Challenge and celebration as thousands mark Charlotte’s third women’s march

An evolving women’s movement held its third annual pep rally in uptown Charlotte Saturday as thousands gathered for the 2019 Women United March.

The event, an offspring of the worldwide women’s march that emerged the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, included speakers who celebrated gains and others who challenged participants to do more.

Susan Harden, who announced at last year’s march that she would run for Mecklenburg County commissioner, came back with an update.

“Guess what? I won,” Harden said to cheers. “I was one woman that was part of a huge wave.”

The 2018 campaign saw record numbers of women mobilize as volunteers, candidates and ultimately elected officials, the Observer has reported. But several speakers at Saturday’s two-hour rally said getting women elected or dealing with traditional women’s issues is too narrow a focus.

Cat Bao Le, director of the Charlotte’s Southeast Asian Coalition, told the crowd she hesitated to accept the speaking invitation because she sees the women’s march as “an event that has not demonstrated that it’s completely comfortable with the complexity of what it means to be a woman.”

Le and other speakers challenged the group to go beyond rallying for mainstream issues and start working with groups they may see as, in Le’s words, “too aggressive.”

“Will we — will you — show up at marches that push you beyond your own comfort?” Le asked. “Will you do work for the collective without having to be acknowledged for it?”

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This sign, carried by a young white woman in the 2019 Charlotte Women United March, symbolizes the attempt to recognize women of color and others who may have been excluded in previous events. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Myka Johnson of Charlotte Uprising pushed the comfort zone even further. She showed up in a crop top bearing the slogan “CMPD Killed Justin Carr” — a reference to a controversial theory about a shooting death during 2016 street protests — and opened with a graphic description of what she, as a trans woman, did to prepare her appearance for the event.

Johnson said trans and non-binary women of color are bailing people out of jail, resisting immigration officials and standing up against Palestinian oppression while many at the rally are on the sidelines. She challenged participants to show up in February for the trial of Rayquan Borum, who has been charged with shooting Carr.

“What will you do?” Johnson asked. “Fighting for women’s rights is so much more than attending a march once a year.”

It’s a far cry from January 2017, when more than 10,000 people marched through Charlotte’s streets wearing pink knit hats and carrying signs that protested Trump’s election.

Saturday’s march was smaller. First Ward Park, which holds about 5,000 packed shoulder-to-shoulder, looked full but had plenty of room to mingle.

In 2017 and 2018, Charlotte’s marches coincided with similar events around the world. This year it came a week after the “women’s wave” events in Washington, D.C., and many other cities. Organizers in Charlotte and Raleigh opted to wait a week so last weekend could be centered on Martin Luther King Jr. events.

Thousands of marchers gather at the start of Charlotte’s Women United March on Saturday morning, Jan. 26, 2019. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte’s Women United March has a new sponsor, with the Queen City chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women joining Charlotte Women’s March. Organizers asked speakers to avoid partisan rhetoric and focus on issues that unite women. The two emcees and 12 speakers were chosen to highlight racial and religious diversity, as well as issues such as reproductive rights, immigration, gun violence, access to health care and LGBTQ issues.

Few of the Charlotte signs focused on Trump, and even fewer bore his image. The “pussy hats,” which some have decried as symbols of shallow white feminism, were less visible in 2019.

Local organizers hope to avoid the rifts that have roiled the national movement, where one organizer’s ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan led to accusations of anti-Semitism. Like marches across the country, the Charlotte event has been criticized for doing too little to appeal to non-white feminists.

Laura Meier of Charlotte Women’s March and Renee Hill of 100 Black Women opened the rally by acknowledging the controversy but highlighting what unites the crowd.

“We are in the throes of a women’s movement, and some people would love to see us fail,” Meier said.

The two organizers asked the group to “make some noise” if they support quality education for all children, access to health care, the value of immigrants, the right to love who you want, an end to gerrymandering and equal pay for equal work.

They got hearty cheers each time.

“Today we hope that you will listen to and learn from the diversity of perspectives,” Hill said. “We hope you will march with others who have shared principles, even if we do not always agree.”

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Marchers brought flags and signs with messages to Charlotte’s annual Women United March on Saturday. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The event brought a mix of veterans and newcomers — including a group of UNC Charlotte students who came for the first time and some teens from Union County’s Marvin Ridge High who came last year and brought more friends this year.

The Marvin Ridge students made signs such as “I eat gender norms for breakfast” and the Harry Potter-themed “When Voldemort is present we need a nation of Hermiones.”

“We are the next generation to come out and vote,” 17-year-old Courtney Gross said.

Teresa Peña, a Hispanic activist from Iredell County, said she has been to all three Charlotte marches. This year’s was the smallest but most inclusive, she said before the speeches began.

“We are one race, the mixed race, and we are going to prevail,” Peña said.

Liz Cotto, 18, said she and other young dancers from RL Dance, a Charlotte dance troupe that promotes Latino culture, were excited to be at their first women’s march, to stand up for equal rights.

Barbara McCullers of Charlotte showed up Saturday morning wearing the pink she got at the first national women’s march.

She and two friends from Action NC, all of them African-American, said they’re proud to be part of an inclusive movement.

“We’re here to fight for all women,” McCullers said.

“They’re trying to push women back to the Stone Age,” said Willie Dawson.

There was plenty of socializing and picture-taking among the crowd, but speakers stressed the seriousness of the work ahead.

“You need to visualize your promised land, name it and work toward it,” said Rabbi Judy Schindler, a keynote speaker. “The journey to justice is not easy. There will be days when you will walk away in tears.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @AnnDossHelms

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.