Though they are typically filled around the clock with car horns and bus tires, bike wheels and taxi drivers, the asphalt streets of downtown Chicago shook with the force of hundreds of thousands of marching feet Saturday. Wacker, Michigan, Jackson, and Wabash were flooded with upwards of two million people, all of whom gathered in the uncharacteristically warm 10:00 a.m. light with one common agenda: to amplify the voices of women around the country through the Women’s March, a display of solidarity across more than five hundred cities in the U.S. and many more worldwide.
Homemade signs cut from paper and cardstock jutted above the crowd, bouncing up and down in rhythm with the footsteps of the folks carrying them. Their inscriptions varied in message, grimness, and language.
“The future is brown,” one marcher’s sign declared, with the text boldly printed in black sharpie on a cardboard rectangle. Another woman held a paper-covered coat hanger, and marched block after block waving its chilling statement above her head. “Never Again,” she’d written, in direct allusion to a previous era of illegal abortion—an era many fear will reemerge under the Trump administration. Other signs differed in language: “Nyet my President” (Not my President); “Tu no nos vas a callar” (You are not going to silence us); and “Lucha Contra Fascisma” (Fight against fascism).
While most signs were held overhead, more than a were carried a few feet lower, resting in the small arms of young children; though the stereotypical protest demographic of young adults and teenagers was present, entire families took to the streets as well. Mothers and fathers shouldered young ones and pushed them in strollers, while older children marched alongside their relatives. Rather than leave their children at home, many parents emphasized the value of experiencing the rally firsthand.
“I’m the mother of three biracial daughters, so I think it’s important that my whole family is here to be part of this process,” one parent told the Gate, pulling her three and six-year-old in a red wagon behind her. Wrapped in a blanket and carrying a handmade sign, one of them reached out to me with a heart-shaped piece of chocolate. “We need to understand what we’re up against while also engaging and experiencing this unity,” her mother said.
Understanding the impending challenges doesn’t always come easily. The hardest questions are often the ones asked the most genuinely, and with the most innocent intentions. These, about the circumstances of this march, about the presidential election and inauguration, are often asked by kids. Some are harder to answer than others, but all of them force parents to think critically about how to explain the Trump administration, and its rhetoric, to their children.
“She asked what fascism meant the other day,” another mother recalled, pointing to her seven-year-old daughter, “and I actually still haven’t responded. I need to do some more Googling, some more research, before I can say anything.”
In many familial situations, children are comforted by the impression that their parents have all the answers; that their mothers or fathers, even if they are unable to shield them from all worldly evils, are at least able to offer explanation, guidance, or hope. But on the western outskirts of Millennium Park, one father told a different story.
“Do you remember when I told you that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States of America?”
He stood facing his three sons, as they stood facing opposite the marchers on the street, each with a different word taped to the backs of their shirts—“rise,” “resist,” “repeat.”
“We cried,” said the smallest boy.
“That’s right. We hugged on the kitchen floor and cried.”
One mother, holding her young son’s hand, tried to describe the context of the march in age-appropriate terms, and, in reference to Donald Trump’s bully-like behavior, said she has made it clear that her son that “even though he is the president, we cannot talk to people the way that he does.” At the same time, she addressed religious issues head on.
“We’re Jewish, so we have talked a lot about what a Muslim registry could look like,” she said.
Teachers, too, took to the streets after struggling to navigate the current political atmosphere within their classrooms. One Chicago Public Schools teacher felt that her responsibility to remain apolitical undercut her ability to make her students feel welcome.
“I am trying to let my students feel safe. We do activities to celebrate diversity, and I emphasize positivity. But kids are coming to us with concerns. Last week, one of my students came to me crying. She said, ‘What if one day my mom doesn’t come pick me up?’”
Marching alongside this teacher was her eight-year-old daughter, Nayerah, who held a sign reading “CPS Girl Power.” In bright green, purple, and pink, the names of CPS graduates hugged the margins: “Michelle Obama,” “Jennifer Hudson,” and “Amelia Earhart,” were written in careful, practiced manuscript.
When asked how she planned to talk to her little brother about the the issues broadcasted in the Women’s March, Nayerah provided her own wisdom.
“I want him to think about who he is going to vote for, about who will really be the better choice for him and for me,” she explained.
In the bottom right corner of her sign, “Nayerah?” was written a bit smaller, indicating one of the broader themes of the march itself. The United States did not elect its first female president this year. If it had, maybe Nayerah wouldn’t have assigned a question mark to her own projected future.
But not all of the children in attendance likely had the perspective to truly understand the heavy circumstances at hand. One young girl, around the age of five, held a sign above her head with her neon gloves. In blocky cut-out letters, it read, “NO MEANS NO & RAPE IS A CRIME.”
Whether or not one agrees with their politics, families at the women’s march brought up important questions about the socialization and tokenization of young children. The image of a young girl holding a sign decrying sexual violence is powerful, if only because it reminds onlookers of the potential traumas that will stalk young girls and female-identifying people as they grow up.
But as swaddled toddlers at once sucked their pacifiers and clutched small, infant-sized but parent-made signs, the key irony seemed to manifest in the chants filling the air around them. “Fuck Trump,” the moving mass would occasionally chorus. Amidst the strollers, signs proclaimed, “this pussy bites back”; “You’ve got 99 problems and this bitch is one”; “Fuck you, Cheeto Voldemort.”
It would be callous and foolish to suggest that anger has no place at mass rallies and marches; on the contrary, many argue that the emotion is a necessary catalyst for social movements. But to some parents, a context already difficult to explain to younger marchers perhaps became even harder to navigate. Regardless, most remained confident in their children’s ability to parse out the important matters for themselves as they grew up. One mother in particular felt her child would reflect on the morning of marching with a sense of pride.
“My daughter just turned seven, so I don’t know how much of this she will remember,” she said. “But looking back, I want her to know that she was on the right side of history.”
All photos in this article, including the featured image, have been taken courtesy of the author, Emma Preston.