This is what a movement looks like

Scenes from the weekend protest of policies concerning women’s reproductive health in Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:22 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

A freshman’s first protest

Michaela Templemire marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in a sea of construction-zone-orange Choice-USA T-shirts with her shoulders back and chin up. She wore jeans dotted with pro-choice pins, a blue flower pinned in her curly hair and a red tank top pushed down around her waist.

Layered over a sturdy foundation of black electrical tape, a pair of NARAL-Pro-Choice America stickers served as political pasties for the MU freshman at her first demonstration.

“Well, it’s kind of shocking, but it’s liberating. This whole thing — being here, being naked, being gay all out in the open — it’s very liberating,” Templemire said. “I’m just so tired of hiding. I grew up in a very anti-choice family, and this year I just got sick of it.”

She said she thought her form of protest would incite debate: “And this is legal, right?”

Templemire attended Catholic school in Jefferson City from kindergarten until 10th grade. In ninth grade, she was assigned to write a report that argued against birth control. But after looking at the research, including the fact that 95 percent of Catholics use birth control, her perspective changed to support for birth control.

Templemire’s rejection of her family’s values was a slow process, not one big epiphany.

“The reaction to my state of undress has been mostly awesome,” she said. “My favorites are the elderly women. They just seem so excited that I’m doing this. It makes me wonder if they did it once or would have liked to have done it. I wish they’d do it now — it’d be more of a statement than I could ever make.

“I think it’s important to keep (abortion) safe. I don’t think that politics or morals or whatever really matters. It just needs to be safe. So I guess I really am marching to save women’s lives.”

First-generation dissent

Angie Vo’s political beliefs have been shaped by her experiences as one of the only Asian-American girls in her hometown of Joplin.

“My parents are Vietnamese and Chinese, but neither chose to teach me their languages to better assimilate into American culture,” she said.

Her older brothers, however, were taught the languages.

“When I came to college, I slowly began to realize, through meeting a diverse group of people and feminism, that assumptions, pressures and expectations that were levied at me were a product of society and culture,” she said.

Vo is part of a growing number of politically active first-generation Americans born to immigrant parents. She organized, directed and designed for the Pro-Choice/Pro-Fashion show that served as a fund-raiser for the trip.

She plans to work with a Summer Feminist Fun group, which will provide opportunities to volunteer for political causes and hang out with other feminists.

The best part for Vo was learning why other people were coming to the march.

“I was really proud of all the guys,” she said. “It takes a certain kind of personality for a guy to take on that responsibility to be involved. You know that it would never really personally affect them, so the fact that they would step out there and stand up for choice is really great.”

Many of the bus riders are basking in the afterglow from the trip and laughing about their expectations.

“We joked that we thought we were going to start a revolution. We wanted to spend more time with people from the community, especially on the bus.”

The nutty protester

Beth Pickens’ existential crisis didn’t last long.

During the women’s march in Washington, Pickens said she “felt like Wonder Woman, holding up that sign as a shield.”

“I knew something powerful and personal about all those people and they knew it about me. That was pretty surreal,” she said.

Just hours before in the cold morning before sunrise on Sunday, the 25-year-old adviser to MU’s Feminist Student Union, didn’t quite feel like herself.

“You guys,” Pickens told the bus of marchers getting ready to hit the pavement, “last night at like, 4 a.m., I was walking around alone having this existential crisis. I had no one to lead. I’m like, ‘Who am I? If I am not a bus leader, who am I?’ I had no one to herd around.”

Calling herself the Jerry Lewis of the pro-choice movement, Pickens wore her black cowboy boots dotted with bubble gum-pink stars, a hot pink “WWJJD — What Would Joan Jett Do?” shirt and a skirt decorated with a fuchsia sequined coat hanger, a reference to how back alley abortions were performed. Pickens played master of ceremonies for those riding the “Bushwhackers” bus.

“Hey guys — how many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” she said somewhere in the middle of Illinois during the bus ride from Columbia to the nation’s capital. “That’s not funny. Get it? Get it? Feminists have no sense of humor. No? No one?”

But Pickens can be serious, too. She sent $10 to The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League after reading an article in Seventeen magazine about a girl who died from an illegal abortion.

“And that was the moment it clicked, and that’s when I realized the word for it, that I was pro-choice,” she said. “I joined NARAL when I was 14. I sent my $10 in. I didn’t even know what it stood for, but I know that it was something I felt passionate about.”

Pickens said she was shocked that so many women feel that there hasn’t been a forum for women to speak out about abortion.

“Throughout this organizing process I’ve had a lot of people come up and tell me about how they’ve had an abortion, and it occurred to me that, wow, how many spaces do you ever have where you are allowed to be like, ‘Yeah, I had an abortion and I’m really glad I did it, and it was a very positive experience?’ ” she said.

“Women are supposed to stay silent after they have one — they can’t talk about it, they aren’t supposed to be happy, they’re supposed to regret it and if they are happy they have to shut up about it.”

All in the family

It was a family affair for the Gileses, with half of the clan in attendance. Out of six children, Ashley, 19, and Carmen, 17, came with their mother Sharon, 40, on the Columbia delegation to Washington.

They received an unexpected surprise while waiting to march in the B-12 section designated for Choice USA, the group with which the Columbia contingent was associated. The girls’ oldest sister, Jessica, found them amid the huge crowd.

Jessica Giles, 21, had come from North Carolina to D.C. to attend the march.

“I never expected to meet up with her in that huge crowd of people, but we were watching Cybill Shepherd and then all of a sudden she just popped up,” Ashley Giles said.

Jessica Giles’ attendance was not the only surprise. Ashley Giles didn’t know until two days before that she would be able to get a free ticket so she could go with her mom and sister.

“It was really cool,” Carmen said. “I didn’t know Ashley was going to go, and it was nice having my family with me in that sort of situation. I didn’t know that Jessica was going to be there, and it was a really nice.” Sharon Giles said she was worried about her children the night before. Her two younger daughters stayed at the downtown YMCA while their mother stayed at a hotel in Virginia. The three kept in contact by a cell phone that Sharon Giles had borrowed from a friend for the weekend.

For all the women, it was their first march and first time to Washington, D.C. All marched side by side.

“Being with my mom and sister means everything to me, so it was great going with them,” Ashley Giles said. “I think about how they might be in that situation one day, and it scares me.”

20 hours on a bus

This wasn’t going to be an ordinary road trip. About 120 women from Columbia waited outside the defunct Mega market store on Conley Road in east Columbia. The buses were two hours late.

Most people were dressed for the warm spring day, and as the sun set, the cold concrete sidewalk got a little bit uncomfortable. Four zany, volume-endowed women wore plastic silver tiaras to distinguish themselves from the rest of the travelers.

Others killed time with margaritas at El Maguey or Chili’s. Bus leaders initially told riders the buses were only 30 miles away, and when everyone returned half and hour later, Pickens admitted she lied. She feared disclosure of the actual distance, 60 miles, would result in mutiny. Others whiled away the hour at the Dollar Store. When the seven buses finally arrived at about 8:30 p.m. Friday night, a frenzied hoard rushed to the door.

“Bus leaders hold back! Bus leaders on last,” said Adele Coble.

Miranda Moore, a bus leader, turned around on a dime and rushed back to the sidewalk.

“Oh sorry, I forgot,” she said.

One of the Red Carpet buses, dubbed “Bushwhacker,” transported 50 women that made up a caravan of about 350 protesters intent on marching on Washington to raise awareness for women’s reproductive health issues.

A brightly patterned, stain-resistant carpet lined the interior of the Red Carpet bus. Its overhead shelves carried a variety of snacks. A Hello Kitty air freshener was lovingly hung in the bathroom. Colorful handmade signs, T-shirts and buttons with slogans and clever puns revealed a motley group’s creative passion.

The scheduled arrival time in the nation’s capital was to be about 10 a.m. It took two hours to get from Columbia to Warrenton. Riders laid down in the aisles to escape the seats that felt like church pews after several hours. The bus hit Ohio at 7:41 a.m. Central time, and stops became more frequent because “Bushwhacker” developed bathroom issues. The flushing mechanism broke, meaning that every flush dumped directly onto the highway, a $5,000 fine. It also meant that the air got a little stale.

The buses crawled like snails up the mountains of West Virginia, into Maryland and past small towns and cherry tree-dotted hillsides. At 4 p.m. Eastern time Saturday they stopped at an Arby’s in Cumberland, Md., 2½ hours from D.C.

The trip became a slight comedy of errors once the caravan arrived in Washington. Around 6:30 p.m. and after much circling and frustration from one-way streets and tight corners, they pulled in front of the YMCA at 7 p.m. They were only nine hours late.

Now it’s all a memory and history. They’re already saying, “Hey, do you remember the 20-some-odd hour bus ride...”

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