The Women’s March that changed American Politics
This was never about Donald Trump becoming President. It was an opportunity for women of all backgrounds, in locations around the world, from the penniless to the billionaires, of all races and religions, to come forward and say “I deserve a voice, I deserve my rights.” Breanne Butler is the Director of Capacity Building and a Board Member of the Women’s March. A creative pastry chef known for her innovative desserts, she founded ‘by Breanne’, a fashion and food concept that specializes in candy jewelry.
In her role as an advocate for women and diversity in the restaurant industry, she has inspired countless women and mentored many cooks through their career. She is serving on the board of Women’s March and has helped organize almost 400 marches around the world.
This is her interview, edited for clarity and brevity. Kimberly Mantia, Impakter Editor-at-large, met privately with Breanne Butler during the 2018 Concordia Summit in New York during United Nations General Assembly.
In the photo: Breanne Butler – Photo Credit: bybreanne.com
Kimberly Mantia: What was your personal journey so that we can have some insight into how the Women’s March movement came about?
Breanne Butler: I went to culinary school in Detroit, Michigan and worked through different bakeries. I also did my own thing selling cakes. But I wanted more and I wanted especially the experience of working in a restaurant and there really just wasn’t any opportunity in Detroit. This was back in 2010, we were still very much in the economic crisis. People couldn’t pay for their mortgage, let alone a wedding cake for me. So I knew that it was going to be extremely difficult to be successful in my career if I had stayed in Detroit. I’m very happy that that’s no longer the case. But at the time it certainly was. So I went on Craigslist and typed in pastry chef jobs in the search box and probably 18 came up in Chicago, the nearest city.
I had always wanted to move to New York and my family of course was pushing for Chicago because it’s closer. But I typed in pastry chef in New York and 58 jobs came up. And I’m like, what am I doing? This is where it’s at. I was young, just 21. I was ready to learn and ready for mentorship. I spent $700 on a round trip and took the plunge determined to find a job in three days. I ended up at Rouge Tomate on 60th and Madison. It’s no longer there. They’re now in Chelsea. I started at the very bottom, basically as a “pastry intern”.
“I’d get in at 7:00 AM and leave at 2:00 AM and do that six days a week”
Eighteen months later I made Sous Chef. So I worked really hard. It was a very creative yet difficult process because you’re on your feet, working 90 hours a week. I’d get in at 7:00 AM and leave at 2:00 AM and do that six days a week. But it taught me so much. I knew that I was doing the right thing and I was in the right place. Even though it was difficult, especially being a woman in the industry and finding myself often the only woman in the kitchens I’ve worked at.
So you came up against gender problems early in your career?
Often through my career I’ve tried to advocate for equality in the kitchen. Whether it’s equal pay or just making sure we get things like privacy in the locker room. Even if there’s only two women in a kitchen of 50 employees, we just can’t change in an open room like all the guys. There’s always been some push back trying to get more equality in the kitchens.
When did you start your own business ‘by Brianne’?
I started it after being the Executive Pastry Chef at Facebook for two years, which was a great job, but again, I was ready to go out on my own. I always have been an entrepreneur and I’ve always wanted my own business. So I took the plunge. And it was great because I had so many great clients. I had people in tech, I had people in fashion, I had people that had eaten my desserts at Rouge Tomate and Facebook.
How did you go from being a successful entrepreneur to a women’s activist?
I got the magical call to do cookies for Hillary Clinton’s fundraiser. I got the email at almost midnight. I immediately called my mom. She said, what’s wrong, why are you calling so late? And I was like, OMG, I’m making cookies for the first female president. At the fundraising dinner it really was eye opening because I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention to what was really happening politically at the time and how much was on the line, especially for women. At that point there was still a lot of hope. And I thought, what if a woman holds the highest seat in the country, then maybe I’ll be taken seriously.
I think a lot of women feel that way. So it was very heartbreaking, I was at Javits Center and seeing her lose and getting that pit in your stomach. So devastating. I was on the last train home and then I had to get off and throw up because I was just so upset. There were three other women doing the same. We just cried, it was a really scary moment.
“As a Chef, I’m very solution-oriented. If there’s a problem, I go and fix it”
And for me as a chef, I’m very solution-oriented. If there’s a problem, I go and fix it. Once home I went on Facebook and I saw that a woman in Hawaii by the name of Teresa Shook had created a Facebook page calling for a March in DC. And, without even thinking about it, I was like, what can I do? I had never marched. I’d gone to DC only twice and just for touristy things, never anything political. I just knew we had to do something.
So, she reached out and asked can you make Facebook pages for all of the states to mobilize to go to DC? And looking back on it, I think that she saw I worked at Facebook and assumed that I was an engineer or was really well connected! I said, yeah, of course, and became a host of the event. Right away I started getting messages by the hundreds from people all over the country. It was overwhelming. I spent the next 72 hours, glued to my screen, ordering food, hardly sleeping, up all night trying to get as many people to represent each state.
It was amazing. I would ask for chapters in California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and I would immediately get 900 messages. All these women were saying, I need to get involved. Everyone was given an opportunity to help out.
Within the first 24 hours I started getting messages from women in London, in Switzerland, in Australia. It went global very quickly, which wasn’t anything I’d expected. This was not just about Donald Trump becoming president. This was becoming very quickly an opportunity for women of all backgrounds, no matter where they were in the world, no matter what their economic situation was, no matter what their race or religion was. It was an opportunity for them to come forward and say, I deserve a voice, I deserve my rights. Whether that’s a right to clean water or, like the female scientists in Antarctica, a right to protect our planet.
So the first march that you were involved in was the 2017 Women’s March in DC. And it was the first march for a lot of people. In helping organize it, what challenges did you face?
One of the biggest challenges was the difference in time zones. For me especially as a leader of the global marches, my phone was always going off at two in the morning because I was talking to people in California. And then I’d close my eyes and two hours later my phone would be ringing again, and it would be London.
Also most people didn’t realize that we were organizing this in the middle of three major holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. That was a huge challenge, especially since most, like me, had already plans to travel for Christmas. Thank God for my friends and my family being so understanding because I was basically just glued to the one corner of the Airbnb that had wifi working.
In the photo: Women March in Washington DC – 21St January 2017 – Photo Credit: Women’s March
What were your most rewarding moments when you were in the March and later, as an afterthought?
The most rewarding for me was going behind where our stage was set up at seven in the morning, and seeing Capitol Hill looking like that scene from the Lion King when all the animals are stampeding down. And realizing then that we have a million people and it’s seven in the morning. The pink hats. Where did that idea come from? I forgot her name but there was a special woman [Editor’s note: It was Krista Suh’s idea, she is the creator of the viral Pussyhat Project and a Hollywood screenwriter.]
The whole idea to knit pink hats had started originally for people that couldn’t come to DC, especially folks that were disabled or elderly or perhaps sick and for whatever reason, couldn’t make it. It was a way for them to be there. So each hat is representing a person that couldn’t physically come. Some of the hats actually had the name of that person, but basically, in spirit and essence, they were there. So when you know that, it’s even more powerful, the hats and all the people wearing the hats, because it almost doubles the numbers.
I remember my ninety-six year old aunt exclaiming “can you get me one of those pink hats? I’d really like to have one of those!” She was in a wheelchair watching the March at home on TV. It was amazing. Now, when we think of a march, we think of the civil rights marches in the Sixties. Did you get ideas from people that were involved in them?
Actually in the first week, we started getting criticism, like you guys don’t have any women of color leading this, you don’t have anybody that has truly been in the movement. And so right away we brought in folks that have been on the front lines in their nonprofit organizations. And we made Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis honorary co-chairs of the March. Being able to get their wisdom and guidance was huge. I mean, Harry Belafonte actually lent his office to let us organize out of. He was a huge resource. And obviously Gloria Steinem too. She came to Mr Belafonte’s office one day with words of wisdom for us, saying, I look at everyone in the room, these are your sisters now, you guys are family, you are all birthing this movement together.
Women’s March 2019 will be on the 19 January – Register here
Now you all have been involved with other efforts since the 2017 Women’s March. For example, you were recently in DC at the anti-Kavanaugh protests. What have been other milestones in the life of your movement?
I’ll give you my three favorites, but to be clear, we’ve been working nonstop since the original march. In February 2017, two weeks after the march, we’re like, cool, everyone recharge, we’re going to work on setting up an organization because obviously when you mobilize 5 million plus people on every single continent, you need to harness this. Then the Muslim ban happened and we had to hit the airport.
So the three favorites. One definitely would be International Women’s Day March eighth. That was the most the US had ever participated in International Women’s Day since it began. It actually originated here. For whatever reason, we stopped celebrating it here even though it’s huge everywhere else around the world. It was amazing to see Americans, especially American women, really own the day. We had called for a national strike, saying we’re supporting labor unions and women-owned businesses. We wanted to show our economic power. Some of us led a rally outside Trump Tower on Fifth avenue and then marched to Columbus Circle where the police charged. We quickly sat down and were all arrested, thirteen of us. We spent the next eleven hours somewhere downtown in one of the precincts. That was my first time getting arrested. Here we were, 13 women that had just mobilized millions, all of the sudden making such a powerful statement representing women all over the world. That was definitely a big moment for me.
The second one would be our convention, the Women’s Convention held a year ago last October in Detroit. It was actually the first women’s convention in 60 years, a historic moment for us. And we got these powerful educational moments. Because our base is very young, even me. So there’s a lot to learn. I think to be able to have these moments where you can teach and educate, especially on History, is really important.
My third favorite would definitely be right now where I am. This has been an incredible summer to be on the front lines in DC. We started with a huge action at Hart Senate building on June 28th against family separation and detentions. Over 600 women were arrested. We totally broke the system that day. They had to put us in a park and tape around the trees because they couldn’t hold us. It was amazing to witness and hear people chanting “abolish ICE” and seeing Senator Warren and Senator Duckworth coming around and chanting with us.
Then right from that to the Supreme Court against Kavanaugh. I led all of the protests happening during the hearings, along with the Center for Popular Democracy, an organization that’s also been on the front lines. You probably saw on the news how women every minute stood up and shared their story. We ended up having hundreds of women arrested that week in nonviolent civil disobedience. We had people sitting in senators’ offices refusing to leave until they spoke with the senator. There was a 70 year old woman from Indiana who demanded to talk to her senator because, she said, I’m going to die from climate change and I want to know what you’re doing about it. And we saw people that are affected if the Affordable Care Act or Roe v. Wade are overturned. We had people from 26 different states all the way from Alaska showing up and staying a month or longer in DC.
What is your strategic goal? Are you focused on simply increasing your numbers and so increasing the power of women’s voices? Or do you actually have plans to build this movement into an organization?
I think it’s really both. I mean, obviously we’re in a very crazy time and there’s a lot going on. But we need to unite together to really have a go at this. At the same time, we do have a unique base. The fact that most of our people are first time activists is powerful and some more established organizations might not want folks like that. They might want people that are more experienced activists. But we see potential in getting our base up there and then everybody has something.
In the photo: Women’s March in Berlin – 14th October 2018. Photo Credit: Women’s March
What was your following initially and how large has it grown up to now?
Honestly I’m not the right person to answer, that’s not my work area. But I will say that we are arguably the largest decentralized network right now in existence. It’s always hard to track something like that. Even if we say 5 million women march around the world, it’s probably more like six. I am getting emails from women all over the world that didn’t officially register their march. Yet they marched and some of those women were in areas like Russia and China where they absolutely could not register their march. Again, it’s really hard to get a number per se. What is encouraging is to look at the local level and realize how the Women’s March has impacted so many people. Another powerful thing about our movement is how intergenerational it is, we see grandmothers marching with their granddaughters.
That’s why it’s all the more important to help women have a voice. Women have always wanted a voice and had a voice but haven’t been able to be heard. Either because they felt unable to or not allowed to “voice the voice” or express it.
Women’s March 2019 will be on the 19 January – Register here
EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com – IN THE COVER PHOTO: PLEDGE BALANCE APP. PHOTO CREDIT: PLEDGE BALANCE