History & Politics

Marching On

A year after the Women’s March on Washington, Baltimore women band together to make their voices heard.

A sea of peace signs shot into the air at 1 p.m. on an overcast day last January. More than 4,000 people at the intersection of N. Charles and E. 33rd streets gathered during a moment of silence, which was observed at similar events around the world. It was a rare, quiet moment from the passionate crowd of demonstrators who converged near The Johns Hopkins University for the Women’s March in Baltimore, one of hundreds of events held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017. “It turned out to be a pretty wonderful day, despite our huge disappointment in the election,” recalls Donna Martin, a 74-year-old former pastor and retired hospice worker who organized the Baltimore event, which, like its sister events, was pointedly planned for the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Wearing a brick-colored baseball cap and a camera around her neck, Martin spent the day energizing the demonstrators. “We are the ones who make change happen!” she yelled into a megaphone. “We are here to say we are not going back!”

Now, just 10 months later, sitting at a desk in her Northeast Baltimore home after spending the morning gardening, Martin—a petite woman with silver hair cropped closely around her face and a confident and vivacious personality prone to laughter—reflects on the march’s impact in the time since it took place. “Women are not going to forget that march,” she says firmly. “In the long run, women have learned that they have a voice, and they do have power.”

A year after that group of women took to the streets—many donning pink knitted “pussy hats” and brandishing signs that read “the future is female”—women in Baltimore are channeling the same passion and energy into new organizations aiming to create change in the city.

“The march has really made a huge difference, in terms of the lives of women,” Martin says. “It has caused big cultural shifts for us in our country.”

In a small classroom at Maryland Institute College of Art, a half-dozen people have gathered on a Saturday afternoon for a workshop titled “Listen to Black Women,” where men and women ranging in age from 18 to 60 discuss dismantling institutionalized sexism in men’s lives, and how they can do a better job at supporting women in society.

The free class, led by Brittany Oliver, a 29-year-old Baltimore activist and founder of Not Without Black Women, is part of the grassroots program North Avenue Knowledge Exchange. During the class, Volandia, a pregnant woman staying in Baltimore after Hurricane Irma forced her to leave the Virgin Islands, voices concerns about raising her son in a culture that doesn’t treat men and women equally. DeBora Ricks, a local author and attorney, brings up how sexism is often considered a taboo or divisive topic in the black community, even among women. As a point of linguistic proof, Ricks mistakenly says “institutionalized racism” rather than “sexism” several times before correcting herself, noting, “See—we’re not even used to saying those words.” Men, including 18-year-old Louis Williams, who graduated from Baltimore City College, and Charles Jackson, a program coordinator at Morgan State University, discussed strategies for shutting down sexism witnessed in their own lives.

Like other leaders of women’s groups that sprung up over the past year, Oliver, whose background includes stints at the ACLU of Maryland and anti-street harassment nonprofit Hollaback! Baltimore, says the creation of Not Without Black Women was influenced by the Women’s March on Washington, but for another reason: “I was one of the people who came out against the Women’s March,” she explains. “I intentionally didn’t go.”

Her protest stemmed from what she describes as an erasure of women of color by the event’s white founders—down to the name used in its original Facebook event, the Million Woman March. Several well-known black marches throughout history, from a 1997 march of the same name that drew hundreds of thousands of black women to Philadelphia, to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that famously culminated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, have used similar titles.

“Why not look at history and contact people who have been doing the work before?” she asks. “Black and brown communities are going to be hit the hardest. Their voices are the ones that need to be at the center of any type of march.” March organizers responded to the criticism by renaming the event, bringing in veteran nonwhite activists, and releasing a statement on diversity.

“We need to uplift women, and we need to start saying what we feel. Sometimes you need a support system to do that.”

Still, tired of black women’s experiences being sidelined, Oliver, a self-described introvert, reached out to other black women in Baltimore by hosting a social gathering at Harbor East café Teavolve in July. She called it Not Without Black Women: An Evening of Dialogue and Sisterhood.

“I thought that this was going to be something where 10 women come, it’s informal, let’s talk and get to know each other,” Oliver recalls. “It turned out 40 women showed up at this event, just from word-of-mouth on social media. We talked about politics, dating, relationships. We talked about our everyday lives.”

Since that first meeting, Not Without Black Women has convened for monthly gatherings attracting a multigenerational crowd.

“We’re bringing black women together to support things that may have limited us at one point,” explains Kalila Daniel, who regularly attends Not Without Black Women events and started a mentorship program called Young Queens back in 2009. “But we’re coming together to overcome those different barriers and take our place in the community as we help uplift each other.”

Wearing earrings in the shape of black power fists, Daniel says women of color are often missing from the conversation about political change. “There’s not enough representation of black women of all ages, of different economic backgrounds,” she says. “What’s really happening in the communities, what’s really happening with us every day, is not really addressed. With a group like Not Without Black Women, we can bring a face and a name to those different people, and bring it to the forefront.”

As much as Not Without Black Women aims to be a political force—the group’s leadership team was in the process of crafting its political agenda based on input from members in late 2017—it’s also a social space. “We’re conditioned to not talk about our pain,” Oliver says. “We need to uplift women, and we need to start saying what we feel. Sometimes you need a support system to do that.”

Another such support system exists in the Society of Excellent Women, which was born from a desire to deepen connections between women in Baltimore. “My friend that I used to work with was having a problem where she felt like she wasn’t able to make connections outside of her friend group,” recalls the group’s founder, Brittany Wight. “She was having dinner parties and she would invite three or four friends, and each friend would invite another friend who didn’t know anybody else.”

Inspired by that dinner, Wight—along with Rosemary Kourdoglow and Emma Hagan—organized a “Slushie Social” happy hour at Wet City the night before the presidential election. Using the name Society of Excellent Women, they spread the word via social media.

Despite steadily growing RSVPs, when more than 200 women showed up at the Mt. Vernon beer bar, Wight was shocked. “It was really inspiring. It made me feel like we were doing the right thing,” recalls the Baltimore City Retirement Systems employee and owner of Wight Tea Co. She greeted each guest at the door and asked her to talk to someone she didn’t already know. Glasses clinked and connections were made long after the happy hour’s scheduled conclusion at 8 p.m. “Women come to our other events with women that they met at our first event. It makes me feel warm inside.”

The outpouring of interest in the organization, which Wight says attracts mostly millennials, points to a shared desire among women to connect with their community on a personal level. “Everyone calls Baltimore ‘Smalltimore,’ but we end up in these very closed-off groups,” Wight says. “Baltimore has lots of different communities, but they don’t seem to mix. I think everyone wants to be able to mix, but it’s not necessarily easy to figure out on your own.”

Since the first meeting, Society of Excellent Women has hosted events designed to represent the diverse interests of its members. Attendance has remained steady, with about 200 coming out for larger events, and 50 or 60 for happy hours and smaller meetups.

Often, Wight partners with other women-focused groups in Baltimore, like a clothing swap hosted with A Workshop of Our Own, a collaborative space for women and gender-nonconforming makers, and lifestyle blog The Stylette. At Zine Queens, a panel and workshop held at Open Works, the society gathered leaders of Beast Grrl, Nasty Press, and The Bush Zine to talk about women and zines before attendees collaborated on their own creations.

“The election results definitely started the fire, but the Women’s March set the whole forest aglow,” says Nasty Press co-founder Zoey Duong. “The feeling of that many people in one place who were there to resist Trump and support and uplift each other at the same time became all the momentum that was needed. When I came back from the march, I brought everyone together and what would be the first Nasty Press meeting was held.”

Founded by Duong, Xochi Davila, and Em Jones, Nasty Press launched its first zine last April and is currently working on its second issue with the overarching goal of sharing art by a diverse group, particularly those in the LGBTQ community.

For its part, the Society of Excellent Women is also trying to cast a wider, more diverse net. About halfway through the group’s first year, Wight brought together a group to address inclusivity and the organization’s goals for the future. “I am a straight, white female, and I feel like I am not able to represent all of Baltimore,” Wight says. “I put together a panel of women from all over the city who wanted to be a part of it and had different viewpoints. I asked what they wanted, and we formulated a new, more inclusive mission statement.”

One specific change, thanks to feedback from members, was using a “Y” rather than an “A” in the spelling of womyn in the organization’s messaging, “because not every woman identifies as a w-o-m-a-n,” Wight says. The society also updated its mission to “create safe, inclusive spaces and events in which womyn in Baltimore can find each other for friendship.”

While the initial motive behind the organization was friendship, not politics, Wight says there was a time when she wondered whether or not the society should be politically vocal, or if taking a public stance would alienate some women. “Ultimately, any women’s group at this point has to be vocal,” she says. “It was kind of decided for us.”

Gender politics has always been a calling for Martin, who became one of a small number of women ordained as members of the Methodist clergy in the 1960s. “That wasn’t looked on particularly fondly by the patriarchy,” she recalls. “I’ve always been very social-justice oriented, and I always lead my congregation in that direction.”

Since retiring, Martin—who became aware that she was gay in mid-life—has served on the board of directors for Equality Maryland, pushing for the same-sex marriage referendum in 2012. These days, her focus is on educational equality.

When reflecting on the events of the past year, she remains hopeful about the march’s impact. “It doesn’t make an immediate change,” she says, “but I think it makes a big difference for visibility, and also in the minds and hearts of the people participating.”

Martin points to an increased number of women running for office—especially the historic wins for transgender candidates—and the #MeToo movement calling out sexual abusers on social media as evidence that women are marching on in their own ways. She is especially heartened to see what is happening right in her backyard.

“I’m so proud of these young women in Baltimore taking the reins,” says Martin. “We are cheerleaders for the next generation of activists, and it is particularly poignant when I realize I can no longer do all the things I used to. Passing the torch is not only possible, but necessary.”