Image: AP

WASHINGTON, DC  Shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday, tens of thousands of people had already gathered for the Women’s March at Federal Plaza. As they waited in place for the march to begin, people milled around, checking out the creative signage that has come to define protest in the Trump era. Vendors had set up shop around the edges of the plaza, as they always do. In that mass of people waiting, I found Toya James standing off to the side of the plaza, holding up a sign that read, simply, “New green deal.” James was there alone, unlike the majority of other women who were there in groups of two or three or more. She had taken an Amtrak to DC from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was
no stranger to protest movements: growing up biracial had taught her the importance of civil rights, she said, and she had once been suspended from junior high school for protesting the war in Vietnam.

James said she was aware of the fractures and controversies surrounding the Women’s March and Women’s March Incorporated, the national organization formed by four of the organizers of the initial protest, but believed the “press has made this into a catfight.” She saw the march as serving a larger purpose, particularly for women who may feel isolated in their activism at home. Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings “really galvanized it for me,” James told me. “It was a lot of apathy back home.”

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The turnout that morning was estimated to be a fraction of the size of the 2017 march, but if the crowd was smaller, the urgency for those who attended felt the same, James told me. She was there to again feel the sense of unity that the Women’s March represented that first year, the feeling of losing oneself to the larger group, and the necessity to fight. It was a sentiment echoed by other women I spoke with, and revealed what I have come to see as a kind of double thinking about the Women’s March: The Women’s March mattered and continues to matter; Women’s March Incorporated and its leaders were almost besides the point. That morning, the Women’s March wasn’t a headline in the New York Times or a Twitter thread about its leadership or an anxious question about the state of women’s activism in the Trump era. It was women in the streets.

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“We’re back, bitches!” one sign proclaimed. People were, as they wrote on the posters they clutched, “tired but still here,” “still sick of this shit.” Three women, all friends in their 50s from New York City, held signs that spelled out “Jewish American Princess,” a wink to the charges of anti-Semitism clouding some of the leaders of Women’s March Incorporated. “The controversy frankly spurred us to want to demonstrate a spirit of inclusivity,” one of them, Karen Strauss, explained. “We’re not daunted by the fact that there’s controversy, in fact we wanted to really lean into it.” Lori Cral, who had come from Houston and was there with her daughter, a student at Georgetown University, had experienced a moment of hesitation before deciding, “We’re here to support equality for women, all women.”

Much like the first march, handmade signs asserted the many reasons why they had traveled, from all corners of the United States: to oppose the border wall and support immigrant rights, to end the government shutdown, to support the teachers striking in Los Angeles, to defend reproductive rights, to pass the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment, to assert that Black lives still matter. Signs read “Make America Gritty Again,” and “thank u, next.” Pink pussy hats still dotted the crowd, worn by women of all races. In the middle of the plaza, a booth sponsored, oddly, by the liquor brand Johnnie Walker (its logo changed for the day to that of a woman striding in a top hat dubbed “Jane Walker”), encouraged marchers to donate their protest signs to history; at the back of the plaza, the group Seeds of Peace had set up a makeshift table giving out free coffee, hot chocolate, and burritos.

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From the plaza, still waiting in place to begin marching, we could see the Capitol building in the distance. The White House, just a few blocks away, was hidden from our view, but Donald Trump loomed everywhere—on signs that called for a wall to be built not at the border, but around him; that proclaimed he didn’t “spark joy” (if only it were as easy to KonMari him); that declared he was the national emergency; that called, riffing off of the words of newly elected member of Congress Rashida Tlaib, for the “motherfucker” to be impeached. When the march finally started up, we went not by the White House but by the Trump International Hotel.

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Amaani Mohamed, a 15-year-old high schooler from Alexandria, Virginia, was there with a group of young women, all clad in blue hijabs and chanting, “Refugees are welcome here.” Mohammed had been to a lot of protests recently, including one in response to the massacre of worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “I guess I’m an activist!” she said, a wide smile on her face. She explained why she wanted to come on Saturday. “We should feel entitled to our own bodies,” Mohamed told me, adding, “I also wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Especially as a young black girl who wears hijab, it’s hard for me to go out places.”

“We’re blue women in red states!” Johanna Thullbery, of St. Augustine, Florida, exclaimed. She had traveled from Florida with her sister Kathy Clower; with them was their friend Candi Hough from Charleston, South Carolina. All three women are in their 60s, and decked out for the day in neon pink pussy hats that Clower knitted for them the night before. Thullbery had marched in 2017, and came this year “because apparently the first time wasn’t enough.” What had she taken from the first march? “That I was not alone, that there were millions of people who saw how wrong that election was, that we can not go quietly into that good night,” she said. She listed some of the issues that motivated her: “Hate, walls, immigration, voter suppression.” After she returned home in 2017, Thullbery had joined her local Indivisible chapter. Hough had similarly channeled her energy into electoral politics. “We just elected our first Democrat in Charleston in 40 years,” Hough said, referring to Joe Cunningham, who had won a district that Trump had carried by 13 points. “We’re already fundraising for two years from now,” she said.

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Back at Freedom Plaza after the brief march, the program began. On stage, speakers—largely women of color, all longtime activists—spoke of the need for a revolution; of reopening the government, of defending the rights of trans women.

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Close to the stage, a group of Native women clutched a banner highlighting the large numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women, a crisis both in its size and the relative inattention it receives. They had come to DC mainly for a gathering of indigenous people that had taken place the day before (a march that had received little media attention until a video of MAGA-hat wearing teenaged boys, bused to DC for the anti-abortion March for Life rally, taunting a Native elder went viral). They read off the names of indigenous women who had vanished, as onlookers repeated their names.

“We hear you,” one woman called out. “We hear you.”

By then, things were winding down and people had begun streaming away from Freedom Plaza; they had to get on buses and planes and in their cars. They were cold and hungry, but they had gotten out of the march what they wanted: a recapturing of some of the spirit that has been the Women’s March at its best and most inspiring since its start. They had marched; they had listened. They had maybe, like James, felt a little less lonely in it, surrounded by other women who, despite two fraught years, had decided to come together again. At least for the day.