It was after 1:30 PM on Saturday, and a mild insurrection was brewing near a line of porta potties with a view of the Washington Monument. More than three hours into the Women’s March on Washington, the actual marching hadn’t started.
“Let us march! Let us march! Let us march!” The chant was being led by a girl who looked to be about 10 years old, wearing a winter parka and a look of restless agitation, and it was mostly directed at her mother, who smiled gamely at the effort.
A group of people sitting nearby joined in for a few rounds. The whole thing lasted about a minute before everyone lost confidence or interest or both.
After nearly three months of disbelief and sustained outrage following Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, some marchers’ appetite for movement had become almost feral. And it was earlier that afternoon that Janet Mock, the author and trans rights advocate, had touched on this same mood, a national sense of impatience to act. “So we are here,” she said to a densely packed crowd that pushed up against the security perimeters along the side of the stage. “We are here not merely to gather but to move, right?”
The crowd shifted in agreement.
“But a movement—a movement is so much more than a march,” she continued toward the end of her speech. “A movement is that difficult space between our reality and our vision.”
The Women’s March was organized by a diverse coalition of women to be a front-facing act of defiance on the first full day of the new president’s term. For that one day, it was a collective rejection from an estimated half a million people, and nearly two million more across the country, who were united in purpose despite the differences in their experiences, identities, and struggles. It was an act of radical optimism as much as it was an expression of rage.
But it was also the first, performative and cathartic step in something that aims to be, and will need to be, much bigger than even the largest inaugural protest in United States history.
“I’m raised by Freedom Riders and activists, so I just had to. I had to come up here and protest.”- Olugbola Gubasavi, Nashville, Tenn.
On Saturday, the Women’s March was directed toward the White House. But how it got there and where it would move next was a question I heard labored over and interrogated, again and again, by the people I spoke to throughout the inaugural weekend. Trump was on everyone’s minds, but so were a constellation of other issues, from poverty to reproductive health to police violence. The weekend felt like a kind of Rorschach test for our current moment and possible futures for this movement.
Because the point wasn’t merely to gather, but to move, right?
It was Friday afternoon, around the same time that Trump put his hand on a Bible and was sworn in as president, that I met Olugbola Gubasavi, a 29-year-old from Nashville, Tenn. At this point, most of the ticket-holding supporters had passed through the security perimeter to watch the ceremony, so some protesters had taken the opportunity to eat lunch or chat idly on the grass.
“I’m raised by Freedom Riders and activists, so I just had to. I had to come up here and protest,” she told me.
Her parents’ experiences in the movement had fortified her as she prepared for the new administration, she said. Gubasavi had grown up understanding the seriousness of what it meant to hold “by any means necessary” as a political dictum, and what that entails when a system is explicitly organized around inhumanity.
Those movements are also reminders of how justice can move slowly, and that marches are just one piece of a much broader struggle. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, when 250,000 people flooded the National Mall to demand economic justice and an end to racial segregation, was organized by a coalition of several civil rights organizations who were joined by a number of labor unions and faith organizations.
It was a galvanizing, unprecedented moment in American history, one that happened in conversation with the Freedom Rides of 1961 and built critical momentum for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in the fall of 1965.
The work of A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King. Jr., and other march organizers created new coalitions and alignments within the major political parties and centered racial and economic justice as twin aims of the civil rights movement. But many of the 10 demands laid out in conjunction with the march—from withholding federal funds to programs where racial discrimination exists and a federal program to ensure employment and fair wages for all workers—remain unmet, and are still being fought for today.
The 2004 March for Women’s Lives also drew hundreds of thousands of women to Washington to protest for abortion rights and against the ground lost on reproductive rights under George W. Bush’s administration. At the time, Gloria Steinem, who spoke again at the march this weekend, declared to the crowd: “We are here to take back our country.”
But they didn’t. Bush won re-election that year, and his administration continued on with its anti-abortion record. By the time Democrats took back the White House in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, anti-abortion lawmakers had already concentrated significant power at the state-level. By 2011, Republican-controlled state legislatures had successfully launched a campaign to erode abortion rights that has now spanned six years and shuttered clinics from Texas to Ohio.
History is full of reminders that the road is long, and progress is never steady. But if you want to move, you push ahead anyway.
“We have to push forward, even if it means getting arrested or how dangerous things can get,” Gubasavi said, echoing what her parents had taught her, before returning to her friends.
I started talking to Sue Byars because I liked her leopard print coat.
“The Women’s March brought me here,” she told me. She had cried while she watched Trump being sworn in, but her despair was short-lived: “It’s time to hit the streets again.”
Byars was a young 67, and had been watching people come and go on Friday evening in McPherson Park, a central organizing spot for anti-Trump protesters. A light mist was falling, and someone on stage was telling the crowd that police a few blocks over were using flashbangs and tear gas on protesters. People should plan to route themselves accordingly, he said.
I asked her why she had come out, which may seem like an obvious question but, based on the sheer range of responses I heard, was one I found myself returning to throughout the day.
“I’m a longtime feminist,” she said. She had felt disconnected from the movement over the years, but had become re-energized by the march and the public conversations happening around mainstream white feminism. Rather than feel threatened by the critiques, she embraced them: “I thought, ‘I’ve got to learn.’”
At a moment when 53% of white women helped to elect Donald Trump—and have supported the Republican candidate in nearly every election since 1952—this is a foundational and rarely comfortable conversation.
The intersectional nature of the Women’s March, even as large portions of the protest crowd itself seemed to be very white, was actively cultivated after some early controversy. The march’s first iteration was a Facebook event organized by two white women who named it the Million Women’s March, which many black feminists quickly pointed out was appropriated from a protest led by African-American women in Philadelphia in 1997.
The coalition of organizers expanded as an effort to self-correct, but also because to resist Trump meant being accurate about its purpose. An opposition movement under this administration would have to be led by—and concentrate its attention on—those who will be most vulnerable: black women, women of color, immigrant women, LGBTQ women, and poor women. The platform released in the week before the march was similarly ambitious, and similarly radical.
But the organizers’ focus on intersectionality—and the interrogations of the political blind spots, erasures, and failures of white feminism—alienated some white women. (This is a women’s march,” one woman told The New York Times. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women?’”)
Byars had the opposite reaction. She leaned into it even harder: “I’ve learned a lot about white privilege and trying to understand other issues,” she said. “We’ve all got to stand together.”
This was something I heard a lot in my conversations with protesters—people of different ages and experiences, many but not all of them white, who had become newly skeptical of their own political habits and thinking.
The message is simple, tactile: There are more of us than there are of you.
I met lifelong Democrats who now doubted whether their elected officials were courageous enough to stand up to the Trump administration or had the political will to fight for things like fair wages and unions. People who had considered themselves politically agnostic that had placed their first round of calls to an elected official. First-time protesters who were newly invested in turning out for collective action.
Sarada Devi Jasti Currie, 39, had come to D.C. from Maryland with her mother. I met them Saturday on the stop-start walk toward the main meeting area, a sea of women that grew larger as each block progressed. The sky was gray like it had been all weekend, but it felt at that moment like some light might break through.
She walked alongside her mother, both wearing coordinated signs on their backs (“I am marching with my mom because immigrants make America great;” “I am marching with my daughter because women’s rights are human rights”), which would occasionally catch the wind and float upwards like capes. I jogged after them.
Devi Jasti Currie, a history teacher, spent her academic training learning about the civil rights movement, deeply immersed in the history-altering methods of protest utilized by that movement. Still, the Women’s March was her first protest. She laughed when she told me, imagining it must sound strange.
“I’ve interviewed so many civil rights people, and I have so much respect for them, but this is the first experience I’ve ever had protesting,” she said. “I want people to see us come together in great numbers and be peaceful.”
It was her mother’s first protest, too. “In the Hindu culture there is Devi. Life starts with women,” Visala Choudary, 61, said, smiling while her daughter steadied her sign against the breeze.
An estimated 250,000 people turned out to watch as Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Less than 24 hours later, with the banners from that ceremony still raised on the Capitol, about 500,000 protesters assembled in the city to signal their opposition.
Another 400,000 marched in a parallel protest in New York City. In Chicago, it was 250,000. Organizers in Los Angeles reported a crowd of 750,000. Women marched in snow in Anchorage and through balmy heat in Miami. They choked off bridges and scaled a literal mountain in Texas. All told, crowd scientists estimate that at least 3.3 million people marched globally.
And this seemed to be the essential point of the march and its sister actions across the country. When you put out a call to get that many bodies in a public place, no matter how fractured or contentious the process of getting there may have been, the message is simple, tactile: There are more of us than there are of you.
This will be important math in the coming years, but it will not be enough on its own.
More than half of Americans support universal healthcare, but Congress has already acted to repeal a law that extended insurance to 20 million people. And while Bernie Sanders campaigned on Medicare for all, Hillary Clinton and most of the Democratic party refused to take it on as an issue worth fighting over.
Ninety-two percent of Americans—including 80% of Republicans—support background checks on gun purchases, but the Trump administration has made expanding the interpretation of the Second Amendment an early priority.
Nearly 70% of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, but Trump has promised to appoint judges who would upend the landmark case within the early weeks of his administration. He also named anti-abortion ideologue Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
It was hard to ignore these things as the march wound its way through the District, past the very departments that stand to be gutted under the Trump presidency.
Almost everything felt like some heavy, if tired, metaphor that weekend. The D.C. police had used garbage trucks, some still filled with garbage, to barricade certain streets as the new president was sworn in. There was literal burning trash at a protest across town, and the climatic dismembering of our most phallic of monuments when the fog on Saturday cut the tip of the dick that is the Washington Monument clear off.
I thought again about Mock’s speech: “Collective liberation and solidarity is difficult work. It is work that will find us struggling together and struggling with one another.”
She could have been talking about the difficult years to come or the complicated process that had brought all these women together. Either way, her words felt like both a roadmap and a warning.