Pussy Grabs Back

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The protesters gathering to march - ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
  • The protesters gathering to march

Early Tuesday morning, between 7:30 and 8 AM, approximately 200 women, some of them wearing cat ears and noses, and a few good men gathered at the corner of Wacker and Wabash. Many of them were carrying handmade signs they'd made out of posterboard. They gathered beneath the statue of George Washington, Robert Morris, and Haym Solomon and stood on the steps facing the street, holding up their signs.

The women had come out to rally in response to Donald Trump's comment from 2005, revealed just ten days earlier (was that really all it was?) that he when he saw beautiful women, "I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything . . . Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything." They called the event Pussy Grabs Back. Their signs said things like "No Grope," "The Trump Election Gives Me a Yeast Infection," "This Pussy Has Teeth," and "Hands Off My Cuntry."

Most of the women, myself included, had heard about the rally on Facebook. The event had originally been posted by Alicia Swiz, a self-described professional feminist who organizes the storytelling series Slut Talk. "I invited 200 of my closest friends!" she said. She'd initially scheduled it for early Monday, but she switched it to Tuesday after she learned that similar events were going on in other cities across the country, including New York and Denver, in a movement called #GOPHandsOffMe.

I decided to go because I have been very angry for most of the past year and I felt like it would do me some good to yell for a while, even though I have no sense of rhythm and am terrible at doing anything in formation. Some of the rage was because of Trump, though he just provides a convenient target to direct it at. I mean, he is the patriarchy, with his big gut and his big suits and his stupid combover, and nothing I, or any woman, can say will register with him at all. But he also makes me think of so many other men, not just the bike-by groper and the subway flasher and the regular catcallers, but the men and boys I knew, who claimed to like and even respect me: the boys in my Hebrew school class who could barely control their glee when they learned there was a prayer that said "Thank you, God, for not making me a woman," the high school friend who patted my shoulder and told me I was as smart as any man, the roommate who told me I was hurting his ears every time I started to get loud during an argument. On the scale of aggressions, these are all extremely minor things, and I'm sure no one intended to do me any harm (the friend who told me I was as smart as any man meant it as a compliment), but they made me question my own self-worth and then shut up. I never considered that these men and boys were the problem, not me. I just thought that if I'd been born with a penis, life would have been so much easier.

The youngest marcher - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • The youngest marcher

Even now, now that I know better and even have useful words to describe things that happen to me—"sexual harassment," "microaggression," "mansplaining," terms that were invented because these things happen so often they might as well have names—I still don't know how I could have responded to the boys in Hebrew school who felt so validated because of that stupid prayer.

I was also angry because I spent most of last winter and spring listening to stories about physical, sexual, and psychological abuses that had occurred at Profiles Theatre, things that were far more extreme and harmful than anything that had ever happened to me, but which had the same effect of making the women (and men) involved question their self-worth and their sanity. In several cases, the abuse drove them from the theater, something they loved and also their primary means of self-expression.

Six days after our story was published, Profiles Theatre shut down for good. But even before then, we'd started to receive e-mails from people who had worked at other theaters around town. They had been abused too; they wrote that if we changed the names and a few particulars in the Profiles story, it would describe exactly what had happened to them. Profiles was gone, but it wasn't really. It still existed under other names. It existed in scripted theater, and also improv comedy, and dance, and cycling, and art and architecture, and business, and journalism, and everyplace else that was dominated by men.

I thought about that as I took the train downtown on Tuesday morning. It was so early, I'd gotten dressed in the dark. I didn't have a sign with me. There had been suggestions on Facebook, but really, I was lazy. Also, I couldn't carry a sign and a notebook at the same time.

At 7:45 AM, the chanting started. They began with "This pussy votes!" Which, really, is the only recourse we have against Trump anyway. Then they switched to "Pussies say NO to rape culture!" and "Love trumps hate!"

At 8 AM, Quinn Michaelis, another of the organizers, took control of the bullhorn. "So beautiful!" she said, just like Trump had allegedly said to a teenage girl at one of his rallies. Everyone laughed. She reminded everyone that there were legal observers present who could be appealed to in case of arrest, and that it was best not to engage with counterprotesters. She reminded everyone to register to vote and said that a group would be going to the Loop supersite for early voting after the rally.

"This is a peaceful protest!" Swiz added. "Don't pick fights with people who aren't worth your time or energy."

"One last reminder," said Michaelis. "Look up judges' records before you vote! OK, pussies, now let's get in formation!"

We marched across the river. Trump Tower had been barricaded (a fact that had been reported on Facebook the evening before, much to the satisfaction of the organizers), so we stood on AMA Plaza across the street. A line of cops on bikes was waiting.

The counterprotesters - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • The counterprotesters

There were exactly five counterprotesters, plus one dog who looked embarrassed to be there. One man carried an American flag, another carried a Trump flag, and a third held up a sign that read "LESBIAN HILLARY CLINTON GRABS PLENTY OF PUSSY!!!" The lone woman wore an Uncle Sam hat. The fourth man held the megaphone. "Do as I say!" he yelled. Then he said something about Wikileaks.

"I wonder why they think 'lesbian' is an insult," said one of the Pussy Grabs Back women.

Another wondered about the woman. "It's like she's saying"—and here the protester started to chant—"'I shouldn't be here, I don't matter!'"

"GOP, hands off me!" the protesters chanted. "Out of the office, into the streets, this pussy votes!"

A few civilians crossed the plaza on their way to work. They looked bewildered. A man lumbered to the back of the crowd. He was either drunk or heavily sedated. He eyed a hot pink sign that said "Trump is going down—not on my pussy!" "Is there an e in there?" he asked. "No," I told him. He stared at the sign some more. "I'm pretty sure there's an e in there, honey," he said.

The troll - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • The troll

I remembered the instructions not to engage. I walked away. But surely trolling a women's rights march is cause for a decking?

A TV reporter in full makeup and false eyelashes approached a row of protesters. "You're protesting vulgar language," she said, "but I've heard a lot out here today." (Most of her report didn't make it onto the air.) "I'm not offended by the word 'pussy,'" one protester told her. "I'm offended that he thinks he can just grab anyone."

"Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go!" the crowd shouted.

An older woman in a navy blue Hillary hat and hot pink cat ears with black polka dots began dancing in rhythm. "I like that one!" she said. "We need more rhythm."

"My neck! My back! This pussy will grab back!"

Across from Trump Tower - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Across from Trump Tower

"That one's my favorite," said Swiz. She'd been appointed the official media representative and spent most her time talking to reporters and explaining the reason for the protest. She is petite and intense, with long blond hair. She wore a jean jacket with sleeves cut off and a patch over the left breast pocket that read "Feminist." She has a tattoo on her arm that says "Fries before guys" and another on her thigh that says "Slut." "I'm 37," I heard her tell a reporter. "Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Most of the reporters were men. She thought they had a harder time understanding. "Men recognize masculine behavior," she told me when we met up for coffee the next day. "But it's hard to see it in yourself. With women, it's easier to get to that place because it's happening to them. I studied this in grad school," she added. "I got into some deep-ass shit."

About halfway through the protest, Swiz took over the megaphone for the rally's one and only speech to address the men directly. She teaches introductory classes in gender studies at Harold Washington College; she's had a lot of practice. "The women in this country have a shared collective experience being diminished and silenced," she said. "Men ask what they can do. Be a dude who supports women, because we're people too!" Then she turned her attention back to the women. "Keep bleeding your period all over this country!"

Swiz rallies the troops - GRACE MOLTENI
  • Grace Molteni
  • Swiz rallies the troops

"We go high, they go low!" the protesters chanted.

A man standing near the edge of the crowd carried a sign that said, "#NotMyDaughtersLockerRoom." "What do they say in your daughter's locker room?" one of the reporters asked. I did not catch the reply.

The chanting went on for an hour. I tried to join in, but it felt strange and unnatural to me. It reminded me too much of high school pep rallies. It didn't really provide an outlet for my rage. But I was happy to be there and listen to the shouting. I was happy to see women greet each other "Whassup, pussy!" I was happy to see a wide variety of women, old and young, butch and not, dressed for office work and dressed for battle.

AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt

At 8:50 AM, just before everyone had to go to their jobs, we marched back across the bridge. "We will not be controlled by fear! Donald Trump get out of here!"

The rally was supposed to end at 9 AM. The people with jobs started to disperse. They were pretty sure they weren't going to get much work done. "I'm going to be on social media all day!" one woman said. It looked like it was over. But the chanting kept going.

The protest continues - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • The protest continues

"There's a solidarity that springs from womanhood," Swiz told me the next day. "You can't ignore that. Being a woman binds you. The patriarchy, sexual assault, binds us."

We talked about the different kinds of women we knew, about our mothers who weren't as angry as we were, about how stay-at-home moms should get paid for their work too. We talked about men's discomfort with the word "vagina" and all variations thereof. We talked about how we discovered feminism. Her first feminist act was when she intervened in a fight between her parents when she was three and asked her father why he was yelling at her mother and her mother why she allowed him to speak to her that way. "I came in a feminist," she said. "I believe in karma, and I believe I came in for women and girls."

ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

We talked about the rally. "The best part of yesterday," she said, "was how excited everyone was to be there. So many groups ended up being there. I met so many people, so many friends. It was like a wedding!" She felt the only thing that had been lacking was some Beyonce, but her roommate, who is a DJ, was out of town. Afterward, she said, she went home and had sex with her boyfriend. "I love that I can do that," she said. "We have a right to pleasure any way we can get it."

She said she thought the one important thing Trump had done was to bring visibility to white male privilege.

Later that night, I watched the third debate. The only thing I enjoyed about the debates was watching Hillary Clinton keep her cool when Trump had his meltdowns. (OK, I liked some of the tweets too.) I enjoyed watching her laugh at him. The week before, I'd gone to hear Gloria Steinem speak. She'd said she found freedom in laughing. Was it really that easy? Why couldn't we do it more? Could we get there by standing up with cardboard signs and chanting slogans at Donald Trump? It was just a step away from outright laughing. Could we do it with the other men in our lives? Did we dare?

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