Newton’s Third Law—that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”—was put to the test Saturday with unprecedented marches globally in reaction to the inauguration of the 45th U.S. president, a.k.a., a man who boasted of “grabbing [women] by the pussy.” Never in history, it’s safe to say, have more than half million people marched down Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the White House, chanting at a new U.S. president: “I don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near my underpants.”
The Women’s March in Washington, the nucleus of more than 670 sister marches around the world, took root as a visceral response to Trump’s unexpected win, a victory that felt like an attack—quite literally—on female bodies. His vow to repeal Obamacare will end access to free birth control. His control of the Supreme Court threatens to see Roe v. Wade, the 1973 federal ruling that declared women’s constitutional right to abortion, overturned. His vice-president attempted to pass sweeping anti-abortion legislation that mandated funerals for aborted fetuses. It’s a hellscape in which Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale—the story of a futuristic theocracy that suspends the U.S. constitution, strips women’s rights and reduces females to reproductive vessels—becomes a useful primer of sorts. So calling upon women to use their bodies to fight back has a nice logic to it. Not that women are the only parties threatened by Trump. His election sets in stone the demise of the liberal project, an occurrence destined to affect people of colour, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and anyone living in any sort of margin.
The Women’s March of Jan. 21, 2017, a peaceful, convivial, unifying event, can be seen as a bookend to the first women’s march in the capital, in March 3, 1913, a time when women daring to occupy public space was itself radical. That event, organized by suffragist Alice Paul to protest the exclusion of women from political and social life, drew an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 women from the U.S., Europe, Canada, India, Australia, and New Zealand the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. That women are marching for equal rights 104 years later wasn’t lost on Saturday: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this f–ing s–t,” read one sign held by woman who lived through the ’60s.
The event also served to create a new female bonding. Strangers came together to rent hotel rooms and Airbnb rooms, happy to sleep on floors or travel overnight by bus. Acts of generosity between strangers became the norm. Turnout was massively underestimated. The first indication was at Baltimore’s Penn Station. I was travelling with four Canadian women. We congratulated ourselves in buying train tickets a day ahead, only to arrive in the pre-dawn drizzle to see thousands of people snaked around the block. Similar scenes played out across Washington suburbs and in the city.
Fear was ever-present, if undiscussed. “Bikers for Trump,” it was reported in right-wing outlets, boasted of being ready a “wall of meat” for Trump. More than 200 rioters had been arrested at the inauguration. Tips shared on social media included how to deal with tear gas and to write key phone numbers on your arm with a Sharpie in event of arrest. One woman told me she’d drawn up her first will. Another said her nine-year-old son, not an anxious child, was fearful of her attending. On the morning of the march, Draconian-sounding measures were announced: a Canadian bus heading to Washington was turned away at the U.S. border; the government suspended the Twitter account of the Interior Department after it sent out tweets revealing more people attended the 2009 Obama inauguration than the Trump swearing-in.
Once in Washington, the crowd was so thick it was impossible to get close to the speakers’ platform, later shown on YouTube. Thus we missed Gloria Steinem, a pioneer of 20th-century feminism, referring to the gathering as “the upside of the downside” and “an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Singer and actress Janelle Monáe led a powerful call-and-response chant of names of women whose sons have been killed by police, among them Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Mohamed Bah, Trayvon Martin, and Dontre Hamilton.
A synchronicity exists between the shock of Trump’s election and the more recent surprise over the extent of the resistance to him. Washington march organizers anticipated 200,000; line-ups at portable toilets exceeded half an hour. In the midst of the swell, gauging crowd magnitude was impossible. One indicator was the sound of intermittent roars pulsing through the crowd, voices of women, but also men and children. Chicago, where 150,000 showed up, experienced such gridlock that organizers turned the “march” into a “rally.” There was the suggestion of that happening in D.C. as marchers stood jammed for 40 minutes after the 1 p.m. start, before the crowd started moving.
Turnout was estimated between 3.3 and 4.2 million across the U.S., with the Washington march estimated at more than 500,000, three times larger than Trump’s inauguration. Some 60,000 people showed up in Toronto. In Yellowknife, protesters endured sub-zero temperatures. L.A. saw 750,000. Such numbers must be galling for a president who conflates “bigger” with “better.” And that was the reason many wanted to be there: to add their body to the mass. Jabs at Trump’s near-fetishistic obsession with size were plentiful on Saturday: “We are the majority and we will not be silent,” one sign read. “No, Donald, this is what a real crowd looks like,” another.
In the weeks leading up to the march, the event had come under fire for its “non-inclusive” name and for a lack of specific focus. Organizers promoted it as a “march” or a “rally,” but emphatically not a “protest“: “It’s an affirmative message to the new administration that ‘women’s rights are human rights,’ ” they said, quoting Hillary Clinton. Yet based on the crowd’s chants of “Hey ho, Donald Trump has got to go!,” not everybody got that memo.
Yet the wide-ranging messaging evident at the march—from “Black Lives Matter” to “Flint Lives Matter” to climate change to the need for science (“Science is not a conspiracy” and “Make science not war”), and reproductive rights—revealed interconnections between it all. “I’m angry about so many things I don’t know where to begin,” one sign read.
Residue from Hillary Clinton’s campaign—“Love trumps hate,” “Stronger together,” and “I’m with her” with arrows pointing in every direction—was ever-present. Trump’s condemnation of Clinton as a “nasty woman” was another rallying point: As the crowd approached the White House, people sang a rewording of the children’s song: “If you’re nasty and you know it, clap your hands.”
No comment was more galvanizing, however, than Trump’s “Grab them by the pussy,” now shorthand for his administration’s stance on reproductive and women’s rights. Signage was bold in this regard: “This pussy bites back,” was a common rejoinder. One woman walked with her head emerging from a fastidious rendering of female genitalia. There was no shortage of wordplay about the female reproductive system: “I’m not ovary-reacting,” one sign read. A fury underlined it all: “I wish my uterus shot bullets so the government wouldn’t REGULATE it.” A haunting sign featured a coat hanger, that deadly abortion technique of the 20th century, with the words “Never again!” underneath.
At the 1913 parade, white, the colour of the suffrage movement, was the defining hue: labour lawyer Inez Milholland led the procession on a white horse, dressed in a white cape. This new movement, if it proves to be that, has claimed pink, also the colour of triangles worn by homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. Marchers donned pink “pussy” hats, many hand-knit from an online pattern. These too, predictably, became a flashpoint. Writing in the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak dismissed them as gimmicky and distracting from a more serious message: “this well-intentioned, she-power frippery can make this thing more Lilith Fair than Lilly Ledbetter.”
During the march, the criticism didn’t stand up, and not only because dismissing pink as weak or silly because it’s associated with women is ridiculous. Many chose not to don the hats. Many men, who comprised at least one-quarter of the crowd, did. A respectful sense of men not overstepping was evident. When women chanted “My body, my choice,” men responded, “Her body, her choice.”
Saturday’s march was peaceful; no arrests were made. In 1913, the marchers, travelling from the Capitol to the Treasury Building, were jeered, harassed, grabbed, and shoved by the mostly male crowd. Police also joined in back then; more than 200 people were treated for injuries. Eventually, a group of men offered a human barrier, another “wall of meat” of sorts, to protect the women. Later, women spoke of being subjected to “indecent epithets” and “barnyard conversation.” More than a century later, it would be a candidate for president of the United States who’d be responsible for risible comments that triggered a similar march.
The 1913 parade saw African-American suffragettes segregated. Saturday’s march celebrated inclusivity: multi-generational and multi-racial. People in wheelchairs and those with disabilities were accommodated. Young Latino women were in full force, many brandishing signs in Spanish. Yet white faces dominated, which met with backlash. One sign from the sidelines of the route read: “F–k you and your white imperialistic feminism.”
As an opinion, it wasn’t without merit. But the instinct to connect—to build bridges, not walls, to employ the Trump-inspired metaphor—was more evident. The rise of an autocratic demagogue leader with a clear interest in employing nuclear weapons can be a great equalizer. That was seen in messaging: “We are all immigrants” and “Despite our differences, we are one.”
Humour was often used to mask impending dread: “Too worried to be funny,” one sign read. “Three-level ‘orange’: be terrified,” another. “Silence = death,” another. Even the pointy corners of the pussy hats summoned association with the ecclesiastical headgear worn in The Handmaid’s Tale. The book was also referenced in a sign that read, “Illegitimi non carborundum“—a mantra in Atwood’s text.
Whether the march’s legacy will be a temporary feel-good exercise in empowerment remains to be seen. On Saturday, it was clear many viewed it as Day One of resistance and vigilance. “1 down, 1,480 days to go, don’t mourn. Mobilize,” one sign read. There was also emphasis on voting in midterm 2018 elections, a longer-term view that suggests failure to see that the old normal no longer exists. Much can be dismantled between now and then. Tellingly, being Canadian had status. A woman wearing a baseball hat with a Maple Leaf on it was repeatedly greeted with “Thank you for coming”—before being told told how fortunate she was to live in a progressive country with such a handsome president.
Walking down Pennsylvania Avenue amid the chants of “This is what America looks like,” and “This is what democracy looks like,” it was impossible not to wonder whether this was too much too late. This was most evident as the crowd passed by Trump International Hotel within a federal building shifting to boos and chants of “shame.” Yet the movement clearly had its next steps planned. The following day, organizers sent out “10 Actions for 100 Days.”
A woman walking beside me spoke of how the route—past the Canadian embassy, the Newseum, the National Archives, Freedom Plaza, the Herbert C. Hoover Building, to name a few—offered a unique and reassuring perspective. Seeing such iconic institutions served as a reminder of how democratic institutions can endure the test of time, she said: “It’s more than one man can dismantle, right?”
She sounded optimistic, if uncertain, just as a life-sized cut-out of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg rose above the crowd like a ghost.