They started at the Lincoln Memorial, where the Great Emancipator sat behind them, watching with stone grey eyes as they streamed toward the Capitol. Men and women marched along the Mall peacefully, at first. Thousands of bright blue jeans and paisley turtlenecks mixed with thousands of suits, fresh from skipping work that October day. Fists dotted the tops of the crowd next to posters of “Make Love, Not War” and “Resist the Draft.” A small girl named Mary toddled at the back of the crowd, one hand holding the hand of her mother, the other a small sign that said, “I miss Daddy.”
By the late afternoon, the mother had led her daughter away from the crowd after hearing a woman ahead of them shout, “We will dye the Potomac red and burn the cherry trees,” and the crowd surged forward. Others peeled away, too. But 50,000 people marched on, slowly.
Militia surrounded the Pentagon by the time the young protestors arrived. Helmeted men lifted bulletproof shields against the flower children who held nothing but a tear-struck rage for the president and his war. They just wanted to have a choice. The president’s men lifted their rifles and aimed for the people, and the people pushed back, tearing through a fence and hurtling toward the Pentagon’s doors.
Police swung batons forcefully, fearfully.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stared hard at the fight from his office window, sighing. Troops pushed the protestors back from the entrances; faces hit the sidewalk, young men and women alike, long hair matted with blood. Youthful, eager faces screamed for freedom, for choice.
The steps of the Pentagon were streaked in blood by the end of the day.
Six-year-old Shiloh Eldridge swung her legs under her seat as her grandmother Mary braided her hair. Her mother smiled at the two of them as she held Shiloh’s pink hat, a lighter and softer shade than the hot pink hats of the older women on the metro. The little girl hadn’t known the world like the other women had, not yet.
Mary finished the braid and Deborah put the hat on her daughter, fixing the tassels when Shiloh asked, “Why are we all wearing the same hat, Mommy?”
The two older women smiled and Deborah crouched down to be eye-to-eye with her, then said, “You know how I tell you that you can do anything? Even be the president?” The little girl nodded, smiling, her eyes twinkling. “Well, we all wear this hat to show that we all can do anything.”
Shiloh nodded again, slower this time, processing. “Who are we showing it to?”
Her mother paused; how could she tell her little girl why people she didn’t even know wouldn’t believe in her?
Mary rested her hand on Shiloh’s cheek and, in a serious tone, said, “Do you think you can do everything your brother can do?”
Shiloh smiled, “Of course!”
“You’re exactly right,” Mary continued. “But there are some people who don’t think that. They think boys can do everything better than girls can. They think boys are very important.”
A frown clouded over the little girl’s rosy face. Shiloh’s eyebrows knotted together over wide eyes. “Maybe somebody could tell them that girls are important too?”
Deborah sighed, “A lot of people have tried, honey. Even boys too. But sometimes words don’t seem true if you don’t believe them.” She paused; Shiloh touched her hat tassels. “We have to wear these hats to try to show that we’re important. That people should believe we can do anything. All of us.”
Mary leaned in and said in a voice so low that it felt like she was telling a secret, “It’s called a protest.”
“A protest,” Shiloh repeated.
Her grandmother took her hand and squeezed it. “You know, I was around your age when I went to my first protest.”
Shiloh stared at her, awe-struck. “Was it for girls, then, too?”
Mary smiled, “No, it was for boys. We were in a war, then, and it took away a lot of our daddies and brothers. They didn’t get to decide if they left or not, but their choices were important then, just like ours are now, right?”
Shiloh nodded quickly and asked, “Did it work? Did the boys get their choices?”
The grandmother’s smile faltered. “Not that time.”
Mary blinked and took a deep breath. “Shiloh, sometimes when people are really angry, they hurt other people to feel better. A lot of people got hurt at that protest, but hurting people never helps anything. You remember that.”
The little girl’s voice gained strength as she asked, “Am I going to get hurt?”
Deborah tightened her hand around her daughter’s. “No. I promise you’ll be so safe.” She smiled and played with one of Shiloh’s tassels, “We even made you a hat so your head will be safe and warm! Right?”
Shiloh giggled. “Right!” She looked out the window for a moment, happy. Then she looked back at her grandmother and asked, “Did the boys ever get their choice?”
Mary smiled back at her granddaughter. “People had to protest for a long time after that, but the boys did get their choice in the end.” She paused. “Protests will always work if you believe in them hard enough.”
Shiloh looked out the window again, and murmured to herself, “I believe.”
The women in their pink hats got off the metro a little while later, and joined nearly 500,000 other women, dotting the Lincoln Memorial pink.