Old and young, women, men and children, many wearing pink cat-eared caps and carrying signs, took part in the 2018 Montana Women’s March Saturday in downtown Billings.
Hundreds of participants, bundled against morning temperatures in the 30s, met at the corner of Second Avenue North and North 31st Street. They marched a mile to North Park, contending with icy patches on the road, and then listened to a series of speakers who encouraged them to keep Saturday’s momentum going.
“We need to take the energy here today and we need to turn it into tangible action,” state Sen. Jen Gross, one of the march’s organizers, told the enthusiastic crowd. “We can’t stop now. We must do more.”
The nonpartisan march, one of many around the country, focused on the theme, “Dream big. Work together. Give thanks.” In Montana, last year’s single march in Helena sprouted into several events around the state Saturday.
Before the march began, a group of people took part in a Native smudging ceremony. After opening remarks, the large crowd began its walk toward the park, with Native American ribbon skirt dancers leading the way.
At times, the number of marchers spanned three blocks. Some took part in chants: “Women’s rights are human rights,” and “Show me what democracy looks like — this is what democracy looks like.”
Sandy Dvarishkis, her boyfriend, Hank Fuller, and some friends carried wooden signs with large paper roses made by Fuller. The signs contained phrases including “she persisted” and “bread and roses.”
Dvarishkis, of Billings, attributed “bread and roses” to activist Rose Schneiderman who, in a 1911 speech advocating equal pay and safe working conditions for women, said workers must have bread, and roses, too.
Dvarishkis said she was walking Saturday to take a stand.
“We need to take our country back,” she said, walking toward the back of the crowd. “We need to get out and vote. Those who are out there and think they’re alone, they can see this and realize that they’re not alone.”
Fuller, asked why he was marching, said simply, “I like women and I think they should have equal rights.”
Chery Ehresman of Huntley brought a sign announcing her commitment to change: “70 years old. Will march until we get it right.”
Ehresman remembered marching in the 1960s to advocate for women’s rights, an end to the Vietnam War “and other political things we were involved in.”
She and husband, Bill, who also walked on Saturday, have four daughters and seven grandchildren, including three granddaughters, between them.
“I’m marching for them,” she said. “I want to leave them a better world.”
Congress isn’t standing up for the Earth or for people.
“It isn’t just for women’s rights we’re marching,” Ehresman said. “It’s for human rights.”
Seanna Jordan of Seattle came to the march with her niece, Aliciana Brooks, 9 of Billings. Participating in last year’s march in Seattle “was so empowering,” Jordan said.
“I thought it was important for my niece to see this because it’s a fight we’ve been doing so long,” she said.
At North Park, a series of speakers stood on a portable stage spoke to the crowd during the 40-minute rally. Longtime activist Gwen Kircher recited a list of organizations and individuals who over the years stood up for the rights of others. From the American Indian Movement and Black Panthers to Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and Anna Mae Aquash, the highest ranking woman in AIM, all struggled for human rights a half century ago.
But some things still haven’t changed, she said.
“I have heard the ‘N’ word more times in the last year and the Prairie ‘N’ word than I have since I moved to Montana in 1976,” Kircher said. “That is the atmosphere we have right now from our government.”
She told the crowd she is “grateful and thankful I still have a big dream of equality for all.”
Allison Johnson, a junior at West High, recently started a political club at school to get students more engaged in the political process. She still isn’t old enough to vote, but she urged others her age at the rally to make a difference by campaigning for a candidate or helping get the vote out.
Johnson also issued a challenge to those 18 and older.
“For each and every one of you who will be able to vote in this election, be our voice,” she said. “Make sure we are represented, show us that we have a say and get out and vote.”
A passionate Kathleen O’Donnell, a military veteran and a lesbian, talked about the challenges she faced in the military during the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She couldn’t be seen in public with her girlfriend for fear that she might get caught.
The policy finally was repealed in 2011, a turning point for gay people in the military.
“This monumental time in history didn’t happen because we sat there and we hoped it would happen,” O’Donnell said. “It happened because people chose to get involved. They made phone calls and knocked on doors for candidates that would stand up for their beliefs.”
State Sen. Margie MacDonald reminded her audience of a time 25 years ago when Ku Klux Klan organizers attempted to bully and intimidate minorities in Billings. A coalition of people, both Democrats and Republicans, from many backgrounds came together to end the harassment.
It’s not the responsibility of the person being bullied to stand up, MacDonald said.
“It’s all of our job to stand together,” she said to applause from the crowd.
Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice asked those in the crowd to participate in an informal poll. How many had been touched by suicide? How many knew someone who was a victim of domestic violence? How many knew someone whose life had been changed by drinking and driving?
Many hands went up after each question, proving how much people of all colors have in common, she said.
McLean talked about her family, about how her grandmother was kidnapped and raised in a boarding school “where she did not have tender loving care, she did not have that mother and father and family to nurture her.”
Because of their upbringing, her grandparents struggled to express love to their children. It was also difficult for McLean’s mother to tell her that she loved her, though McLean knew she was loved.
Today, McLean tells her own children frequently how much she loves them. It’s generational trauma that’s being healed, she said.
“I share that story to inspire you about healing, to think about moving forward, to think about how we can all heal as a community from the past,” McLean said.
Gross closed the rally by encouraging people to get involved, to consider running for office regardless of their political persuasion. Making real change is hard work, she said.
“It requires perseverance and courage in the face of adversity and uncertainty, and there are heartbreaking setbacks,” Gross said. “But onward we march — or we can run.”