For women like Kate Casaletto and Erin Duncan, two North Liberty moms who helped found the activist group Action Iowa, there was little discomfort in touting sharply worded signs along with an estimated 26,000 other marchers in Des Moines Saturday.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” read Casaletto’s sign on one side; on the other, “Climate change is real.” “Love trumps hate” and “My pussy grabs back,” Duncan’s sign blasted.
Pointed is one thing; negative is another, both women said.
“We don’t think being anti-Trump is going to be effective, but being actively involved will,” Duncan said.
Feeling hatred toward President Donald Trump only creates an environment where his supporters feel justified to fight back, Casaletto said.
That message of staying focused on “pro” and leaving “anti” behind resounded in Des Moines and many of the other Women’s Marches that took place worldwide Saturday. By contrast, many mainstream media and cable news outlets — including CNN and Des Moines television news channel WHO — boiled the day’s events down to “protests against Trump.”
Des Moines organizers went out of their way to drive home the positive goals and overall point of the Iowa State Capitol rally. “This is NOT a protest event,” read the event’s Facebook page. “We are marching FOR equity, FOR justice, FOR the rights of all women and girls!
Phrases like “my feminism isn’t necessarily your feminism,” “I’m not necessarily marching for the same reason you are marching,” “women’s rights are human rights” and “we bring our differences” peppered much of the chants and talk from the stage.
Tribute was made to not just women’s rallies, but the full history of public marches and rallies stretching back to 1849 — since which time more than 100 rallies have been held, with nearly a dozen organized by women, speakers said. Opening comments for the rally didn’t mention Trump but did include a shout out to almost every group and topic marginalized by President Trump’s rhetoric when he was a candidate: Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, water, soil, air, climate, private property rights, access to education, healthcare and LGBTQ rights.
The messaging was echoed by participants, whose signs rarely mentioned President Trump but also ran the full gamut of his most troubling campaign statements and early administrative efforts. “We’re all immigrants,” read the sign held high by Edward Esbeck, last year’s homecoming king for Iowa City’s City High, who attended the Des Moines rally accompanied by Iowa City resident Mary Stevenson.
Esbeck, who was born in Uganda and became a U.S. citizen when adopted, said he attended the rally to support “everybody working for equal rights.”
“I am just so proud to be from Iowa today, and also proud we came here to Des Moines to show Johnson County is involved,” Stevenson said. “And it’s heart-warming to see so many young people involved.”
Other signs, held by men and women of all ages, ranged from the edgy to the simple and direct.
“Humanity first, not America first!!”
“I don’t even like pussy but I support it!”
“Extremists have shown that what frightens them most is a girl with a book.”
“Protect Trans Lives.”
But as coverage unfolded of the Des Moines rally and the worldwide movement, that inclusive multi-dimensional messaging was slowly replaced by many media with a blanket “anti-Trump” label. Local media like WHO put out headlines simply labeling the march as “against Trump,” and cable news networks like CNN over and over labeled the marches as “protests against Trump.”
Celebrities like Michael Moore, Gloria Steinem and Madonna took over the spotlight late Saturday, with many hyperbolic anti-Trump comments at the D.C. rally that fed into the kind of confrontation the new President has made clear he relishes and often counters through Twitter storms or outbursts like his 15-minute speech Saturday afternoon in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency Heroes, in which he attacked the media and his critics and boasted about the size of his inauguration crowds.
“The majority of Americans didn’t want Donald J. Trump in the White House, and we’re here today as their representatives,” Moore pronounced in his comments. Steinem, also in Washington, said the rally’s message to Trump was “it’s time to leave.” And Madonna launched an angry cursing tirade that included a reference to her thoughts of “blowing up the White House.”
By Sunday, the focus had shifted to Trump’s reaction to the marches, including an early morning tweet from him fixating on the flashes of celebrity over-indulgences. Trump took up the comments tit for tat, and managed to overshadow the historic news that millions of people worldwide marched and rallied, without incident, under the leadership of women, to stand up for not just women, but anyone and anything marginalized or threatened during the Trump campaign.
Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
These divisive messages made life just a bit harder for people like “Clarisse” (not her real name). She attended the Des Moines march, inclusive sign in hand, despite the fact that she felt it necessary to hide her participation from her 149 fellow residents in the tiny Iowa town where she lives.
“I didn’t put anything on Facebook and really couldn’t even tell anyone about it,” she said. “I just couldn’t take the backlash.”
Clarisse’s aunt attended too, but didn’t want her name mentioned at all. Another friend, whose small Iowa hometown isn’t quite as small as Clarisse’s, also joined in the trip, sign in hand.
“My town is a little closer to Cedar Rapids, so I have it a little better,” she said, but she, too, endures criticism from her husband’s side of the family and from a close friend.
However, the national coverage wasn’t entirely celebrity-driven. Among the many positive developments: recognition that the marches had under-promised and over-delivered. Reports for almost every march showed attendance drastically exceeded projections: 10,000 were predicted at Des Moines where 26,000 showed up, same with St. Petersburg, Florida, where more than 20,000 attended compared to a projected 10,000, and 200,000 were expected in Washington, D.C. where more than a half million attended.
Some commentators honed in on how many “moms” were participating in the marches — and how in many ways, the marches were a “passing of tradition” in families. Such was the case for Alyssa C., an Iowa City resident from 2008 to 2012 who now lives in Des Moines. (She asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy.)
She brought her young son and daughter, ages 4 and 6, to the Des Moines march, and also her own mother, to stand up for not only women, but the LGBTQA community and freedom of religion, among other issues.
Alyssa described how the march has been an ongoing source of sobering education for her entire family.
“We talk a lot at home about what it means to have a government that isn’t the most compassionate, and about how all of these people are coming to the march because of that,” she said.