Three Lessons To Make The Women's March Worthwhile

I've marched in and organized many marches.  So I supported but wasn't planning on going to DC for the January 21 Women's March, feeling good that younger women were rightly leading this time around. As the time grew nearer, Take The Lead's Leadership Ambassadors created an Action Party event that grew just as the Women's March itself was growing beyond all expectations. I had to be there -- for our event and in solidarity with the millions of other marching women and men around the world.

A delayed train back to New York after the march gave me a few moments for power shopping.  I spotted a red raincoat I couldn't't resist. Nor could I resist asking the cheery salesperson, who by appearance and accent seemed to be from India, whether she had attended the march. "Oh yes," she said. "It was very important. I got permission from my boss to close the shop for four hours, and I took the other two employees and my daughters." Her words touched me profoundly as a microcosm of stories that brought so many people out onto the streets.

I asked many women why they were marching. Young women in particular said they were afraid for themselves of having their rights taken, especially reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and protection from sexual harassment. Older women had more nuanced answers that included fighting racism and xenophobia (with more than a few sporting signs saying "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit"), but the fear of being sent back to the 1950's is real and palpable for everyone -- as is the strength of conviction that we must not let that happen.

Sometimes you have to speak truth to power with your whole body.

We had after all just seen in full living color how deeply strains of racism, sexism, and patriarchy remain, influencing not just voting choices but also how individuals see the world.  To all those who questioned why women marched:  Where you stand, what you can even see depends on where you sit. The less oppressed or more privileged one has been, the harder it is to see why people are marching, or why they are afraid.

The peacefulness of the marches as reported everywhere in the world was a direct challenge to the bullying and boorishness exemplified by the new administration.  As I reflected on the day, I alternated between the joy that comes from standing in peaceful assembly with over a million people who share your values and the cold fear of knowing from a long lens on history that these moments can whistle past without generating substantive change.

I've learned three crucial lessons from decades of marching.

Lesson #1: it is easier to mobilize people to fight back than to fight forward -- but fighting forward is more effective.

Human beings are hardwired to react rather than to be proactive. We learned from millennia of evolutionary biology to be alert to threats and to respond quickly and viscerally as though they were wild animals about to eat us. But thinking ahead is much harder.

Within days of Trump's election, a group of former congressional staffers published an impassioned roadmap for resistance they named "Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda." Modeled on the Tea Party's success at grassroots organizing to defeat Obama's agenda, it's mostly good advice that would be echoed by conservatives as well as liberals.  Except for one piece that kills the value of the rest of it: it recommends not advancing policy initiatives since they won't pass anyway. That is a guaranteed losing strategy.

When you're in the minority is exactly the time to redouble a proactive agenda. Why? It gives you a chance to define issues and frame the terms of the debate. She who defines the terms usually wins. Proposing legislation forces the opposition to spend energy and money fighting you. It makes them dance to your tune instead of the other way around. And last but not least, it energizes your own constituency. Power and energy come from moving out into new spaces, never from standing still.

Lesson #2: Enjoy the euphoria. But capture the energy of those high emotions to feed your power TO. Swell it up to enlarge your intentions.  Let it keep you marching forward FOR a big goal, not increments.  Will women learn from this march to stay active, in small daily ways, yes, but more strategically also, for large and visionary goals that can create systemic change?

A positive sign is the large numbers of women reported to be signing up for political campaign training.    But the proof will be in how many of these women actually run for office.  We need these nascent office-holders and we also need more women sitting on corporate boards, women taking on CEO, CFO and other leadership positions.  We need women building wealth and influence and using them effectively as power TO make change.  We must fill the pipelines from grass roots passions to deep pocket wealth with women who have the will and means to put not just one woman in power but a wide and continuing spectrum of women.  As study after study shows, not only is it good for women to have women throughout the leadership spectrum, it's good for businesses, government, and the society at large.

Lesson #3:
  Own your power TO and embrace strong, ethical, and accountable leadership.  As Micah White, a co-creator of the Occupy movement wrote from bitter experience in The Guardian,   "Without a path from protest to #power#WomensMarch will end up like Occupy."  This is the hardest lesson for any activist to learn and to apply in real time. The powerful optics of pink hats filling the aerial photos needs to be translated into a movement that moves with intentional forward motion.  Writes White, "Without a clear path from march to power, the protest is destined to be an ineffective feel-good spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats."

An effective movement that creates lasting change must choose one overarching goal that can be stated in terms simple enough and laden with a compelling moral value for large numbers of supporters to coalesce around. Passing the Equal Rights Amendment has been suggested as an example. My choice would be a tangible goal of leadership gender parity by 2025.

From my conversations with march organizers, it appears they get the need for continued action but have not had the will to force a singular focus, preferring instead to operate the big tent of a new coalition made up of wildly disparate causes. This is a sure way to dissipate the energy that they will need to translate the march into the fundamental change it seeks.

Then, having coalesced around a goal, a movement must allow for a leader to take the lead, if I may coin a phrase. Women have so often been left out of leadership power circles that we frequently resist assigning strong leadership roles.  Or on the other end of the spectrum, as George Lakoff cautions, we hide under the aegis of the "strict father" leader model and fail to woman up to our fair share of leadership roles. Neither of these extremes will bring about the revolution.

The Women's March, or rather Marches, present a chance to break both of those patterns.

At my trainings, I ask people to position themselves on a 1-10 power continuum, 10 being "I love power, am completely comfortable with it." Rarely in a group of 150 women like those at our Action Party will I have more than a few placing themselves at 10.

That night after the march, almost every participant declared herself a 10. I realize there was self-selection in the room, but still...spending the day marching with a million or so like-minded people palpably increases our sense of our own power and intention. The residual benefits to the movement are inestimable. I still have women who attended the women's march in 2004 telling me that it turned them into activists. Now, multiply 1,000,000 by the global numbers and the benefit of social media. This is BIG. Potentially, that is.

This is a moment when women can choose power over fear, anger, and despair.  Our work has just begun: let's march forward together to make the Women's March of 2017 the last one we need.