Women’s Marches as Spiritual Practices

By Mary E. Hunt

from Feminist Studies in Religion

© 2017, Connie Drapeau Kennedy

© 2017, Connie Drapeau Kennedy

The roaring success of the Women’s March on Washington and the many related marches around the world signals a new spiritual vibrancy that supports action for social justice. As footsore marchers debrief, most people are singing the same song: huge numbers of diverse folks; overwhelming good will in sometimes crowded conditions; creative, constructive manifestations of progressive opinions; a deep sense of not being the only one who opposes the policies and practices of a presidential administration hell bent on American hegemony; and new resolve to bring about justice. The role of religion and spirituality in all of this is telling.

The coming together was all. It happened in women’s living rooms, on-line as some people with disabilities attended this time, in DC where so many people gathered that the city was virtually closed, and in towns and cities on every continent, including Antarctica, where women and men, young and old simply had to respond with our bodies to ideologies of hate and exclusion that characterized the Trump presidential campaign.

These marches and rallies were not feel good fests, but serious, if at times light-hearted (a popular chat was “We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter”) manifestations of people who expect and are working to create a just world. Nary an arrest was reported. Speeches and music added content, pink hats made a statement, but the heart of the matter was being there, showing up, embodying something that puts the brakes on ‘America first’ and greed as driving forces.

At first blush, the role of religion was relatively minor. Unlike the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war protests, clergy and religious leaders were not generally in the vanguard of the marches though some religious people spoke at rallies. The lead groups of the mother march in D.C. were Planned Parenthood (women’s health), the Natural Resources Defense Council (climate change and fossil fuels), Emily’s List (electing pro-choice Democratic women candidates), and NARAL Pro-Choice America (choosing abortion, birth control, sex education, and healthy pregnancies).

Partner groups included those working against gun violence, in favor of girls, peace and environmental issues. Religious groups were among them. Several Jewish organizations, Unitarians both at the national and local level, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Catholics for Choice, and Faith in New York were represented among the official partners. But most on the partner list were secular groups ranging from the well known (Human Rights Campaign) to the lower profile (Rachel’s Network brings environmental concerns, philanthropy, and womens’ leadership together; VERVE focuses on human rights and women’s friendships—who knew).

I detected a thread of feminist spiritualty throughout. What brought people together was not a particular dogma or doctrine. Rather, it was vision and hope lived out in multiple ways a la feminist spiritualties that do justice.

A bitterly disappointing Electoral College win for a candidate who distinguished himself by his crude and crass behavior toward women, on top of an unfolding policy agenda that is destroying global progress by trumpeting torture, walls, and aggression, issued in spiritual malaise for many progressive people. That the Electoral College winner bested the most viable woman candidate in American history although he lost the popular vote only increased the spiritual dissonance. The organizers’ genius insight to invite and ignite people for action touched a nerve.

These marches were not simply the unleashed energy of disappointed voters, nor were they a counter inaugural. They were expressions of values and commitments that are shared more broadly, held more deeply, and manifest more diversely than many people, including the organizers, realized. That surprise says something about the need to vocalize, amplify, and publicize feminist spiritual values in all of their complexity.

Institutional religions played a helpful, if supporting role. Many churches and synagogues opened their doors (especially their bathrooms) and plugged in their coffee makers to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of those marching. Some hosted non-violence training sessions in advance of the events.

There were also traditional religious services connected to the gatherings. In Washington D.C., for example, the National Council of Jewish Women co-sponsored a Shabbat service, and the First Congregational Church of Christ offered a prayer service before the march. Catholic nuns and their friends planned to meet following prayer in a Catholic church on Capitol Hill. In the end, many communities, including the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) with whom I gathered, discovered that there were simply too many people to meet up with a large group so in the end everyone marched together. It was appropriate to the day.

Progressive religious groups were out in force as banners and signs revealed. But the real story, in my view, is the more generalized spiritual sense of the marches that reflects a more diffuse, but no less effective, source of motivation. Some of it is reactive—against the threats to Obamacare, in opposition to discrimination against immigrants, in horror at the greed and profit taking, and struck by the fact that Trump’s environmental policies will almost certainly exacerbate climate change.

But most of the spiritually rooted values are affirmative—wanting health care, quality schools, safe drinking water, equal opportunity in housing and employment—for everyone without exception. There is a groundswell against war and torture. Climate change is taken seriously and racism is abhorred. Women, LGBTIQA people, and immigrants are outsiders no more.

Such spiritually based commitments are by their nature general and visionary. Think: “Love your neighbor.” But they translate into policies and actions that the current administration is ignoring, overturning, and otherwise reshaping into a xenophobic, solipsistic social fabric that is as dangerous as it is repugnant.

The intentionally broad agenda that attracted millions to march required that no one was completely satisfied but that everyone was willing to give a little. Such is a functional definition of democracy. As the great singer and cultural worker Bernice Johnson Reagon put it years ago, “If you are in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it is not broad enough.”

There was discomfort at the marches. Racism remains a signal problem that organizers had to confront and participants cannot forget. All is not sweetness and light in as fractured a society as ours, where antiracism, Black Lives Matter, and inclusion demand serious attention.

Abortion emerged as a potential wedge issue that this time did not finally divide. Happily, people, including some Catholics, who are uncomfortable with legal reproductive options some women choose, embraced the larger justice agenda without focusing narrowly on one issue. After all, Planned Parenthood does a great deal to help women bring healthy pregnancies to term, as well as provide legal abortions. There was no litmus test for participation; organizers of any such event determine their sponsors and partners.

These marches were about far more than individual choices. They were about structural barriers to full participation that must be eradicated. They were about the world adults want to bequeath to their children and grandchildren, and the world those children will pass on to theirs. Quite simply, no one issue determines the future, but all condition what it will look like and who will survive to live it.

This approach to living with discomfort in order to move forward is not a sign of cheap relativism, but a hallmark of feminist spirituality. Without abandoning one’s beliefs, it is possible to pass over the rigid, narrow foci that have kept patriarchal ecumenical and interfaith efforts from succeeding. It is not a sign of rampant secularization, but evidence of reasonable and responsible religiosity; it is a sign of better forms of spirituality, which are expressed by embracing a shared vision of human flourishing and cosmic harmony.

The proof of the marches’ power will unfold as issue after issue demands attention. In the first few days of the new administration, executive orders are flying fast and furious to keep immigrants out, to gag federal agencies working on environmental issues, to build walls and pipelines, to roll back health care for millions, and otherwise impose a despotic rule on a democracy. I’m betting that the visceral memory of the marches, both for those who participated in person and those who observed, will spark principled resistance and creativity. I’m also betting that the rich feminist spiritualities on display will continue to sustain that work.