Malavika Kannan is a 17-year-old student, writer and activist from Orlando. She is a member of the 2019 Women’s March youth cohort.
There have been two times in my life when I’ve faced the staggering realization that I wasn’t a little girl anymore. The first time was in seventh grade, when I got my first period, and I nearly passed out at the sight of all the blood.
The other time was three years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president.
I didn’t pass out that time, but it still felt like the world had turned upside down. When I went to bed on election night, I still lived in a country I thought condemned hatred and misogyny, and my biggest worry was my Spanish quiz the next day. But when I woke up the next morning, I didn’t need to turn on the TV to figure out who had won the election — I had only to look at my immigrant parents’ faces. I knew right then that an era had ended.
Some people identify Sept. 11, 2001, as the event that bookends my generation. If you ask me, Jan. 20, 2017, marks our political awakening. But I’m not talking about Trump’s inauguration. I’m referring to the Women’s March, because that’s what showed me what it means to be a woman in America: powerful, courageous, unapologetic. It was the Women’s March that showed me exactly why young people need to take democracy into our own hands.
That day, watching TV at home, I witnessed millions of women unite in explosive, colorful marches around the world to tell a hateful president that we were standing up to him. That we might have lost an election, but we hadn’t lost our will to fight. That he was powerful, but we were angry, and we weren’t going to be quiet about it.
The thing about female anger is that it builds up, drop by drop, year by year. The first time you’re called the b-word in middle school, you wipe it away. When your male classmates mutter about your body, you swallow that, too. But when a presidential candidate brags about grabbing genitalia, it starts to rise up. When he wins — that’s when it’s over. That anger released itself in a tsunami of pink felt and Sharpie signs and female solidarity.
Even as the Women’s March undergoes important soul-searching about inclusivity, I still believe in its fundamental power. For my generation, standing up to the status quo is all the power we have.
Like many young women, I used to fear rocking the boat. When political realities made me want to scream, I used to tell myself that I was just one person. That generations of young women had stayed silent, and they’d survived just fine.
But when I saw the Women’s March, I finally understood: Silence has never uplifted us. Instead, every time women speak up with compassion, the world is forced to listen. It starts with small steps — showing up to protests, registering to vote, simply taking up more space — and results in huge strides: taking down abusers with the #MeToo movement and being elected to Congress in record numbers. Anger builds up, but so do female voices.
And certainly, breaking our silence annoys people, provokes backlash and put-downs. After all, empathy is harder than apathy, heavier than blame. But I’ve discovered that while I’m still afraid of rocking the boat, there’s only one thing that scares me more than speaking out. And that is not speaking at all.
Now, as a member of the 2019 Women’s March youth cohort, I’m looking forward to shaping history for a third time. Instead of watching the marches on TV, I’ll be out in the streets of Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19, shouting to make my own voice heard. But more importantly, I’m excited to help my generation keep building its power. With our record-breaking diversity, I believe that we’re primed to truly embrace intersectionality. We are building cohesive, tolerant movements that extend beyond the Women’s March.
Building a movement — especially an intersectional movement — isn’t easy, not by a long shot. Mistakes will be made and moments will fizzle. But the Women’s March taught me that these movements need to be built anyways. The alternative is unthinkable.
Ultimately, I am refusing to live in the shadow of politeness. I’m reflecting on the ways that I used to mute myself, apologize and cave, while promising to do better. I am allowing myself to swell with anger, raise my voice and march through the nation’s capital until my feet hurt.
Most importantly, like many in my generation, I believe that women can find unity in diversity, just as we did in 2017. I still believe that we can link arms, march and create change. If we as young women don’t raise our voices, who will?