As rain poured down on Saturday afternoon, Patricia Skeen stood facing the Capitol steps, reflecting on the last 50 years she’s spent as a feminist.
“I’ve been doing this since the ’70s, and so much is being done against the things I believe in right now,” said Skeen, a Cross Lanes resident. “I feel like we’re going backwards in West Virginia, not forward.”
Skeen was one of about 100 people who gathered at the Capitol at noon Saturday for the third annual Women’s March event, this year referred to as “Women’s Wave.” Organized by the West Virginia chapter of the National Women’s March, the first of which took place a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, this year’s rally saw a handful of performers and activists take to a stage on the Capitol steps with songs, poems and speeches centered on social justice.
Barb Garnett, an organizer of the event, said several groups from all around the state, including Beckley, Lewisburg, Morgantown and Shepherdstown, drove to Charleston Saturday morning to participate.
“That shows the dedication that’s out there for equality, for justice,” Garnett said. “We have a purpose and we’re staying focused on it. West Virginians are demanding equality.”
While the National Women’s March has faced criticism in the last few months over allegations of anti-Semitism by its leaders, Garnett said the West Virginia chapter of the organization considers its affiliation with the group “loose.”
“We don’t speak for them and they don’t speak for us,” Garnett said. “We condemn anti-Semitism in any fashion — as do they — and it’s certainly something we talked about before today.”
Many local chapters throughout the country opted to disaffiliate from the national organization for this year’s event, aligning themselves with other, similar social justice groups or hosting their rallies independently. Garnett said the West Virginia arm of the organization will be taking everything into consideration as they move forward with their activism, but Saturday was “a day of celebration.”
“Today was a day to come out united and show that we’re stronger than the hate that’s out there,” Garnett said. “There are a lot of things in West Virginia not going our way right now, and we need to show that we are going to fight back.”
Garnett pointed out the recent passage of Amendment One, a constitutional amendment voters approved in November that added a line to the state constitution saying “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.” She also noted the lack of protections for members of the LGBTQ community at the state level.
“Some cities have ordinances and protections, but we as a state don’t, and we need to,” Garnett said. “They are our people too, we need to make sure they have the same rights as everyone else here.”
Several activism organizations were also involved in Saturday’s rally, including West Virginia Free, Fairness WV, the Sierra Club, the Poor People’s Campaign, Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action, among others.
Dee Price Childers, a member of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, an organization fighting for sensible gun legislation, said many objectives of the Women’s March line up with those of her group, which was also a sponsor of the event. According to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine, women in America are 16 times more likely to be killed by guns than in any other nation.
“Being here today wasn’t even a question for us,” Childers said. “The reality is that gun violence is a women’s issue.”
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, was also at the rally to perform songs for the crowd. He said events like Saturday’s are a reminder that, politics aside, “most people are good.”
“I know that at this critical moment in our society it seems like people like to tell everyone there is more division than ever, but that’s just not true,” Pushkin said. “It’s important, with the way the federal government is dysfunctional right now, that we look at one issue with no compromises: basic human rights, and that’s what most of the people here are advocating for.”
Skeen said she regularly finds herself disappointed and frustrated with actions at the federal and the state level that seem to undercut the importance of women and other minority groups, but supporting events like the Women’s March are integral to make any sort of change.
“No matter where I lived, where I was, I would be out [at a Women’s March] — not just in West Virginia,” Skeen said. “Of course we need more awareness for these issues, and we need people to really show up, not just talk about things. That’s what’s happening today.”