me a funny look when I put it on earlier and asked if it was supposed to be like that.

“Like what,” I asked.

“With those funny pokey ear things.”

“Yeah, it’s my pussy hat.”

“I thought it would look different,” she said.

“Like what? Like a vagina?” I asked

“Eewww,” she said.

“Vaginas are not eeewww,” I said back.

I had no idea how much I would soon grow to appreciate that a pink cat-eared hat became the symbol of this movement. Simple in design and easy for most to create themselves, using a craft performed by women since the dawn of time… I found myself doubtful at first, but I quickly gained respect for the power of the pussy hat and what it communicated to those who saw me wearing it.

The day before the March we flew across the country on a plane brimming with women, the sisterhood grew in size at at each layover. There was laughing, cheering, anticipation and sense of purpose that spread throughout the cabin. As we arrived in D.C. and waited for the Metro, a smattering of red ball caps claiming to make America Great Again, despite being manufactured in China, dotted the platform. Pink pussy hats swarmed both sides of the approaching train.

Our phones were wrought with messages from friends and family back home asking us to “be safe” as the news showed the Inaugural parade protests and cars burning and people being tear-gassed and arrested. But we experienced something much different on our arrival, travelling through a city that welcomed the arrival of the pussy hat.

Bulletproof vest wearing policy men nodded and gave us the thumbs up as we passed them on the street. As we pulled our rolling bags down the brick sidewalks of our nation’s capital, people standing in windows looked out and cheered us on, shimmying and gesturing with wild enthusiasm. The March…it was kind of already beginning.

I had never seen anything like it before in my life.

The day of the March, we packed up the banner we labored over the night before and merged with a steady flow of pink crowding down both sides of the sidewalk towards the Capitol. Like creeks and streams that flow into rivers, that run into even bigger rivers, we converged at every intersection until we were an ocean of women, and men and children too, all uniting behind one cause. We hoisted Quinn upon Niki’s shoulders to see if there was a space we could move to to better see the speakers.

“What do you see?’ we asked.

“People. I can’t see the end of people.”

The throngs of passionate Americans forced us to repurpose our banner into a kindergarten rope that we held tightly to as we wove through the masses, waiting for instruction. Grandmas wore pussy power sashes. Kids clad in t-shirts saying Smash the Patriarchy and Chill ate snacks and bounced about. In a time of need, the banner was used to give privacy to a woman who couldn’t make it through the crowd to the porta potties. As we waited to move, to march, what Quinn and I began to refer to as “the wave” washed over us repeatedly. It was the collective sound of almost a million people cheering in solidarity. You could hear it coming toward you, growing in volume until you too felt the time was right to join in, lift your chin to the sky and roar.

It was hours until we collectively began to move, the crowd as one fluid body. It was time. Rally cries were shouted out in raspy voices and the group responded. The National Anthem was beautifully sung by hundreds of people in unison, and my heart swelled. As we came to intersections and began again to merge, this time away from the ocean of people, into the tributaries of the streets of our capital, surrounded by massive marble structures, I realized that every street in D.C. was like this one.

Filled with people marching.

Filled with people full of love and togetherness.

Investing in each other.

Dispelling fear.

“They cancelled the March,” somebody told us. “The route was so full of people…there was nowhere to march to.” The March had taken on a life of its own.

We flowed onto Pennsylvania Ave, onto the route of the Inaugural Parade that had taken place here just 24 hours before.

The day after, we read the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the National Memorials. Niki decided when she got home she would send our new president a postcard suggesting he visit and contemplate the words as well. We stroked the bronze arms of Eleanor Roosevelt and assured her we would do our best to carry on her legacy. Others joined us and put flowers in her hands and blouse. The Memorials were afloat upon a sea of pussy hats. We discovered that we were patriotic.

Two days after,, we donned our pussy hats again as we headed back to the airport. We passed a construction worker in front of a building site.

“I’m with you ladies,” he said as he nodded. “I’m still with you. I just had to go back to work today.” Change was in the air.

We were sad to leave the feelings of camaraderie the March had given us, we dreaded the harsh reality of an airport. As we headed to our gate, we couldn’t help but poke fun at the piles of Make America Great Again t-shirts, Trump bobble heads and other such merchandise that was on clearance at the gift shops. As we scanned for Thank You Obama Ts, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wouldn’t mind placing my pussy hat on the cardboard cutout of Mr. Obama and then taking her picture with it. We placed our hats on the cutouts and suddenly women abandoned their bags in the middle of the busy walk ways to gather around the pussy-hat clad cutouts of Obama and Hillary and yes, even Trump. Group photos of complete strangers were taken. Phone numbers were exchanged. Women hugged and thanked each other for coming. A rousing cry of “This is what democracy looks like” erupted. This went on for at least 15 minutes until airport security was eventually called and a patient employee removed the hats and the rowdy women dispersed, reassured that the movement still carried momentum.

What a time to be alive, Quinn said.

The four of us made plans before separating to hold each other accountable, to keep the momentum that we felt going back home. We made lists of concrete steps we could take to get women elected into political positions, and to make calling our representatives part of our daily routines. I made the mistake of glancing at the paper which called the Women’s March out of touch with relevant issues, calling the pussy hat silly. They weren’t there, I reminded myself. That wave of sound, that ocean of bodies…they were just the beginning.

About the Author

Aimee McQuilkin

Aimee McQuilkin is the owner of Betty’s Divine, a fabulous boutique in Missoula MT. Along with her husband, two daughters, and multiple pets, Aimee enjoys bird watching, devouring books, riding bikes, thrifting, adventures, smelling things, and making people’s day.

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