Why We March: The History of Take Back the Night
I was almost through my first year of university when I participated in my first Take Back The Night (TBTN) March. It was April, sexual assault awareness month, and I had spent eight months hearing horror stories of fellow freshman being taken advantage of, experienced groping and unwanted sexual attention in local bars more times than I could count, and comforted friends after they were demeaned in casual hookups. As hundreds of us students marched across campus and along the still snowy paths, it felt good to make a noise, our cheeks burning red in the cold. We marched through our university library screaming slogans like, “We have the power, we have the right. The streets are ours, take back the night!” and “Don’t Be Silent, Stop the Violence.” The words rung heavily against the building’s silent interior. People looked at us and they were forced to listen.
According to the Take Back the Night Foundation, Take Back the Night is the first worldwide effort to combat sexual violence and violence against women. Some believe the roots of this tradition lie in 1877 protests by women in London about the violence they faced walking at night. More organized versions of the march originated in the 1970s when women’s issues were receiving renewed attention. The New York Radical Feminists hosted the first ever rape speak-out in 1971, acknowledging a long-silenced issue in a way that resonated with many survivors. With sexual violence being more openly talked about, the TBTN marching tradition emerged when women marched through the University of Southern Florida demanding a women’s center and resources for women on campus in 1972. A year later, there was a march in San Francisco protesting “snuff” pornography films in which someone, often a woman, is violently killed on-screen, and in 1975 there was a march after Susan Alexander Speeth was killed while walking near her home. The movement went global the following year with the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women convening in Belgium. At the convention, women marched in the streets with candles to denounce unsafe conditions for women around the world. Women were walking together in an organized, intentional manner, and paving the way for a less violent future.
National Organization for Women activist and publisher Anne Pride coined the phrase “Take Back the Night” in 1977 with a memorial she read at a Pittsburgh anti-violence rally. Three years later, human trafficking activist and legal scholar Laura Lederer used the phrases to title her book analyzing violence against women. Lederer is now a board member for the Take Back the Night Foundation and the co-founder of the Global Fund For Women. These women honed in on the phrase that would go on to identify the movement in the decades to follow.
The Take Back the Night Foundation formed in 2001 to share information, resources, and support for organizers of these marches and survivors at large. The organization continues to document global marches under the leadership of Katie Koester, who is described as “the first woman in the US to come forward nationally and publicly as the victim of campus ‘date’ rape,” on the foundation’s website. Today, the foundation documents the various marches, rallies, and vigils that protest against sexual, relationship, and domestic violence and raises funds to support the victims of these crimes. Hundreds of these events are held each year in more than 36 countries.
TBTN marches typically combine a physical march with a more reflective period, ranging from candlelight vigils for victims of sexual violence and lists of demands for universities or organizations to meet to private survivor speak-outs or public survivor testimonials. While early marches were typically women only and occurred at nighttime to foster solidarity among women who genuinely felt scared walking alone at night, modern events typically include men and nonbinary folks as both allies to the movement and as victims of sexual violence themselves. The movement has also evolved in that discussions surrounding TBTN now view the issue as bigger than feeling scared alone at night and view night as more metaphorical for a general fear surrounding women’s bodily autonomy and the constant threat of violence they face.
Now that you know the history behind this tradition, look into marching with your local community or university or even organizing your own TBTN march. These events are important in that communities of survivors have a chance to acknowledge the ways in which systematic violence against women has impacted their own lives and seek comfort in other survivors’ stories and in community support. More than that, many marches propose demands with actionable steps for organizations or schools to address sexual violence head on.
Take Back the Night is a movement more than a march and it allows survivors to truly take something with them: a sense of community, a chance to acknowledge their hurt, a stage to demand change, and a night of solidarity they may never forget.
For more information, head to https://takebackthenight.org/ to register to attend an upcoming event, volunteer, donate, read survivors’ stories, or seek legal assistance for matters related to sexual violence.
Image Credit: https://www.sierranevada.edu/event/take-back-the-night/