I was on my way to yet another protest march, when I noticed I was walking with a resolute, rhythmic gait and humming a familiar tune:
Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
“Well done, Sister Suffragette!”
Any fan of the 1964 film, “Mary Poppins,” will recognize this as the chorus to “Sister Suffragette,” the song Winifred Banks, Jane and Michael’s mum, enthusiastically sings on her return from a suffragette rally.
For many of us since the presidential election, marches have become part of our daily routine: make a sign, dress in the appropriate t-shirt and join in the protest of the moment. In April, which T.S. Eliot referred to as “the cruelest month,” rallying felt like the national pastime. In the midst of recalling the Passover story of the Exodus from Egypt—a record breaking march for freedom in and of itself—there we were pounding the pavement at the Tax March on April 15, the March for Science on April 22 (Earth Day) and the second mobilization of the People’s Climate March on April 29.
With so many marches, many wonder if we will be able to keep up the momentum. Others question whether or not protest marches “work” at all. That of course depends on whether “next step activism” can be sustained.
I’m not new to protest marches. You might say I’m a march junkie. I actually enjoy huge crowds. Instead of feeling claustrophobic, I am comforted and empowered by being among so many diverse, yet like-minded individuals looking to make a difference. There is community in a march as we unite for a cause and express ourselves through collective chanting and energetic participation.
I attribute much of my revolutionary spirit to the fact that I was born on the third of July in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our nation, so you might say it’s in my DNA to be patriotic. I tear up during the national anthem. It infuriates me that certain groups of people have co-oped what it means to be an American and have labeled my activities as subversive. I march because I believe in the First Amendment right “of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I’m also genetically pre-disposed to dissension and tikkun olam. My paternal grandfather was a union organizer for the garment workers. He emigrated from Europe in the early 1900s as a teenager and never forgot his socialist roots. My maternal grandfather, meanwhile, was a judge and Democratic Party Leader in Philadelphia—a career fueled by his sense of justice. He and my grandmother, who was an active Democratic Party member as well, raised their family on Franklin Street in Philadelphia, named for the radical hero, Benjamin Franklin. My mother and her siblings remember one day looking out the front windows of their home where their father had hung full-sized posters of Franklin Roosevelt. There was my grandfather, leading a marching band in a parade down their street in support of FDR.
P.L. Travers, the author of the “Mary Poppins” books, didn’t set out to make Mrs. Banks a suffragette. That was a 1960s Hollywood invention. They needed to give her something to do, so that true to the book, she would remain an inattentive mother in need of a nanny. Class structure and norms of the time wouldn’t allow her to be a working mother, so they changed the period from the 1930s to the 1910s and voila—Mrs. Banks became a sister suffragette.
Dedicated to the point of distraction, Mrs. Banks would never have dreamed of taking her children with her to one of her rallies. But unlike Mrs. Banks, I was with my children 24-7, so there was no question in my mind: they would march alongside me from the time they were young. Marches provide a platform for discussion about issues that may impact your children’s lives or the lives of others and can be a catalyst for future action. I believe that attending marches as part of their social justice-oriented upbringing has helped contribute to our millennial daughters understanding the importance of making your voice heard as civically engaged citizens.
After a lifetime as an activist, I’m sorry there is still so much to protest. And while I still feel the thrill I felt at my first march over forty years ago, I know time has passed— because now my daughters are taking me to protests. Well done, sister Suffragette!