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The first time I heard the word feminist was in 1988, when I was in 6th grade. I was a good student with the absolute best, best friend. She was a feminist, and had decided so at age 12. We would talk about it, and I agreed with everything she said. But for some reason, the label felt separate from me; my friend was the feminist one, and I was an able and funny sidekick. I have no idea why I saw it that way. I’m from a very small town, and feminism seemed exotic. Something people talked about on TV.
But then I saw something on TV that changed my perspective. While I was growing up, it was an unspoken rule in our house that the news was on in my house from 5:00-7:00 PM, and I’d often watch at home alone while my mom dropped my sister at ballet class. One day, a few years later, I tuned in to see a woman named Patricia Ireland talking about women’s rights. I don’t remember anyone before her captivating me the way she did. She seemed so unafraid. As the President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) she told The New York Times in 1992, “I want it all. I want to do everything. I don’t see why I can’t have my cake and eat it too.”
Well, I thought at first: What would she have to be afraid of? And then I listened to what she was actually saying. Slowly, I began to realize that, beyond the boundaries of this small town—and probably much more within the boundaries than I realized at the time—there was a lot to be afraid of. She spoke with strength and conviction about things that seemed so much like common sense, that initially I didn’t believe they needed saying at all. But they did.
And they still do.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March, the worldwide protest that took place on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. The idea began as a couple of Facebook events posted in the hours after the shock of the 2016 election, spontaneous expressions of the desire to fight the forces that put Trump into the White House. It quickly expanded—though not without some growing pains—to become what political scientists estimate is the largest single-day protest in American history. More than 3 million people participated—some estimates put that number closer to 5 million—around the world, in large cities and small towns and even Antarctica. Those who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make it were treated to live streams and news stories for days after. The sheer hugeness of the event surpassed everyone’s expectations, and it invigorated a grassroots movement that continues today.
The experience of attending the 2017 Women’s March was surreal for me, in ways that go beyond the craziness of seeing people in pink hats and witty signage packed onto the National Mall and surrounding streets in apparently endless directions. I never thought I would protest at the White House, which to me is not just where the U.S. executive government happens—it is also my former place of employment.
I worked for Barack Obama from 2005 until May 2014, first as his director of scheduling and advance and then as his deputy chief of staff for operations. And if you had told me during my time in the West Wing that in just a few years I’d be outside screaming, “My body, my choice!” after spending eight hours on a bus full of women in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I would have asked to speak to your manager. Though I had intimate knowledge of how policy is shaped from the inside, I’d forgotten how powerful it can feel to contribute my voice and body to a crowd demanding change. There’s a big difference between working in politics and being politically active, especially after spending many draining years on the job.
But although the scale and power of the Women’s March took a lot of us off guard—myself included—the force behind the movement has always been there. “Many women I talk with say they got hooked on being an activist the moment they stepped off a bus and into a crowd of hundreds of thousands of other feminists,” said former NOW President Ireland about the March for Women’s Lives, which took place in Washington, D.C. in April 2004 to protest restrictions on abortion, attracting between 500,000 and 800,000 people. In many ways, NOW is a precursor to the Women’s March, as well as a model for what the Women’s March movement might become. The slogan for this year’s march is “Look back, march forward,” and I think the imperative extends beyond the events of the last year. Taking stock of—and lessons from—the history of the women’s movement is itself a feminist tradition. And reflecting on NOW’s successes, failures and figureheads like Ireland can show us how best to harness the potential of the Women’s March.
Founded in 1966 “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof,” NOW immediately set practical, tangible goals. “We believe the time has come to move beyond the abstract argument, discussion and symposia over the status and special nature of women which has raged in America in recent years,” its statement of purpose read. “The time has come to confront, with concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings.”
Immediately they set up task forces to focus on specific issues through direct action: Equal Opportunity of Employment, Legal and Political Rights, Education, Women in Poverty, the Family, Image of Women, and Women and Religion. The next year, NOW became the first national organization to adopt legal abortion as one of its official goals, along with passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and publicly funded childcare.
In their first six years alone, they campaigned successfully for the end of sex discrimination in help-wanted ads and public places; supported NOW member Shirley Chisholm as she became the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives and in her historic 1972 run for president; organized a 50,000-person march for their Women’s Strike for Equality; and enacted various campaigns for specific causes, including the eventual passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Listing all their successes would outrun my word limit, but they also set up rape crisis centers and contributed to organizing the first Take Back the Night actions against sexual assault in America.
Throughout their history, protests and organized demonstrations—often attracting tens of thousands of supporters—were a fundamental part of NOW’s work. But they were never all of its work. When Ireland took the reins in 1991, NOW was a comprehensive organization rooted in practice, not theory. Last year, at the 25th anniversary of NOW, Ruth Mandel from the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers said of the organization: “They came out fighting and remained fighting. It is not a discussion group. It is not a reading group.”
Ireland was an embodiment of its principles: a bisexual woman who had a laissez-faire attitude toward marriage and monogamy. (When she became the president of NOW, she had a female “companion” as well as her husband.) She was vocal about her abortion and, while working as a stewardess for Pan Am, once campaigned the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to force the company to comply with labor laws. She was unapologetic and forceful and, in addition to being a purposeful leader of NOW, a role model for women who rejected limits on both their professional and personal lives.
Protest is what ignited my interest in politics in the first place. Two years after I saw Patricia Ireland on TV, I was a freshman at the University of Vermont. Newt Gingrich was touring the state to campaign for his Contract with America, a ruthlessly conservative set of policy proposals Republicans wanted to enact if they won their first Congressional majority in 40 years. I came home from class one day to find my roommates getting ready to attend a protest against Gingrich, who was speaking near campus. Although I didn’t know much about him or the Contract with America, I went along. We waited, with signs and anger, outside his event, and after it finished, the revolutionary fervor overtook me completely; I can’t say if it was Gingrich’s proposed policies or just the angry energy generated by a bunch of college students, but the next thing I knew, I had leapt onto the hood of his car.
I tell this story a lot, because it’s one of my proudest moments. Unfortunately, my efforts were in vain; the 1994 mid-term elections became known as the “Republican Revolution” as they took Congress and passed several versions of Contract with America policies. The next year, I participated in a Take Back the Night march on campus. This completed my TV-to-reality political trajectory: The first time I heard about Take Back the Night was from an episode of 90210 that aired in 1993. From there, I was hooked.
Though Ireland—and NOW itself—were often criticized as “militant” and have since faded from influence as organizations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood lead the charge for women’s rights in the 21st century, I’ve always wondered if we should be paying more attention to their example. Back in 1992, Rutgers’ Mandel, reflecting on NOW’s achievements, said that women “have moved from invisibility to spotty visibility to some influence. We have not moved to power.” She might as well have been speaking yesterday.
As I gear up to march again this weekend, I’ll be keeping a couple of people in mind. The first is Ireland, who, along with Lucille Ball, is as close to a feminist role model as I had growing up. The second is my very best friend. January 20 is her daughter’s birthday, and we will all spend it marching.
Alyssa Mastromonaco is president of global communications strategy and talent for A+E Networks and author of The New York Times best-selling book Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House.