Obama condoms. Jack Black. U2. A 100-minute speech in the freezing cold, leading indirectly to the death of the president. As the site of every inauguration since Thomas Jefferson took office, D.C. has endured more than its fair share of eclectic street vendors, fanatics, and road closures.
This year will be no different, but at least the day after will have a different tenor. As many as 200,000 women, men, and children (but mostly women) plan to descend on the city to “send a bold message to our new administration on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights,” says the Women’s March on Washington website.
Among these bold messengers is ColleenAment Rasey, a labor and delivery nurse from Baywood-Los Osos, California. She’s never marched in her life, but this time is different, she says. “I feel like I need to act, be part of this big group that’s sending a message.” And although this will be her first foray into large-scale political activism, she hopes it won’t be her last, so she’s calling herself a “baby activist.”
Across the country, women like Rasey have high hopes for the march. Buses full of protesters will arrive from as far away as upstate New York, Illinois, and Michigan, some for only a few hours before making the long trip back home. Airbnb expects well over 10,000 bookings on inauguration weekend, although many of these visitors are coming for the inauguration itself.
A local organizing Facebook page is busy with announcements of planning meetings, feminist gear for sale, information about nonviolent direct action training sessions, and plans to host friends and even strangers from out of town. Some 300 D.C.-area houses of worship have offered space to host groups from out of town, and more than 250 people have signed up to stay in—or as close as possible to—Washington for the march through the website Couchsurfing, which allows locals to open their homes for free to visitors. Some of the houses are as far away as Wilmington, Delaware, but marchers will take what they can get.
As the nation’s capital, D.C. is tasked as much with logistics—like where to put the Porta Potties—as with bigger questions, like how to build a lasting movement in the face of a president only blocks away. Local organizer Jackie Savage, a Montessori school teacher, says she was shocked by the tone and hatred of the recent election. “There was language in that election that I don’t allow in my classroom,” she says. “And now that language is the president.”
Savage says local organizing efforts have exposed political issues within the city too. An initial structure organized by ward has transitioned into a central organizing committee to avoid uneven representation across wards. Now the committee’s role is to ensure everything runs smoothly and to persuade local ambassadors to sign up to help guide marchers. But she says the march itself isn’t really the point. “It’s one day,” she says. “This is the catalyst. It’s just the start of the movement. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what celebrities and organizations there are. The half a million people living in D.C., we’re the ones who matter.” That movement is developing, slowly—organizers for the Women’s March will be attending a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march on Monday, hoping to create even more connections for future activism.
Meanwhile, Rasey’s friend Suzanne Whetsel, of Harrisburg, Virginia, sees the march as a way to reclaim her identity as an American, which she feels has eroded in the wake of such a divisive election. “We have a country to fight for here,” she says. Like Whetsel, many women are hoping to use the march as part of a personal healing process.
Jane Tremblay, a small business owner from Palm Beach, Florida, says that she’s flying into Baltimore in the early morning, driving to D.C., and leaving again from Baltimore that same night. (Luckily, she has a car because all morning trains arriving to D.C. from Baltimore before 11 a.m. are sold out). Despite the commute, she writes in an email to City Paper, “I HAD to be there just so I would be able to live with myself, knowing that I had done all that I could to help get this message out.”
The march’s Facebook page is rife with comments from women returning to activism for the first time in decades. Gail McBride, from Bisbee, Arizona, is flying in with her daughter, granddaughter, and friends—but she hopes she’ll be joined by a group especially dear to her heart.
As a first-year teacher in the 1970s, McBride taught her 8th grade students in New Jersey about social justice issues, even staging a play about Susan B. Anthony. When the school district wouldn’t let her take the class to the state capital for a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, she used her own money to rent a bus and drive her students out to Trenton. “The news was there, they made signs, it was amazing,” she says, noting that she got “in a ton of trouble” when they arrived back at school. “There we were, forty-some years ago, trying to take action. Looking at where we are today, the danger of all these hard-fought-for rights drifting away. … It would be wonderful to be together again at this point in history.” McBride has contacted her former students on Facebook and is trying to recruit them to march with her.
As the date nears, an organization that was initially plagued by charges of racism (the name Million Woman March was scrapped over accusations of racial appropriation) and bad planning has coalesced into a nationally and locally structured machine. Despite the loss of a crucial element of its branding (the National Park Service was slow to grant permits for Mall protests, in part because of a higher volume of applicants than usual), a diverse organizing committee and support from organizations as large as Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood have put the march back on track.
Sister demonstrations are being organized in state capitals nationwide for those who can’t make the trip, and organizers secured a new location on Independence Avenue and Third Street SW in early December after applying for a permit through the city and working with D.C. police, rather than the federal government. They will protest near the Capitol, with the march taking place along Independence to the Washington Monument.
Jackie Savage says she isn’t sure exactly what the message of the march will be, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. “You can’t figure out what you mean until you have everyone there,” she says. “We don’t know what this is, but it’s a movement. We’re here, and we’re loud, and we’re watching.”