The 2017 International Women’s Day was declared “A Day Without Women.” But at the Wisconsin Capitol, it was more like a “Day Without Girls;" the vast majority of the crowd was middle and high school students.
Madison principals estimated over 1,000 kids left school to participate in the demonstration, said Rachel Strauch-Nelson, media and government relations director for the Madison Metropolitan School District. The Madison Police Department estimated about 700 participants gathered outside the Capitol for a noon rally.
“I’m always hearing that teenagers don’t know or care about politics. Looking at this crowd, I know that's not the case,” said Lydia Hester, a 15-year-old Madison East High School student who organized the walkout at her school. “I see my classmates here and I know we are the future.”
The event, organized by several sponsoring groups, was organized as a time to empower women, protest and strike to show the power of women's paid and unpaid labor.
East High School estimated 650 students participated in the protest, with 300 more from LaFollete High and 170 from O'Keeffe Middle School, Strauch-Nelson said.
April VanBuren a librarian at LaFollete, said she heard that at least 30 substitute teachers were called in to the school. She was excited to see students actively marching to the Capitol.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I’ve never seen them walk this fast at school.”
The day started early in the morning with an even younger population: an educational event for children in kindergarten through fifth grade organized by Thrive United.
Amy Gannon attended the morning event with her daughter, Jocelyn, 10, and Jocelyn’s three friends. Jocelyn came home last week from school upset.
“(Jocelyn said), ‘Mom, women don’t get paid as much as men, and it’s not right, I don’t know if you know about it, but there’s a protest going on. Can I protest?’” Gannon said.
Gannon was happy to bring her daughter to the event, and happier to see Jocelyn raise her hand when asked, “Do you think you might want to be a president of the United States some day?”
“That’s what they need, just constant reinforcement in a world where they hear these other messages all day long,” she said “This is a great way to bring girls together and recognize them.”
Kids toured the building, made crafts, held a mock vote for their favorite candy, formed a parade throughout the Capitol chanting “Kindness matters,” and met state Reps. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, and Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
Jocelyn and her friends said meeting the female politicians was their favorite part.
“I think that we’re ready to see a female president because we have a lot more potential and ideas than people think we do,” said Siri Moeser.
Some girls said they have felt underestimated in gym class, when tests require them to run less laps than boys.
“We get that it’s because of like muscle and growing, but lots of girls in our classes are faster than boys,” said Kaia Berghahn.
All were excited for the noon rally.
“It’s nice to see how many people believe in the same thing as you do,” said Berghahn.
At the rally, the crowd, many bundled in pink “pussy hats" and red blankets, withstood the wind while they listened to speakers from different sponsoring organizations address traditional women’s issues like unequal pay and reproductive rights.
“Collectively, we are the ones that do the undervalued, underpaid work that makes society run,” said Dayna Long with the International Socialist Organization. “And if we decide not to do it anymore, we shut shit down.”
Sarah Smith, an organizer of the protest who also helped bring Wisconsinites to the Women’s March on Washington in January, spoke up for women’s wages and the undervaluing of traditionally women-dominated professions like teaching and nursing.
“Any field that is predominantly female is consistently taken for granted," Smith said. “Society believes they are entitled to women’s labor. Society believes they are entitled to women’s bodies.”
But the speakers, including several high school students, also addressed topics of immigrant rights, public school funding and police brutality.
“Community control over the police is one of the ways black women can determine safety in our communities,” said Jessica Williams of Freedom Inc.
Some called on the white women in the audience to use their privilege to advocate for other causes like Black Lives Matter and immigration rights.
“We need those of you who are privileged, those of you who are white and middle class, to show up,” said Zon Muas, also with Freedom Inc. and a child of Hmong refugees who identified herself as a queer feminist.
After the protest, some participants took this directive to heart. Given the opportunity to directly lobby their legislators in the Capitol, an initiative organized by Smith, youth made up the majority that responded to the call.
“We’re just doing our part in changing things and using our privilege,” said Calista Stork, a junior at LaFollette.
“I think it’s important that young people have a voice in the decisions that will affect them for the next 50 years, instead of a bunch of 50-year-olds,” said Samantha Richter, a junior high school student, at the protest with friends from Waunakee and Sun Prairie.
Smith handed out literature and offered lobbying tips. She told participants to be respectful and introduce themselves, then the crowd of about 30 split up in groups to approach different representatives’ offices.
An East High school student, O’Keeffe Middle School student and a mother joined together and knocked on Rep. Melissa Sargent’s door. The Madison Democrat wasn't in, but a staffer listened to their concerns.
“I was a little bit nervous about doing it,” said Hester. “But it felt really cool to know that Melissa was supportive of it.”
Sponsoring organizations of the event included Madison NOW, International Socialist Organization, Women's March - We March Forward, Madison Socialist Alternative, Thrive United, Women's March on Madison - Next Steps, Campus Women's Center, Freedom Inc. and Dreamers of UW-Madison, IWW-Madison.