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Why women have marched throughout history — and why it still matters today

On Jan. 20, 2017 — President Donald Trump’s first full day in office — hundreds of thousands of women, men and children took to the street in protest. And the annual Women’s March was born.

This past Saturday, the eighth annual national Women’s March took place — this time, in Phoenix. It was dubbed “Bigger Than Roe," focused on Arizona as a battleground in the fight for abortion rights. 

Women have taken to the streets to fight for the vote, for civil rights, labor rights and more throughout history. But, what can marching accomplish in today’s divided — and digital — world?

When we think about women marching in the street, images of suffragettes might come to mind. But, Pam Stewart says the history of women marching goes back much further. 

The Show spoke with Stewart, a historian and teaching professor emerita at Arizona State University, to understand more.

Full interview

PAT STEWART: It does actually, and especially associated with various, I guess collectively we call them labor movements. But going back to especially the early 19th century when women were actually being encouraged to come into the factories, work for wages in good portion because they could be paid a whole lot less than men.

And so of course, there were problems and some of those problems are things like sexual violence, but also lower pay, unsafe conditions. And so going way back into the early 19th century, you did have instances where women were protesting those situations. Of course, during all of that time, women did not have the right to vote, and they actually didn't really have control over their own bodies, especially within marriage.

And so there were a lot of other things that given the realities of women's lives over time sort of intersected with that as well. But also issues of racial equality. When there were lynchings, sometimes these things were headed up by someone like Ida B Wells, for example, there was the so-called East St. Louis riot in 1917, and they decided to have what they termed or at least some participants termed a silent march. They would simply walk down the street tens of thousands of African Americans.

But women actually made the case that they wanted to be viewed as a separate group from the men protesting. So you can find photographs of women as women, most of them all dressed in white, making a visual impact, but also reminding the world that these were women's brothers and sons and, and that women themselves were affected by racial violence.

It's so interesting to think about women a long time ago having the, I guess the bravery, the courage to go out and march in the streets for something like labor rights or racial rights, right. Because, I mean, I, I can imagine the, the blowback on them must have been worse than it might have been for a man at the time.

STEWART: Absolutely. And actually, even though we have images of women marching for suffrage, for example, one of the most famous marches took place in Washington, D.C., in 1913. And even though a lot of the images show like some of the significant women on horseback or on floats, the reality was it was a very, very dangerous situation. There were men who were pulling women down and off, they were trying to raise their skirts, some of them violently attacked women. So there were attacks on women and girls.

And so you're absolutely right about if quote polite society deems the very presence of women in a public space to be improper, then unfortunately, the so called line of logic goes well, then we need to enforce the fact that they will not do this again. So these absolutely could be very dangerous spaces and it did take a certain amount of bravery. However, I'll also say I'm someone who thinks that it takes all different types of what we might call activism.

And for those who either because of maybe a husband's opinion or their own situation, they did not feel they could be that visible and that public, realized it takes money to keep a movement going. You know, sending in your dollars, cash, doing things we might think of as behind the scene. These were also ways that women have protested and been part of activist movements, even if their names don't end up in the headlines.

That's really interesting. So let's talk a little bit about what this means today. The Women's March has been happening since Donald Trump was first elected president every year this year. It's here in Phoenix. The national march is in Phoenix. And we're in a very different landscape than we were even several years ago because the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. I wonder, do you think that women protesting in the street, women marching in a, in a visible way carries the same kind of historic weight that it used to or do we live in such a divided world today that it almost feels like only the people who agree with you will even see it?

STEWART: That's a good question. I will say that I think we have the idea that a lot of the protests that women took part in in decades and centuries past, somehow fundamentally made a difference because we now see where we are, you know, we look back, right? But at the time of course, women just because women marched in, in 1913 does not mean that they got the vote right then, right? So there's that component of how we understand that.

But I think that people and, and I'll focus on women and girls and those aligned with them who march, I think it continues to be important that women are visible. That what they are saying, even if you disagree, that, that visibility still matters. That reminder in this very, you know, visible presence sort of way that we're not there yet that there are still changes that can come and whether or not one has full reproductive rights, abortion rights or not, that it's useful to consider that we still need to look around our world and assess is this the world, you know, we want, are these the laws we want? What can we do to create change?

So, I, I actually think, and it can sound small, but the visibility factor itself matters because, you know, I think there are women that might want to protest every day, but, but we have Jan. 20 and so that is going to get some attention and let's take a look.

You've taught for a long time. Did you often or do you often get questions from students about why women still protest? Why women still march? Like, didn't we, you know, achieve equality a long time ago? That kind of thing?

STEWART: It's interesting. Yes. But usually it comes in the form of their lived experience as they are reaching a certain age, maybe in the job arena. I had a lot of journalism students but students in many degree programs and when, what they feel like they should be able to do and what they've been told they're going to be able to do suddenly they're dealing with, wait, what do you mean? I'm not getting paid as much as him or they're dealing with a boss who comes on to them.

One example of that, that always drew a lot of it's, it's historical, it's not recent but it's, it's sort of a similar response, is when students did learn that it might have been legal to march for the vote. But if you did any advocacy, any mailing, any conversations that were also advocating for birth control, that was illegal in the United States. And students are like, wait, you mean they couldn't even say anything, they weren't even supposed to talk about it? And it's like, yes. And they, they don't understand like why that sort of silencing would happen. But I think we still deal with some of that as well.

It, it all kind of goes toward this idea, it seems to me that, that until you know it in your real life, but until you also understand the history of it, it doesn't really mean the same thing.

STEWART: Yeah, my, you know, tagline, if we don't know the history, we can't solve the problem. And I think I understand why people sort of resist the historical connections because it can feel like, look, we're not there anymore. This is a different world, look at all our technology, et cetera, et cetera. But I think it is useful to reflect on the history and to think what has worked, what continues to work. But what is, what is still needed in terms of what others have done? Also, I got to say history gives us a lot of examples of things that have been successful, you know.

So it sounds like even in the technology field and incredibly divided world that we live in right now, you still think there is some value today and historically to, you know, getting out actually in the street and marching?

STEWART: Yes, see seeing the bodies, you know, three dimensional and all, is I think important because, you know, we, we kind of think like, oh the people that go out in the street, especially if we look at something like the civil rights movement or whatever, oh, they, they must have just been really brave and I'm not brave. So I can't do that, you know, I don't know that any of them were any braver than you or I, and they were literally putting their lives on the line. And so they didn't do it because they were predetermined to be gifted with bravery. They did it because this is what they felt they had to do.

And it allows me, history has allowed me to keep perspective on, you know, what, what is fear, what is courage and the fact that maybe I can do at least a minimum in a way that other people have given their all.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.