“Do you want a quick lesson on tear gas?” my mother asked as we drove with my sister to the Women’s March on Washington.
“The important thing is not to panic. I usually like to go at right angles to whatever’s happening — not forward toward the cops, and not back toward the demonstration, because at that point it’s over.
“Find water. I’ve used restaurant bathrooms in the past, and usually they’re very understanding. Don’t splash your face, because some kinds of tear gas get worse if they’re exposed to water. Blot what you can, and then test a little to see how it reacts to water, and if it rinses off cleanly then rinse your face and hands.”
“Vox gave me a packet that says to walk fully clothed into a cool shower in case of tear gas,” I volunteered.
My mother frowned. “That seems like overkill to me.”
“How to deal with tear gas” is part of my mother’s standard motherly advice set, along with “how to buy a bra” and “how to fold a fitted sheet.” That has always been part of the story of my family: My mother and father were hippies, they were radicals, and they taught me and my sister about political protest.
My mother’s ’60s idealism was grounded in the lessons of “the greatest generation”
My mother started protesting in 1965. She was a student at Fordham, part of the first cohort of women allowed to matriculate there, and has vivid memories of the one pacifist in the entire school.
“His name was Dennis Marks,” she told me. “He was a scrawny little kid, really nearsighted. Incredibly brave. And he marched around the parade ground at the center of campus, with a sign that said ‘No more wars.’ And people who were — like the booster club, other idiots — threw eggs at him, yelled at him, they were total jerks. And I was sort of impressed. I had never seen anybody do anything quite that brave.”
So she started attending teach-ins on the Vietnam War, and going to protests, and occupying Fordham’s administration building with Students for a Democratic Society. She was motivated in part, she told me, by her memories of the Eichmann Trial, one of the first of the major Nazi war trials.
“The lesson of the Eichmann Trial,” she recalls, “was: ‘Really hideous things can happen and people just stay silent. And that allows them to happen.’ I remember having one conversation after another with friends of mine in high school, where we said, ‘We will not let that happen.’”
After college, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she and my father joined VISTA, the AmeriCorps of its day, and volunteered with welfare rights organizations.
My parents didn’t protest much through my lifetime
By the time I was born, my parents had stopped making activism a regular part of their lives. They attended protests here and there, and they were leftist in their politics, but they weren’t full-time activists. They referred to their college and VISTA days, fondly, as their “misspent youth.”
I asked my mother why she’d stopped protesting as we drove to DC.
“The movement was in its last stages” by the late ’70s, she told me. The Vietnam War was over, the Civil Rights Act had made its way through Congress, and while everyone knew there was still more work to be done, the model for activism that she and her peers were using was not sustainable. “It was really difficult to have a normal 9-to-5 job and be politically active, let alone have a 9-to-5-job and a family,” she said.
They were also afraid of the Nixon administration, she told me. “We knew people in Houston whose house had been burned down by agents of the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Administration. I mean, who even knew they existed, let alone had undercover agents?” (Nixon’s Watergate co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman, has reportedly said that Nixon authorized brutal ATF raids in a deliberate attempt to criminalize “the antiwar left and black people.”)
But my mother could not resist the Women’s March.
“The second Bush was bad enough,” she said with disgust. “But Trump seems much more dangerous, and the forces that he’s let loose are operating at a much more granular level. So you see these harassment events, attempts to roll back any gains that have been made on all kinds of levels. And to me it seemed really, really important to make as public and as big a stand against that as we could.”
“I have to call my mom while we’re here,” she remarked.
“Does grandma know you’re here?” I asked. “Does she have thoughts on this march?”
“I told her before we left. She said, ‘Good for you.’”
Later my mother told me that my grandmother made herself some signs with the other women at my grandmother’s retirement home and marched around the building with them. My grandmother had never been a radical — she bought an American flag after my mother’s first protest so that no one would think the household was unpatriotic, my mother says — but she wasn’t sitting this one out.
To be a woman is to have a heritage built on protest movements
One of the themes of the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday was that protesting is part of a woman’s heritage.
“Grandma was a suffragette,” sang the Indigo Girls.
“My mother was a freedom fighter,” said the poet Aja Monet.
Women were marching with their mothers and daughters and grandmothers and sisters and nieces; they were carrying signs about marching for their mothers and their daughters.
In Washington’s Union Station, packed with protesters waiting to enter the rally, I stood in front of two young women in their 20s.
“Our kids are going to ask about the Women’s March on Washington,” one of them said to the other, “and we can be like, ‘We were there!’”
Everywhere I looked at the Women’s March, I saw families, generations of women: mothers and daughters and grandmothers, teaching each other how to protest.
I passed a teenage girl posing next to her sign while her mother took pictures. “Raise your fist,” said the mother. “Look angrier!”
The story that the women at the march kept telling one another was, I am doing this because my mother taught me to demand my rights. I am doing this because my mother was a protester. I am doing this for my daughter.
“My mother,” said Aja Monet from the podium, “is made of invention and necessity and found scraps of bloody music in her hand.” That was the abstract idea of “mother” at the march: the woman who came before and fought for the rights of everyone there, and the woman who was here now, fighting for the rights of the women of the future.
To be a woman is to be a member of a group of disenfranchised people, people who have had to fight and shout and scream for their rights. It is a to be a member of a group of people who have had to be activists for a very long time. And so part of the heritage of being a woman is learning how to make a political statement, to be loud, to protest. It’s a skill that women learn from their mothers and grandmothers and pass down to their daughters and granddaughters.
I don’t mean to suggest that experience is shared by every woman in the US. Certainly not everyone has a mother like mine, who can offer practical tips for dealing with tear gas. But it’s the story I heard over and over again at the Women’s March.
As protesters poured into the streets of Washington early on Saturday morning, two women in their 40s turned to each other.
“For our granddaughters, then,” said one of them.
“Pound,” said the other, and they bumped fists.