My Toddler Became an Activist at the Women's March

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler

Reflecting on the different tone of today, Jan. 20, 2021, as compared to 2017, I'm reminded of the spirit of defiance in which my wife and I, toddler-in-tow, marched up to the White House. It was, as I've observed from participating and covering protests, a madhouse. All demostrations, rallies, and protests gain a self-perpetuating momentum when they reach a certain size – they also become uncontrollable.

The 2017 Women's March was no exception. It drew more people than then president-elect Donald Trump's inauguration.

I worried about bringing a 3.5 year old into all that. I worried about brining her around people and messaging she wouldn't understand and I couldn't control. I had reservations about taking a toddler to a march... Several years on, and the proud father of a powerful (almost) 8 year old, I have no regrets.

There was a moment when I looked around, and not knowing what to do, I donned a smile and started bouncing to the beat. I was ringed by 15–20 people taking pictures of us, with maybe a hundred more people around us answering in concert to my almost 4 year old daughter’s chants, “My body, my choice!” To which the crowd enthusiastically responded, “Her body, her choice!”

Instead of being caught up in this moment, I felt a slipping from reality, as if I were watching this happen from afar, and I had no control to stop or change it. Yet, I was both necessary to this moment and a prop. My daughter had commandeered the attention of hundreds of people within shouting range, making them chant with her, and I was her podium (or high horse).

This happened multiple times throughout the day. Once my daughter discovered she could instantly gain the attention and adoration of the crowd, she enthusiastically started other chants with different words. The chants were mostly pro-woman (a good thing), with one anti-Trump one (unsure about this, even though my personal views on the president are far from favorable). Her chanting and marching went on until we were completely free of the crowds and nearly home.

All of this happened at the Women’s March in DC, the day after the 2017 inauguration. We live in DC, so we went, but we also went because my wife and I ardently support the cause and we’re raising a powerful little girl.

Part of the purpose of the march solidarity for all aspects of equality; it was also a march against misogyny, sexism, and disenfranchisement. While I don’t think it was the stated purpose of the march, many people were indeed marching in protest against Donald Trump, who’s not only said horrible things about women, but also admitted to preying on them. He’s also accused of using America’s racial divisions to foment anger in his white base in order to get elected.

Judge me how you want on these assertions, and disagree if you must, but there was no question about taking our preschooler. She would be there to witness the march.

I expected she would scream, cheer, maybe chant (she’s very much into dancing, rhythm, singing and chanting), but I didn’t expect she’d pick up sign and do what the adults did. She was in her element, though, and once she learned the chants there was no stopping her.

You’re probably thinking we’re horrible parents, not for bringing our daughter to the Women’s March, but for allowing her to take part in aspects of the March that only older people would understand: the message and meaning of the chants. Is this not cultural indoctrination on some level?

To be sure, it is, but two things first before you judge:

1. My daughter picked up the “My Body, My Choice” sign because she wanted to be a part of the march and that meant getting a discarded sign.

2. She liked the colors on the sign, not the message, but since she’s a reader-in-training, we told her what the words meant.

Little did I know she’d start chanting. Less did I predict the power of a toddler to garner support from large crowds, a fact that was hammered in more when she got the crowd to chant, “Hey hey! Ho ho! That Donald Trump has got to go! Hey hey!”

At first, I was appalled at what was happening and my power to stop it. A 3–4 year old mindlessly chanting at a march for the adulation and attention of the crowd was cringe-worthy. Had I not railed against misguided parents who used their kids as props at other sorts of rallies and marches? To fact check myself, I had. I kept thinking that we were doing something dangerous and profoundly misguided.

This was the moment I came face to face with my own privilege. I’m a white man, whose struggles in life have almost no contact with misogyny, sexism, harassment, racism, and sexual assault. My experience with oppression has been secondhand—mostly through stories of friends, family, and especially my wife, who is biracial.

In this, I looked at what was happening with my daughter (and wife) through my eyes and instantly thought that this was not the answer. This is precisely the indoctrination we should be avoiding. It’s not that I disagreed with the messages, but a child needs some foundational knowledge before she can go out there and yell about how her body is her own. Children need context.

But, this was me talking.

Not having experienced the shame, fear, betrayal, and disenfranchisement that come with abuse and oppression, that kind of outrage isn’t a lived emotion for me. I’ve never had to endure these things, and I never will, but it’s real for all the women in my life. It will also be real for my daughter. Who was I to question this moment of solidarity—this moment of outcry?

Another thought occurred to me: She wasn’t chanting something harmful or untrue (an argument that activists on both sides of the aisle no doubt use), and she wasn’t singling people out, accusing them of anything (presidents are not exempt from public scorn, here).

In truth, her body is her own. This is foundational knowledge we’ve been instilling in her since she first started learning about her body. She’s young and vulnerable and we live in a permissive culture that continues to make excuses for (mostly white) men who assault women. According to the new administration, “grabbing a woman by the pussy” without her permission is just locker room talk and is nothing to have a national conversation about. The earlier and more forcefully she learns that no one touches her without her express consent, the better. The earlier in life all little girls learn that their bodies are their own, the better our future will be. When every man in our society learns this, too, our society will have evolved to a better place.
Matthew Koehler

This even extends to women’s healthcare issues, like abortion. My wife and I are both pro-choice (not to be confused with pro-abortion, which is a misnomer), but our daughter might not grow up to espouse this ideology. This is okay because we encourage self-discovery, but at least she’ll grow up knowing the choice is hers.

With that, I’m not sorry my little girl became an activist at the Women’s March and held up that sign. Her body is her own and don’t you forget it.

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