Anyone who thinks the contemporary women's movement is dying, over or simply irrelevant will have to think again after last weekend's March for Women's Lives. More than a million mothers, daughters, fathers and sons converged on the Washington Mall on Sunday to affirm every woman's right to reproductive healthcare and reproductive freedom, as well as the vitality of modern feminism.
The march, and the rallies that took place before and after, involved more than a year of planning by feminist, minority, civil libertarian and religious groups, including Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority, the Black Women's Health Imperative, the ACLU and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. The long-term strategizing and cooperative work clearly paid off -- both by making this march one of the largest in U.S. history, and by calling together a crowd that was impressively diverse. Many speakers at both rallies commented on this fact; morning emcee Lisa Gay Hamilton, who played lawyer Rebecca Washington on The Practice, noted that she had been to the historic 1992 women's march, but from then to now "there [was] one major difference -- and that's the people of color" present on the Mall.
As a marcher, it was hard to fathom the enormity of the event. Although police estimates have marked attendance in the high hundreds of thousands, organizers claim 1.15 million attendees (at the march, volunteers worked hard to count each person by registering marchers on paper, and then giving them a sticker declaring "Count me in," which signaled those who had been included in tally). In the morning, gigantic TV screens next to the main stage, and elsewhere on the Mall, displayed images of people stretching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building. People started to filter onto the streets around noon; the first marchers returned to the Mall around 2:30, after walking a two-mile loop down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House and back around. At that point -- two-and-a-half hours after the first demonstrators hit the pavement -- others were only just beginning their creep past the Monument. That's how many people there were -- enough to create a three-hour-long traffic jam.
There was a detectable amount of stumping for John Kerry during the rallies and the march -- a bunch of mostly male volunteers (from what I could tell) were handing out "Women for Kerry" stickers -- but signs, shirts and chants were mostly focused on demanding choice and reproductive healthcare and freedom for all women. Fashion-wise, pink ruled the day; Planned Parenthood, which deserves kudos for bringing out so many people from its affiliates across the country, marked its presence with hot pink T-shirts bearing the march logo on the back; Ms. magazine delegates donned black baby-Ts with a hot pink Ms. emblazoned across the chest; mass-produced signs from the Feminist Majority came in various shades of rose. The Pink Bloque, a radical dance troupe of young women from Chicago, decked themselves out in homemade pink miniskirts, sleeveless pink T-shirts and matching headbands.
There was the requisite anti-choice presence, concentrated for the most part on a fairly short stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. But chants of "Not the church, not the state, women will decide their fate" easily drowned out the words even of those demonstrators with megaphones. Some of the anti-choice signs were simply too bizarre to ignore -- like "Smile, the baby's coming," as if all 1 million marchers were presently pregnant. But many were the same old gross-out, blown-up images of fetuses and blood. The notable exceptions were the more subtle, mass-produced posters of smiling women bearing the slogan "Women deserve better than abortion." The anti-choice movement seems to be testing out a slick new marketing strategy, but it didn't win any converts at the march.
As things wound down in the late afternoon, speakers continued to take the mike: The iconic Gloria Steinem, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, actress Ashley Judd and comedian Wanda Sykes all took turns keeping marchers rallied up and entertained. But no one managed to match the impact that surprise speaker Hillary Rodham Clinton had when she spoke in the morning to the gathering throngs. As she took the stage, it was as if the Beatles arrived; even progressives, who might lament that the New York senator is more of a centrist than they'd like, couldn't help but scream and applaud. Urging the crowd to elect a pro-choice president come November, Clinton remarked, "if all we do is march today, it will not change the condition the country is in."
She's right. But I can't help but think that the March for Women's lives showed millions of people that the United States -- or rather, the people who live in it -- are in better shape than we thought. If the momentum generated in Washington carries through to November, perhaps we won't need to have another March for Women's Lives for quite a while -- or, better yet, ever again.
Hillary Frey is the literary editor of The Nation, where this account first appeared.
Publication date: 04/29/04