Giving voice to women
Spoken word performance ahighlight of 2020 Women’s March
The fourth annual Reno Women’s March—organized differently than in years past—was well received by participants, who stopped under the Reno Arch to snap selfies as the march progressed along a new northward route between the Reno City Plaza and the Reno Events Center and appreciated the warm, indoor venue for speeches once there.
The event, which ran from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., included time dedicated to speeches from political campaigners as well as nonprofit organizers. But it was a spoken word performance given by nine women that, in the end, stole the show.
The women—the eldest in her 70s, the youngest still a high school student—took to the stage midway through the event. A few portrayed historical characters, giving Chautauqua-style performances. Others simply shared stories personal to them. The sum of their performance was a moving portrayal of the ways women's lives differ and yet are the same.
Joy Viselli, who proposed performance, was first with a piece entitled “More Choices, New Roles.”
“I speak for my mothers, backbone of America and its workforce,” she began. “Mothers of children, some without fathers, work in a system built for men with wives at home. A society where mothers, dream employees in vast numbers, trained to be non-aggressive, take less pay and do their other full time, unpaid job—mothering. … This country now offers new roles, more choices. Still, we are the glue of family and country, with fortitude, energy for emergency rooms, all night vigils. We perform. We vote.'”
Viselli was followed by Verita Prothro, who portrayed Sojourner Truth during the era of her famous “And ain't I a Woman?” speech delivered in 1851 at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
“Sojourner Truth here,” she said. “Born a slave, 1797, Ulster County, New York—1827, escaped to freedom with my infant daughter. Sued to free my son and won, the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. … Bore 13 children, most sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”
Next was Vivian Leal, whose performance began as a portrayal of suffragette Alica Paul circa 1914: “For decades, our mothers have cried, ‘Votes for women!' But it seems they hear us not. So, let's be louder. ‘Votes for women!' I said, ‘Votes for women!' … You're tired. Susan, Lucy, Elizabeth, our leaders are dead,” Leal said, referencing famous suffragettes Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Staton.
Later in her performance she broke with her historical portrayal to speak of two local women activists who passed in 2019, saying, “We are Tired. So tired. … Marissa and Jean are dead,” referencing Marissa Morningstaur, who was a social justice activist with nonprofit Indivisible; and Jean Melby Mauer, another member of Indivisible who taught English as a Second Language and was an advocate for her students.
Susan Thompson's performance focused on education, using her own mother's life experiences as the vehicle.
“When women are educated, we all thrive,” Thompson said. “My mother lived in a shack, a bus windshield for a window, four to a bed, corn in the rafters where snakes hunted mice and fell on them as they slept. … One of eight children born into poverty, limited opportunities but a drive for an education and a better life. After graduating as her high school salutatorian out of that shack to Knoxville, Tennessee, where she found work to earn money for college. And there she met my father. … My mother and father equally have inspired my brother and me to seek an education.”
Viselli was one of two performers to take the microphone twice. This time, she shared her experiences as a pre-Title IX athlete and the mother of athletes.
“You know, girls and boys, that 37 words govern how schools—K through post secondary—protect you?” she asked. “I am this old rugby ball, dry and shrunken of its air, but still so full of stories—'72 too late for me, born in '46, no 37 words to give athlete programs to historically underrepresented females, long graduated—but not for our daughters. … Five daughters—volley ball, track, soccer, a principal ballerina, three sports scholarships, a Carson City granddaughter, Team USA kayaking Olympic hopeful. Yes, your moms were right to open the doors.”
Kimberly Carden related the experiences of female veterans like herself.
“Yes, I am a soldier,” she said. “My promise to you was no different than those of my brothers in service. I loved my country no less than a man. I was no less brave than a man. And although women have served in each war and conflict throughout our history, we had to wait. We waited until 1948 until we were entitled to veterans' benefits. We waited until 1974 until we were not involuntarily discharged for being pregnant. … We waited until 1976 before we were admitted to the U.S. Military Academy. And we waited until 2013, when the combat exclusion policy was lifted. And … in 2019, Sergeant First Class Janina Simmons, an openly lesbian solider, made history by become the first African American woman to graduate from the legendary U.S. Army Ranger School.”
Next was Sam Gingrich, who compared reproductive rights to a super power.
“Did you know that we have a super power?” she began. “This power allows us to prevent and treat cancer. It allows us to reduce poverty and give people a chance to make the lives they want. … This power belongs to and protects all of us, not just the young woman who has chosen to terminate a pregnancy, but the mother of three who needs a pap smear so that she can live a long and healthy life with her children. Our power is reproductive rights.”
To represent transgender women, Davine Kaplin read a piece written by Emily Stiles called “Without Interference.”
“Her name does not matter; she's a woman—a transgender woman,” Kaplin began before going on to relate the struggles of the LGBT community and historical riots for rights in places like Los Angeles in 1959, San Francisco in '66 and New York in '69.
“Sick of police harassment of transvestites, as they were known, thousands of protesters rioted, tired of being persecuted for being who they were and of being forced into doing sex work,” she said, “Today, living without interference, they are an active and productive part of this society. It's time for equal rights.”
The performance of Bembeleza, a woman originally from the Congo, came in the form of a poem, delivered in French and English:
“Get up and put yourselves in the world of your vision/ Woman, mother of the nation/ Woman, conclusion the nation/ Woman, contribution beyond constitution/ With real love/ Women are powerful in any sector/Life comes in the ninth month in the wombs of women/ Respect to you women/ If you're proud of this wonderful life, know that you are proud for the women/ Oh, woman/ Woman wants to be the most appreciated creature in the world/ Respect to you women”
High school student Jadyn Johnson spoke as a future voter, saying “I dissent from this dark present” and asking the audience to imagine the power of young people's votes.
“Vote for what?” she asked. Prioritizing money over morals? No. Electing leaders who feel the heat of the end of our world and who put planet over profit? Yes. … We young women of 2020, it's our time.”
To cap off the performance, Carden returned to the mic with a sort of ode to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, entitled “The Lion in the House.”
“The first and only female House Speaker, and the first speaker in 60 years to reclaim the gavel after losing it, her voice unites and lifts her caucus and the women of this nation,” Carden said of Pelosi. “She has backbone. She has game. She will go down in history as our most effective speaker.”