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Amid big inclusivity conversations, St. Louisans plan to join the Women’s March in D.C. and at home

Beth Prusaczyk, Helen Petty and Kim Gamel discusses their reasons for joining Women's Marches on Jan. 21, 2017.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Beth Prusaczyk, Helen Petty and Kim Gamel discusses their reasons for joining Women's Marches on Jan. 21, 2017. Petty and Prusaczyk organized a bus to go from St. Louis to D.C. for the national march. Gamel is one of the organizers of the St. Louis march.

Hundreds of St. Louis women are planning to either travel to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington or attend a similar “sister march” planned in St. Louis for the same day, January 21, the day after President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. There are 270 marches around the country — and globe, for that matter — planned in tandem with the march in Washington.

About 3,500 people from St. Louis and the surrounding area have RSVP’d on Facebook to attend the local event. About 150 people are taking buses chartered from St. Louis to D.C. for the march and around 600 people total are planning to attend the march from across the state of Missouri, according to organizers.

The marches seek to bring together women to “stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families, recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

The march has also given rise to some contentious dialogues about race and activism, with some arguing that white women are co-opting the activist work of women of color that has been going on for years. Others say this march, viewed as a liberal movement, does not voice the concerns of conservative American women, such as those who are pro-life when it comes to the abortion debate.

Where do the women who are organizing both St. Louisans’ involvement in the national march and the local sister march here stand? On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh spoke with three St. Louisans who are working to bring people to Washington D.C. for the march and bring together people in St. Louis.

Why they march

Helen Petty and Beth Prusaczyk are two St. Louis women who have organized buses to travel from St. Louis to D.C. for the national march. They felt called to join the national march after Donald Trump’s election because they wanted to feel solidarity with other women across the country who are also worried about Trump’s stance on many different issues.

“I want to show Donald Trump and other representatives that we, the American citizens, are watching him,” Prusaczyk said. “This is a movement that does not end on Jan. 22. This is a way for people to become community organizers, to become active, but hopefully this carries on with national and local actions and people become engaged in protecting their own rights.”

While the march has been criticized for not claiming one call to action, that’s actually the part of the march Prusacyzk feels most connected with.

“You have immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, women of color rights, criminal justice reform rights … you have all these issues that people are passionate about,” she said. “The national organizers are good at showing the intersectionality of all those issues.”

"It is important for people to go and be there and see hundreds of thousands of other people who don't look like them, sound like them but are coming together for a greater cause."- Helen Petty

Petty said it was hard for her to look at people after the election of Trump and she hopes joining a vast group of people joining together to assert their opinion on women’s rights will help that feeling. 

“These are not life-long activists, they’re not organizers,” Petty said, who is bringing her 11-year-old-son along with her to the march. “They are women, men and children in the community who feel like now is the time to stand up and let their voice be heard. They feel compelled to get on a bus with us and travel overnight on a bus with us on Friday and overnight on a bus with us on Saturday. … It is important for people to go and be there and see hundreds of thousands of other people who don’t look like them, sound like them but are coming together for a greater cause.”

Kim Gamel, one of the organizers of the march in St. Louis said she felt compelled to “take a stand” after Trump’s election because she couldn’t “sit back and wait to see what happened.” She wanted to help make a space where “anyone in St. Louis who feels threatened by the new administration” could come and have their voices heard.

Questions of inclusivity

Although the national organizing committee is composed of people from different backgrounds and consistently touted that women from all backgrounds are welcomed and encouraged to attend, in recent weeks, conversation about the Women’s March on Washington has turned to that of inclusivity.

Those concerns have also been raised about the Women’s March on St. Louis, whose original organizers are primarily white. At a community meeting last night, held to bring online conversations to in-person interactions, tensions boiled over. One listener said the meeting was “full of racist statements.”

"We wish there had been more women of color in the organizational stages and we're doing everything we can now to make sure that all those concerns are heard."- Kim Gamel

Gamel, who was at the meeting last night, said the organizers left the floor open to anyone who wanted to speak, be it people of color or white women, to get sentiments out in the open.

“Our group, we’ve had some missteps along the way,” Gamel said. “It’s a small group and it has only been a few weeks of getting this together. We wish there had been more women of color in the organizational stages and we’re doing everything we can now to make sure that all those concerns are heard. They are valid. It’s not about one particular cause. It is about each person’s individual fight. We want all those voices heard on that day.”

If they could do it over again, Gamel said she thinks the group could have contacted more communities where women of color are involved to get them to participate in the organization of the march.

Similar sentiments have been expressed over the national march. In this New York Times article, one white participant said she was dissuaded from attending the march after seeing disparaging remarks made by a black activist telling white women to listen more and talk less. Petty, who is white, has also heard from people of color who don't want to go.

These conversations are not dissuading her from attending.

“It’s really important to have uncomfortable conversations again and again and again,” Petty said.  “I think admitting where you’ve misstepped and mistakes you’ve made and keeping on trying to do better is really important. I heard from a lot of women of color who aren’t going to go. It is not up to me as a white woman to tell them why they should show up. It’s up to me to shut up and listen to their concerns and, for me, still go and do the work of fighting for them. It is important to me to include all those opinions and voices as much as I can.”

Petty said the group of people organizing the buses from St. Louis tried to raise money for people who could not afford the bus fare to go, particularly looking to help fund the trips of women of color and LGBTQ women. “We didn’t get nearly as many as I would have hoped,” Petty said, expressing that exposed a gap in personal friend circles, which may not include that many people of color.

Prusaczyk said that white women who feel they are not welcome in the march “need to realize that how they are feeling right now is how women of color have felt for a long time.” A lot of people were not prepared to have difficult conversations, but they are more important now than ever before.

Looking forward

Still, the women are hopeful that these marches will offer a space for difficult conversations to be had.

"It is a time-honored tradition for people to try to divide us."- Helen Petty

“It is a time-honored tradition for people to try to divide us,” Petty said. “You’re weaker when you’re apart. It is important to recognize our common humanity while not erasing someone’s personal experience.”

The St. Louis march is planned to begin at 9 a.m. at Union Station on Jan. 21. From there, the group will march down Market Street to Luther Ely Square, where a series of speakers will speak on various topics. After that, a volunteer fair will be held at the YWCA to help connect people with opportunities to continue their work in the community going forward. More information here.

The national march is planned to begin at 10 a.m. EST and continue to 4 p.m. While the march will not take place on the National Mall, as previously hoped, it does have a designated route. Organizers are staying mum on the exact route due to security concerns. Buses are still being organized for those who want to go, though they leave from Cape Girardeau or Columbia. More information here

Related Events

What: Women’s March on Washington

When: January 21, 2017

Where: Washington, D.C.

More information.

What: Women’s March on St. Louis

When: January 21, 2017

Where: St. Louis, MO

More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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