I wore the wrong shoes to the Women’s March. With a quadruple-thick platform sole, the Doc Martens/Dolls Kill Jadon Hi Max boot is a performative combat boot, pushing the concept well past the point of absurdity. Instead of being well-suited to marching—the original purpose of the combat boot—after about three miles the soles become too heavy, and they begin to chafe the skin off my heels.
But in the fourth year of the Women’s March, I had no intention of actually marching. I’ve gone far enough. I marched the mile from Central Park West to Bryant Park in New York City in both 2017 and 2018. After moving to Los Angeles, I skipped last year’s march because, while the first march felt like an almost spontaneous shared response to Trump’s election by many disparate groups—walking together to shout and scream our fear for the future—the second year seemed to be tying to relive a moment that had passed. By the third year, it was almost as if the march had turned the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration into a macabre holiday in which women mourn the rapid erosion of abortion rights, the horrific treatment of immigrants, the realities of climate change, while paying lip service to a future where it’s possible to turn back the clock to a time before the nation invited a cruel, misanthropic bully to serve as our national figurehead.
This year, I was informed by a press email that the rally’s guests would include Maxine Waters and Caitlyn Jenner, so I decided to skip the march itself and just go hear what the speakers had to say. I texted my friend Shawn, a photographer who lives nearby, to ask if he wanted to meet me.
“What are women marching for?” he replied. “Same old stuff,” I told him.
On the morning of the first march, in New York City, I found myself enveloped in a sea of women on packed subways that were delayed in every direction, nearly bursting with protesters in pink holding signs and chanting on the A train headed up to Central Park. There was a shared sense of grief, a shell-shocked way we looked at each other, silently asking “What happened?” but outwardly yelling “Fuck Trump.”
In the years since, whatever sort of solidarity the Women’s March organization, born of planning that first event, purported to build has fractured again and again. In September 2019, three of the founders of the Women’s March organization, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Bob Bland, stepped down after years of anti-Semitism allegations. The same month, a Muslim activist, Zahra Billoo, was also removed from the board just two days after being appointed for past tweets criticizing the Israeli government. The Women’s March attributed the first turnover as the result of term limits. When Billoo was removed, the March announced that it “found some of her public statements incompatible with the values and mission of the organization.”
But despite the fact that one organization has adopted the name Women’s March, many women’s marches are not affiliated with the values and mission of that group. The women’s marches in both New York and Los Angeles are run by organizations independent of the broader Women’s March umbrella but aren’t without their own issues. This year, Black Lives Matter founders say that they were not invited to speak at the Los Angeles rally after having done so in the past because of the organization’s criticisms of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who did speak to the crowd.
And as women have marched, in-fought, marched, and in-fought some more, a dozen states have made moves to ban abortion, jail abortion providers, punish miscarriages. A man accused of sexual assault by multiple victims sits on the Supreme Court ready to decide whether we can keep Roe v. Wade. Thousands of families have been separated at the border, neglected children locked in cells. Many of the men accused of sexual harassment and assault during MeToo have either made or are currently plotting their comebacks. There have been strides along with the setbacks, though it’s hard to know if those victories are a direct result of four years of women’s marches or a result of a country realizing it made a mistake in electing Donald Trump president and attempting to course correct. During the midterm elections, 117 women were elected to the House. The New York Times has endorsed not one, but two women for the presidency.
Every step forward and backward over the last four years feels conversely portentous, sometimes a signal that better days are ahead and other times a harbinger of more misery to come. Pundits wonder if Elizabeth Warren can defeat Donald Trump, seemingly to make up for the fact that they sounded too certain that Hillary could in 2016.
No one, myself included, ever wants to wander the streets like we did that first time in 2017, crying chants that mostly amounted to pleas for help, even if those cries did make history. After the first women’s march, there was a palpable expectation that the movement would have some concrete goals to work toward. But even before the Women’s March became fractured by scandal, when I rode the subway with all those protesters in pink back in 2017, I never had the sense that the original march was anything more than a group of sad people coming together to mourn the loss of the election and dread the future. If there was a plan besides voting Democrat in the next election and the one after that, I didn’t know it.
If the original march was never anything more than one very long second line, it’s hard to blame the lack of a clear, unifying plan on the failures of leadership. But why do we keep coming together every year on its anniversary just to split apart again afterward?
The subway to City Hall is not packed, but the subway in Los Angeles rarely is. One lone protester, a woman in a penguin costume, holds a sign with the words “Everything’s Fine” framed by flames. We ride in silence. I read in the Los Angeles Times that the archdiocese would also be holding its OneLife anti-abortion march in Downtown Los Angeles later today but don’t see anyone that appears to be heading to that march—though I’m not sure how I would identify them because I don’t know what their symbols are, or if there is an equivalent of the pussy hat for anti-choicers.
At City Hall, the traditional endpoint of the Los Angeles Women’s March, the rally seems to have draw anyone who would like to protest anything. On the lawn in front of the stage, I see groups of anti-vaxxers, men against circumcision, dozens with signs urging me to repent alongside the ones reading “My pussy will grab back,” and “Keep your tiny hands off my ovaries,” slogans that have become standard over the past four years. All the disparate protesters flooding in from the march to mill around waiting for the rally reminds me of the dazed, oddly heartbreaking mall zombies in the film Dawn of the Dead. When one character asks another why the undead have crowded a shopping mall of all places, the response is that they long for something familiar despite the strangeness of their situation. At City Hall, little girls with coat hangers that read “Warning: Not a Surgical Instrument” clipped to their belt loops dance in place to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” alongside grey-haired second-wave feminists carrying signs lamenting the fact that they’re still protesting this shit. There’s a chilling sense of normalcy. This is just what we do the third weekend in January now.
Rosanna Arquette, one of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers who last appeared publicly at his trial, is the first speaker. As she delivers the first line of her speech, “Misogyny is digging its heels in,” a man in the crowd with a tiny portable mic and a huge sign that says “Repent” begins speaking over her. I can only hear snippets of both. “Believe in God” and then “Cycle of abuse.” My heels have begun to throb in my Doc Martens, and I stand on my toes both to take the pressure off my feet and to see Arquette over the man who is drowning out her speech.
“The time has finally come for our voices to be heard,” Arquette says. “You need to be saved,” the man finishes. “We will not stand by as predatory men,” is the last sentence I hear before the crowd of protesters that has circled the man begins chanting “Go away” so loudly it’s impossible to hear either of the speeches. According to my phone, Shawn and I have been at the rally for an hour. I wish I’d worn different shoes as we wander to the food trucks to buy drinks.
An hour later, Maxine Waters tells the crowd that women are “so outraged” right now. That seems to be a popular narrative: Women are angry. A Google search for “women’s rage” immediately serves up headlines from the past year like “How Women and Minorities Are Claiming Their Right to Rage” followed by “Why Women’s Rage Is Healthy, Rational, and Necessary.” Earlier in January, the New York Times published a “Female Rage Reading List,” that featured books about women’s despair, madness, and occasional bouts of murderousness, but had no entries that were actually solely focused on anger.
There are also no headlines about women’s exhaustion; the toll of straining to hear the same sentences about resisting repeated year after year over constant interruptions. In the past four years, I’ve been told endlessly that I have to vote blue, support women, believe women, do more, try harder. These things are true, but rather than a call to action, the repetition has begun to feel more like a novena to counter the constant influx of news about abortion bans, human rights violations at the border, entire continents aflame without enough water to stymie the devastation. All of these problems are so big, so urgent, that tackling them all at once feels insurmountable.
Even at the march, some protestors are there to stand against abortion restrictions, others are focused on immigration, climate change, workplace harassment. It’s possible the women’s march never marched in a definitive direction because there are so many currents constantly pulling at each of us. We were bound to go our different ways. Just resisting is backbreaking work even if one is standing still. Maybe that is the point of standing together, joining our bodies to create a temporary flood wall against the constant storm surge of bad fucking news. An actor from The Parent Trap asks the crowd to yell “Vote Blue No Matter Who, Down the Ballot Too,” and though I agree, I don’t feel like yelling. My feet hurt from all this standing.
Afterward, Seal sings “Change Is Gonna Come” and “Stand By Me,” followed, inexplicably, by his 1994 hit “Kiss From a Rose.” In 2018, the Los Angeles police investigated a neighbor’s claim that Seal sexually assaulted her in 2016 when she went to his home to pick up a salad spinner he had borrowed. The investigation was dropped a month later. While Seal performs, I ask a group of four early-twenties women, along with one man, if this is their first women’s march. All but one say it is.
“The mood is pure love,” one answers when I ask how they are enjoying it.
“What’s the point?” I ask them. “What do you hope will happen now?” They answer just as Seal holds a long, blaring note, and I cannot hear their response.
“It’s too loud,” they shrug.
And though I planned to stay at the rally to see if Caitlyn Jenner, who was listed at a celebrity speaker, will apologize for supporting Trump in 2016, Shawn and I decide instead to head to the OneLife L.A. Walk to see how the other side protests.
The OneLife Walk had just ended in its own rally at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, about a mile from City Hall. Shawn and I go on a two-person march to investigate, stopping for a margarita on the way because my feet are absolutely screaming at this point and we need a little courage to walk into the middle of a rally we are so obviously not a part of, me in short shorts and combat boots and Shawn outfitted with a giant camera. At the OneLife rally, we expect the gory signs and judgmental slogans that proliferate photos of clinic protests. but find the crowd at the park in picnic mode with no signs or inaccurate photos in sight. Kids play frisbee as nuns and priests bless those who came out to support states’ rights to deny women abortion access. The area near the stage is basically empty, no one seems to be listening to the speaker, who is being translated into Spanish as she tells the inattentive crowd, “There’s always another way.”
Four young men and one young woman, about the same age as the group I spoke to at the Women’s March, are laughing together on the lawn, far away from the stage. “What are you marching for?” I ask them.
“We just want people to be aware that this is happening,” the young woman tells me.
“Do you think there are people who aren’t aware that abortions happen?”
“They don’t know the truth,” she tells me, though when I press her on what the truth is, she can’t say exactly. Just that people don’t know 3000 abortions happen every day. This number is inaccurate, but I don’t think she would believe the truth if I told her. She tells me it’s good to present a unified front. “It’s a welcoming environment. It’s nice to join together.”
The crowd at OneLife is much smaller than the crowd at the Women’s March, and getting smaller all the time, even though a band has begun to play. Shawn and I queue for the exit as well. On the train home, I talk to an 11-year-old boy who has been attending Women’s Marches since he was eight.
I ask him how he liked the march this year. He says it was good but smaller than he’s used to. I ask him what we’re marching for. “Too many people believe false facts,” he tells me. When I ask if he thinks the marches convince new people of truths he tells me that it’s good for the rest of the country to see us all together.
“What are we marching for?” I ask him. He has studied the platform on the Women’s March LA Foundation’s website in preparation for today’s events and tells me that we were marching for “schools, women of all genders from all countries, equality for everybody, and trying to show everybody that we’re all equal.” I like the kid’s answer so much I want to cry, but that could also just be the pain in my feet.
At home, I finally peel off the combat boots. My heels are missing their skin and my socks are dotted with blood. According to the pedometer on my phone, I have walked more than 12 thousand steps for women today when I told myself I wasn’t walking any. I wonder how many I’ll walk next year, and the year after that.