Full disclosure: this post is both the longest and the most spontaneous I’ve done so far, after an exhilarating stay in the nation’s capitol—both to observe the Inaugural landscape and to attend the Women’s March on Washington. Hopefully that explains the excitable, rambling syntax.
In the last weeks of 2016, I created matching signage and t-shirts—for myself, my aunt who also drove from New York to D.C., and my sister who lives in a nearby Maryland suburb—that featured the “feminist fist” and poignant quotations from iconic minds. I pored over the choices for quotes for weeks, wanting to summarize our purpose for marching but also represent a variety of people, of women.
I chose a Wilma Rudolph quote for the shirts: “The triumph cannot be had without the struggle.” I ended up using permanent marker to write the names of my female ancestors on the sleeves, both living and passed, who couldn’t be with us on the march. I wrote the names of my mother, older sister overseas, younger cousins—and even the “founding mothers” of the Women’s Rights Movement on one side.
Only one man was represented on the four matching 2×3’ signs, in Albert Einstein’s “Great spirits will always be met with violent opposition from mediocre minds,” carried by my sister. My aunt carried Eleanor Roosevelt’s “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Her best friend trekked from New York City with her husband on his birthday, and he received a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” on the Metro ride into the city that morning. She carried Malala Yousafzai’s “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” I a line from Sojourner Truth’s powerful speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ “Where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter.”
Since I was in town early, I was able to wander around the Mall during the days leading up to the Inauguration. Streets were blocked, secured, sound-checked and fenced off well in advance, large crews working to set up bleachers, Porto-Pottys, and patriotic pomp associated with the induction of our next leader. The Lincoln monument was nearly buried under audio scaffolding and white folding chairs for the “Make America Great Again” welcome concert, and the Capitol building property was a labyrinth of bike-rack-barricades. The general forecast was gloomy, drizzly and overcast, which felt appropriate.
I practiced the route from the rally point to the train station where a coworker would arrive on Saturday morning, strolling past the vast office buildings for the staff and members of the House and Senate. I wondered where I was in relation to the members who, at that moment, sat in Cabinet nominee hearings. I thought about the thousands of suffragists who had marched before President Wilson’s inauguration, advocating for women to have the right to vote, just over a hundred years before this moment (I’m confident others were reminded of this coincidence, given the number of signs I saw reading “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.”).
The day before Inauguration, supporters of the incoming administration descended en masse. Souvenir stands of MAGA trinkets popped up overnight, and at one point I actually began singing Union Army songs quietly to myself as a coping mechanism. My aunt and I barely eluded nightfall within the Capitol District while returning to my sister’s workplace (a few blocks north of the White House). As we passed McPherson Square a protest began to gather; this location would be the site of rioting and broken windows about 24 hours later.
We stayed in on Friday night, save for going to Bethesda for an exercise class (my sister is a fitness instructor). Saturday morning came early but dry, and even by 7:30 a.m. the Metro station was crowded, growing thicker by the minute with more and more people, flowing from all directions with an unspoken connection—perhaps because everyone had the same hats. Women (and a few men!) of all ages, races and creeds chattered excitedly as the railcar carried us to Union Station, at one point singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (in addition to the aforementioned Happy Birthday performance).
I’ve been to protests, rallies and marches—most at the regional and state level, but one national event—before. But the magnitude of the crowd, the diversity of the crowd, and the palpable, passionate enthusiasm was stronger than any others I have experienced. I admit I was frazzled; somewhat overcome with the mass of energy, and constantly trying to ensure the four people in my party stuck close. By 8 a.m., it was crowded enough that one second of complacency meant a momentary confused search for your loved one. Thankfully I connected with a coworker who had bused into the Station early; routed from the NY area, her bus was full of marchers, resulting in a direct/much faster route.
We were lucky to come from the direction closest to the stage, early enough to beat the true descent of the crowd. Cell service was quickly unattainable as the volume of users crashed every network. Though we crowded close together and remained standing for about four hours, we were only 20-30 feet away from the soundstage that hosted some of the most iconic voices in feminism, social justice and pop culture—smack dab in the middle of the crowd that, we learned later, was more than twice the anticipated size and filled the entire two-mile march route. I was awed by so many of the performers and speakers, but my absolute favorite was Angela Davis.
(Watch Angela Davis’ speech here.)
For hours we crept along Independence Avenue, every inch of space filled with energized, chanting marchers, thrusting their signs overhead like shields. “We will not go away, welcome to your first day.” “Say it loud, say it clear: Immigrants are welcome here.” “White silence is violence.” Love, not hate—that’s what makes America great.” My heart swelled with pride watching my sister take part in her first organized assembly, disorganized and chaotic as it was. Throngs of people sprawled all over the National Mall, Ellipse and every neighboring street, brimming over with passion and greeting each other with the instant bond that protests create.
Well after dark, we made it to Union Station where my coworker would catch her bus home. The six-hour trip would take her 24, so congested was every path out of the city. By the time we returned to my sister’s apartment, we were so exhausted we could barely move. As we turned our phones back on and plugged into the news covering the marches on every continent, I was moved. I have never seen this many people assemble before.
There’s been a lot of discourse following the March—some people think it was dumb, and others think it was the beginning of a revolution. I see it as the crest of our own wave in the ripple of movements that have come long before us—aspiring to take one more step on the staircase of progress, but knowing that we couldn’t have gotten to this step without taking the ones before it.
This is our history. We will write it.