The Women's March: 1 Year Later
The week I spent traveling to and participating in the Women’s March on Washington was probably, definitely, the worst trip I’ve ever been on. Marked, as it was, by illness, anxiety, all manner of socially and physically uncomfortable situations, and the bone-deep despair of the occasion itself, there is nothing about that trip that I remember fondly except the people I went with. And a hamburger I ate in Baltimore. My impression of the march is split in many ways between the minute-to-minute physicality of it and the more abstract I-will-be-glad-to-have-gone future memories I hoped I was forming. But the year since has offered plenty of time to reflect on what I now think was ultimately a nominally historic event that contains not nearly as much substance as we might have hoped.
The road trip, which consisted of three long days of driving in every different type of rain that I believe is known to exist, was by far the worst part. On the morning of the inauguration, we were somewhere in Virginia, aiming to hit Baltimore by afternoon, when the flu that one of our travelling companions had been incubating quietly in the back seat hit its peak. We pulled over so she could stop barfing in the car and resume barfing in the bathroom of a Hardee’s. Waiting in the drizzly parking lot next to a dumpster, watching the clock, we wrestled with the decision to turn on the radio at the appointed hour. We eventually did tune in to NPR while our sick friend dozed uneasily, and the two of us left awake just cried as quietly as possible as we zipped along through the foggy hills toward the scene of the crime.
We had arrived in Washington early enough on the morning of the march that we got very, very close to the main stage. We found a spot in the little well of the north side of the Museum of the American Indian, and didn’t move for almost six hours. Our sick friend only made it about twenty minutes before she staggered through the crowd to find a bathroom, ultimately getting picked up by a friend and spirited away to an apartment to convalesce. So we, the survivors of the outbreak, stood on the same three square feet of pavement, listening to six hours of speakers and music, raising our fists, chanting with those around us, hoisting our signs into the air. By the time Angela Davis took the stage near the end, the whole crowd was getting restless, and the magic was really wearing off. A group of older white women behind us started up a chant of MARCH MARCH MARCH, ignoring the fact that there were 500,000 people behind them who had to move out first, and drowning out Davis’ speech. I was irritated and feeling slightly claustrophobic, and my usual travelling stomach problems were intensifying as I couldn’t fit any Pepto in the tiny bag I was “allowed” to carry.
When we did finally start moving, it took us almost an hour to get to clear of the crowd. It was completely overwhelming. I felt a little exhilarated by the scale of the thing, the sense of place that Washington generates––we were really here, in the streets of the Capitol itself. In the moment it felt direct in a way that other actions I’ve participated in since haven’t. We marched up to the Trump hotel and stopped to shout at the people in white bathrobes peeking around the curtains. We flipped them the bird and yelled SHAME at the top of our almost-spent voices.
On the walk back to our car, we passed a few scattered clumps of Antifa and Black Bloc protesters who were heckling the even fewer Trump supporters wandering around. From nearby, we could hear the country music from an anemic MAGA counterprotest. Dusk was gathering on the Capitol when we finally made it into Union Station.
When we talk about the march, we always say, a bit robotically, that we’re glad we went even if it was genuinely pretty horrible. That we will be increasingly glad we went as we get older, and the March is folded into the history of this time. But looking back on this year, which has the shape of a continuous wave of ever more horrible and unbelievably political news, the March is starting to feel less personally and politically consequential.
Some friends of mine protested at the inauguration, the day before the Women’s March, by peacefully blocking the entrances to the viewing areas for hours. Thankfully, they weren’t among those J20 protesters swept up by the police, who—we should not forget—faced felony riot charges with significant jail sentences until just a few weeks ago. We had talked about meeting up while we were all in the same place, but we never made it happen, in part because for my friends did not feel like the Women’s March a safe place for them. They had backpacks and bicycles, items that were prohibited at the March. The organizers also asked everyone to text a certain number during the rally to get a headcount, which did not sit well at all with my anarchist friends. While I at least saw the sense of not outing yourself as a dissident, I felt a little irritated with what I thought was a bit of a “leftier-than-thou” attitude on their part.
The months since the March have tempered that irritation. They’ve actually ground it into the pavement like a heavy boot heel. And my patience with the Women’s March as an organization has been worn thin by their continuous missteps and its increasingly corporate TED Talks- feel. Using Bernie Sanders––instead of any one of the thousand women who deserve a national platform––to sell tickets to their convention was the last straw for me.
In the end, I’m not sure what we accomplished by putting ourselves through a bit of genuine physical discomfort just to stand in one place for six hours, not even being able to hear Angela Davis, and then wander around DC yelling at rich people in hotel rooms. At least my friends actively disrupted the inauguration. And they had come into the city together from Standing Rock, where the discomfort was genuine suffering, and where that physicality and viscerality meant something as part of the political act itself, and not just a side effect.
At the time, being in Washington last January felt significant. It felt like the start of something real, and the images we saw of the crowd afterward reinforced this feeling. But I never saw any images of my friends’ sit-in at the inauguration. I had to go looking for pictures of J20 only days after it had happened. The Women’s March dominated the media coverage as a massive spectacle, but I worry that in the end it was only a spectacle. My friends returned to Standing Rock after the inauguration, facing brutal cold and weather and horrific police violence. I went home and slept for 14 hours in a warm bed.
The seven days of that trip, six hours standing in one place, one bad flu, one good hamburger, 500,000 women and allies––none of it feels like enough. I write this at the close of another week of utterly unprecedented scandal and outrage, layered on the forgotten scandal and outrage of the week before. I am still glad to have gone, I think, but those future-memories I made are of cheerful white women in pink hats waving at cops, not the seeds of a real movement for change.