I Was At the Women's March
February 07, 2017
Just two short weeks ago, I was at the Women’s March on Washington, and yet it already seems a world away. Not like it didn’t happen, but like it happened in some other world, in some other timeline, separate from my everyday world of kids, husband, dogs, and work. And in a way, I suppose it kind of did.
When I left Friday morning on the 9-hour solo drive, I was nervous. I wanted to wear my March sweatshirt, but I was going to be a female driving alone through rural Ohio and Pennsylvania. I decided to be safe and opt for a plain grey hoodie instead. I regretted that decision once I arrived at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There was a group of women there all in their pink pussy hats. They were standing, posing for a picture and people stood up and applauded them. In the rest stop. I applauded, too, and wished I’d opted for some visible marker that I, too, belonged.
All along the road, I passed and was passed by women piled into cars and vans with their pussy hats on, signs piled in the back, messages painted on their cars. “DC Bound!” one read in huge letters across the back window. “(not for the inauguration)” it read in smaller letters underneath.
The first thing I had to do once I arrived was pick up my mother from Dulles airport. She was flying in from Jacksonville to join me—the trip had actually been her idea. Back in November, after the election when the March was first being announced, I waffled. I wanted to go, but I wasn’t sure. I was worried and little scared. I’d never been the “protest-type.” But then Mom texted and asked if I would go with her. I will admit to hesitating for a moment before texting her back that yes, absolutely I would go with her, but only for a moment.
The airport arrivals area was a sea of women—and men—many of them in pink hats. Later, sitting in the hotel, I heard about all the planes filled with women heading for DC. I heard about one plane running out of wine and other planes turning on pink cabin lighting in a show of support. I knew the March was going to be huge. The organizers were saying at least 200,000, but I knew it would be larger. But I don’t think I really understood the magnitude, though, until I saw all of those people at Dulles, some of which I found out later came from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska. Everyone seemed so excited, smiling and laughing while waiting for their rides. This is what I movement looks like, I thought. This. Right here.
The next morning, Mom and I were at the Metro station by 8am and it was crowded. There is a bridge that goes across from the parking garage to the terminal itself and we were lined up almost all the way down it. They separated us—those with Metro cards on the right, those who still had to buy them on the left. Fortunately, Mom and I had cards. Our line moved relatively quickly as one by one we scanned our cards and moved through the gates.
We were at the last stop on the Silver line. Back in November when I reserved our hotel room, I had tried to get us someplace closer in to the city, but as soon as we packed ourselves onto that train I was glad I hadn’t been able to. We were packed like sardines from the start. Our poor Metro conductor kept having to pull into stations full of women announcing that our train was full or nearly full and that other trains were coming behind us. At one point we had to stop and wait on a train in front of ours that was being repaired because there were so many people on board that someone had leaned or been pressed against a door and now it wasn’t working properly. When we started moving again, everyone cheered.
At L’Enfant Station, where pretty much everyone was getting off the train, they’d turned off all the escalators because of the crowd. Just to get everyone through and out of the station, they had a Metro employee stationed at one of the gates to let people through even if their Metro passes weren’t working. The crowd was immense, many people wearing their pussy hats and holding up signs. Every so often a chant would start up or people would just start cheering. We climbed the long escalator-cum-stairs and made our way out of the Metro station ready for the rally.
We initially tried to walk up 7th Street to the rally, but we were directed to go down a block—around the Federal Aviation Administration building. We ended up coming out onto Independence Avenue from an alley that ran alongside the building a full four blocks away from the stage. There was a large set of speakers set up across the street from which we could hear the speeches and performances. There was also a Jumbotron placed just before the intersection with 7th Street that we could see as long as there weren’t too many tall people in the way.
There were people up in many of the trees that lined the street, people crowded onto the raised entrance to the FAA building, people sitting on the low walls surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum across the street. At one point, after Mom and I made our way onto the grass in front of the FAA building in an effort to see the screen better, I handed my phone up to a woman in one of the trees to get pictures of the crowd and a picture of my mom and me.
There were counter-protesters, too. They positioned themselves with their overly-large signs and megaphones near the speakers, doing their best to make it hard for people to hear the rally. Anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, they were all there. Every so often the crowd around them would begin a chant of “love trumps hate” and we would all join in. Later, as the marching began, I saw a woman position herself behind them holding a sign that read (and I’m not sure this is exactly correct, I didn’t get a good picture of her) “Imposing your religion on others makes you no better than radical Islam.”
The signs were one of the best parts of the whole thing. Mom and I spent the whole day pointing out different signs to each other, trying to read signs that were turned or a little too far away, and taking pictures of our favorites. There were several themes that seemed to be well-represented. Support for Planned Parenthood and the right to choose abortion was huge. There were, of course, lots of Hamilton and Beyonce references. The one thing I saw referenced most of all, however, was Star Wars. Specifically Princess Leia. In fact, one of my favorite signs had an iconic Leia photo and read “We are women of the resistance.”
Independence Avenue was pretty much a solid wall of people. I have heard different counts for the March (of course the White House called off the official count)—over 500,000; 670,000; close to one million—but the organizers recently sent an email in which they cited the number as 1.2 million. I would believe it. For a little while, Mom and I tried to make it further up the street, trying to get into a better position to hear the speeches and see one of the jumbotrons, but we didn’t make it very far. After a while, we also tried to get through the crowd at 7th to get across the street to where all the port-a-lets were. We didn’t make it off the sidewalk. People were crammed in too closely together. There was nowhere for them to go to make room for us to get through.
The speeches and performances were all amazing. There were some we couldn’t hear very well and we didn’t always know who was talking, but their messages of solidarity and of taking care of each other and the earth were beautiful and the crowd cheered loudly for every one. We were able to hear Gloria Steinem’s speech, which was incredible for me. I have long included her in a list of my personal heroes.
The two most powerful speeches for me, the ones that I thought were the most compelling, came back to back. First was Michael Moore. I know this was a Women’s March and he is not a woman, but he did an incredible job of laying out a practical plan to move forward after the March. He entreated us all to begin calling our congressional representatives every day—something I have begun doing—and to run for office. “This is not a time for shy people,” he said. “Shy people, you have two hours to get over it!”
The second was Ashley Judd’s reading of a piece written by Nina Donovan, a 19-year-old poet from Tennessee. I shouldn’t say reading, actually, it was a performance. She had the piece memorized and threw her whole body into it, prowling around the stage, dragging out the words “nasty woman” in a way that made them sound both illicit and powerful.
There were a lot of performers. Alicia Keys gave a wonderful performance, Janelle Monae brought tears to my eyes by having the mothers of people such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin who have been the victims of racist violence saying their children’s names as we called back “say his name!” or “say her name!”
After a while, though, the crowd was getting restless. The rally was going on much longer than expected and people were ready to march. Chants of “let’s march now!” began to rise up every so often. It was 2:30 and we were supposed to have started marching at around 1:15 and the organizers were onstage telling us that there were a few more speeches and performances to go. When they finally brought Angela Davis out, someone I had very much been looking forward to hearing, I could barely catch bits of her speech because of the chanting and noise all around me.
And then, after a few more speeches we couldn’t hear very well, it was time to march. One of the organizers came onstage and gave us directions, telling us to head towards the Washington Monument, turn right on 14th, and left on Constitution. The March would end at the Ellipse.
It took a while before the crowd around us began to move. The rally continued on stage, although in our area most people weren’t paying much attention. As soon as the crowd began to move in the street, the crowd where we were standing on the platform in front of the FAA building began to move down the stairs and out onto the street.
Mom turned to me and commented that she was sad it seemed we had missed the Indigo Girls’ performance, she had really been looking forward to seeing them again. We made our way to the stairs, stopping at the top to take some pictures of the crowd, and headed down the street.
Now that everyone was moving, the street didn’t feel as pressed and crowded anymore. Everyone was excited and smiling, holding up their signs, talking and laughing. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked toward the jumbotron that we could finally see just in time to watch the Indigo Girls take the stage. We hadn’t missed them after all! And, not only that, we could actually see and hear them now. As if the day hadn’t already been amazing enough.
The March itself was incredible. At one point, at the top of a small hill on 14th, I could see all the way down to Constitution and the street was a sea of people. People were also gathered alongside the streets holding signs, cheering, and chanting. There was one young woman with turquoise hair who had climbed into a tree to lead a chant. “Tell me what democracy looks like,” she yelled, pointing at herself. Then she would point towards the crowd and we would yell back “this is what democracy looks like!”
Some of the chants I heard (and participated in) were focused more on Donald Trump and reclaiming the word “pussy.” At one point I took a video of the crowd chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump as got to go” because I wanted to be able to remind myself later what it felt like to be there in the midst of it all.
There were jumbotrons and speakers placed at intervals all the way down Independence Avenue, which is how I found out Madonna was speaking and performing. We were walking relatively slowly, not paying much attention to the speakers or the screens when I heard someone nearby say, “did they just say Madonna?” A whole group of us stopped and turned around to look at the screen a ways behind us. It was hard to see and I heard a few disbelieving “no”s, but then, when we finally caught a glimpse of the screen and saw that it was in fact Madonna, people started cheering and laughing. A group of ladies walked past us singing Holiday—I joined in a little, I couldn’t resist. And when Madonna herself began singing Express Yourself, an entire crowd of middle-aged women—myself included—sang along with every word.
While most of the signs were focused on resisting the current regime and reclaiming our power, there were some signs that were more critical of movements past and present and I was glad to see them. Along the March route, somewhere on 14th, I saw a group holding a banner that read “White feminism was built on the backs of black women.” And you know what? They’re right. It was. One of the reasons I had been, and still am, so excited about this March is that I see it as the continuation and expansion of a national discussion on the meaning of feminism, both what it has meant in the past and what it could mean in the future. We need to challenge the idea, push for more intersectionality, push for the inclusion of those groups who have historically been left out of the discussion. It’s complicated and messy and that’s a great thing. If we’re all willing to engage in the discussion and work together, we can come out with a new, more inclusive feminism that fights for the rights of all people.
The crowds began to thin as we marched down Constitution. When we got to 17th, a lot of people stopped, although many still continued down 17th towards the White House. There was a bank of port-a-lets just before 17th where the lines weren’t too long and Mom and I decided to stop. We hadn’t been able to use the bathroom all day! When we finished, we decided we had marched enough. We were tired, we’d been on our feet all day, and we were hungry. It was time to head back.
The trains heading back out of downtown were all just as packed as the trains coming in had been that morning. Mom and I managed to find standing room on a train and pushed our way on. We stood for a while, sharing stories with the people around us. About halfway there a couple of gentlemen gave up their seats to us and we were grateful.
We were finally able to access the internet and we shared news and pictures about the day and all the marches that had happened around the world. One of the gentlemen who had given up his seat—he’d come to march with his daughter—shared that his buddy who works for the CIA had told him that the White House had called off the official count for the March. That was why we hadn’t seen helicopters flying over us. We also heard that we had set a Saturday Metro ridership record. Regardless of whether or not we had an official count, we knew we had dwarfed Trump’s inauguration crowd. In the moment that was all that mattered.
As I left town the next morning, I was surrounded by cars and vans full of women in pussy hats, signs again piled in the back, their windows still painted. I stopped again at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and found the parking lot full and two buses parked outside. The lines for food, Starbucks, and the bathroom were so long they met in the middle. I took me a moment to sort them out.
In line I talked with a woman who had come from Denver. By the time she and her friend had decided to come, plane tickets to DC were exorbitantly expensive and hard to come by. So they’d flown into Pittsburgh and rented a car. “Did you march the whole way?” she asked. I confessed that Mom and I hadn’t made it past the port-a-lets on Constitution. “Yeah,” she said, smiling. “We marched to the Shake Shack. We were starving!”
I continued to see cars with women heading home almost the entire way back. The further I went, the fewer and far between they came, though. The last two I saw were just west of Columbus, about an hour from home. I told a friend about this and commented on how it felt like the March had continued on to the next day. She laughed and said that it had really begun with everyone driving and flying in. And she was right. It had.
I have since gone back and watched all six hours of the rally, listening to all the speeches I’d missed or hadn’t been able to hear very well. I hadn’t realized that the woman who gave such an impassioned speech about Planned Parenthood was Scarlett Johansson or that six-year-old Sophie Cruz’s parents had stood behind her on stage looking as proud as any parent ever has as their daughter yelled “Sí se puede!” into a microphone to a million of us.
I’ve read a lot of other people’s stories about their experiences at the March as well, some positive and some critical. Overall my experience was very positive, I left feeling encouraged and supported and powerful, but I can see where it wouldn’t have been for some. The thing is, the March was just the beginning. It was the kickoff event for a movement that is just getting started. We have a lot of work to do, but before we could really get to any of it with any depth, we had to do the first thing you have to do when starting any project: we had to show up. And that’s what we did, in numbers larger than anyone had imagined.
The best summation of the day, I thought, was tweeted by Roxane Gay, one of my favorite writers. “Women did something incredible today. Women specifically.” “Hell yes we did!” I responded. Because we did. We showed up. I showed up. I was there. And I have been encouraged by all the new protests and organizations and campaigns that have been springing up over the last couple of weeks since the March, all of them spreading the love and support we all showed up at marches around the world to express and I am heartened. This is who America is, this is who we are, and I could not be more proud to be a part of it.