It’s 5 in the morning when I join a long line of women standing on the corner of 8th Ave, near New York’s Post Office Building, waiting patiently to board a BestBus to Washington, DC. The women smile politely and exchange friendly glances. Many are holding signs and wearing bright pink, cat-eared knitted hats. Plastic ziplock bags dangle over their shoulders, filled with Welch’s fruit snacks, juice boxes, nuts and packs of toe warmers – sustenance for a busy day ahead.
On the bus, I sit next to a young Black woman returning to DC for graduate study in international public health. She had been planning to work in healthcare for the Clinton administration, but given the unexpected election result, she says she now wants to go to Sierra Leone, where her parents are from, to help build a sustainable healthcare system there.
‘Trump’s win started a fire in me,’ she says. ‘I realised that it’s not enough to just want or wait for others to make the change – the change has to happen through me.’
When the bus pulls out from the side of the curb, the women cheer and clap. And with that, we hit the road to the Women’s March on Washington. Soon, over half a million people will flood the streets with sentiments that embody the first days of America’s 45th presidency – fraught with fear and anger, but overcome with hope and perseverance.
On 3 March 3 1913, thousands of women marched down the very same Pennsylvania Avenue where women are gathered this Saturday. Back then, they were demanding their right to vote.
In a vibrant procession that caught the gaze of over 500,000 spectators, they marched in a parade of nine bands, four mounted brigades and two dozen floats. Two notable suffragettes, activist Alice Paul and labour lawyer Inez Milholland were dressed in blue capes, white boots and crowns as they trotted on white horses. German actress Hedwig Reicher was there, dressed as ‘Columbia,’ with other suffragettes surrounding her in large white hats and coats. Woodrow Wilson would be inaugurated the next day, but the president-elect’s arrival was so overshadowed by the march that he was forced to use back alleys to reach his hotel.
Fast-forward to January 20, 2017 in Washington. A curtain of silver-grey clouds looms above a vast sea of bright pink hats. There’s little space to move in such a packed crowd, but people still excuse themselves as I make my way through. There’s a lot of camaraderie – people offer snacks, tie shoelaces, high-five each other.
‘We never thought we’d be revisiting the 60s in our 60s!’
Two women hold hands wearing ‘nasty women’ necklaces. A woman in fingerless fishnet gloves holds up a bright yellow sign depicting a hand protruding from a flaming red vagina – ‘Pussy grabs back!’ she shouts. There’s a long beige canvas rolled across the ground, with many women kneeling down to scribble messages of hope and resilience. I walk past a bunch of teenagers sitting on top of a demountable, shouting, ‘Not my president!’ and taking selfies in front of the sprawling crowds. A small group of marchers sit cross-legged, eyes closed in a large circle, meditating together.
Directly across from them, three old women sit on plastic chairs knitting. Pat, Karen and Kitty have been in the exact same spot for the last three hours. They got on a bus at 9 the night before; they’ll be leaving tonight to go back to Ohio and Michigan. This is the first time they’ve come out to march in a very long time.
‘We never thought we’d be revisiting the 60s in our 60s!’ laughs Karen.
‘It wasn’t that I didn’t expect it would happen, but [Michigan] usually swings towards Democrats,’ Kitty reflects. ‘I used to see these massive Trump signs near the University of Michigan and I knew we were in trouble.’
Pat tries to explain why her town swung red this time: ‘When someone says, “everything’s horrible and I’m going to fix it,” that’s easy for someone who’s scared to latch on to.’
I come across Christina, who’s energetically holding up a sign that’s bigger than her body; the words ‘GRABBER IN CHIEF’ written around a silhouette of Trump’s face. She’s feeling on top of the world.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever had my picture taken so much of me my entire life,’ she says with a wide grin. ‘My sign’s been flapping in the wind and someone came and helped me tape it!’
Christina, who’s in her 30s, works in a nursing home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Trump’s win doesn’t reflect the America she knows. ‘We are built on, “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” so why would we stop that?’ she says.
She says she is still willing to work with Trump as her President, but hopes he will acknowledge the discontent. ‘Wishing that he would fail is like wishing a pilot will crash the plane with all of us in it,’ she says.
As I’m swept along with the crowd down the National Mall, I peel off towards John Marshall Park to catch my breath. There, next to the long line of marchers waiting to use the portable toilets, I come face-to-face with the Bikers For Trump. A large, black banner with a yellow logo resembling a police badge adorns a stage stacked with loudspeakers playing slow rock music. A biker wearing a skull cap, boots and black leather jacket draped over a bright orange vest, shouts into a microphone and points at marchers.
‘Ladies!’ he declares. ‘I just want you to know that we are 100 per cent in support of your rights. We loooooove women!’
Going by the eye-rolls and turned backs of those looking on, I gather they aren’t taking this well. Two Black marchers with a large sign stand in front of him to block his way.
I approach one of the biker women in front of the stage warily – a side effect of being a visibly brown marcher – but she welcomes me with a warm smile and open arms. A pink ribbon is tacked on to her shiny black leather jacket as she holds up a smaller ‘BIKERS FOR TRUMP’ sign. Kajsa, a blonde biker in her late 40s, came from Virginia for the inauguration yesterday. When I ask if she finds herself caught between two alternate universes, she says, ‘No, not at all!’
Despite overtly supporting Trump, she was generally unopposed to the march against him. When I ask her if she would join the marchers, she says, ‘Yeah! But not right now.’
‘I wanna support the new President,’ she says. ‘I thought Hillary used her feminism to, uh… I just didn’t trust her.’
I ask Kajsa what she hopes Trump will achieve in office. ‘Equality for women, that we are treated fairly,’ she says. ‘There’s a perception of women as sex objects, but people forget that there are incredibly strong women bikers.’
Why did she became a biker? She points to the man on the stage. ‘This guy right here,’ she says, smiling, ‘and also the freedom of the road.’ I smile and nod back, not quite sure what to make of our exchange.
Walking back somewhat bewildered towards the National Mall, I meet Sonia and Adobe, two trendy 13- and 14-year olds from DC who tell me that the other kids at school can’t believe they’re here at the protest. They’re proud feminists: ‘It doesn’t make sense that people think feminism is about superiority. Look at the definition, it’s equality,’ says Adobe.
They’re also annoyed that they couldn’t vote: ‘I think it’s like, really unfair that someone who’s 92 and about to die can vote, since it’s our future that it’s going to mess up. It’s kind of upsetting that all these people chose him for us,’ says Sonia. I can’t help but wish I was their friend, though I suspect they’re a lot cooler than I was back in school.
‘It’s our future that it’s going to mess up. It’s kind of upsetting that all these people chose him for us.’
I go up to three young women – Dejanira from South California, and Denisse and Chi from DC – who say they have never really protested before. They’re all daughters of immigrants – from Mexico, Guatemala and Vietnam.
Dejanira tells me both her brother and his wife are undocumented. Over Christmas, her family went to Disneyland and she talked to her 11-year-old nephew about Trump. ‘I was telling him, “you’ll be fine, you’ll still go to school and have a home and food to eat” – it becomes that basic at this point,’ she said.
‘Can I read you guys a text my dad wrote to me this morning? It’s really short,’ Dejanira says. Her father is currently in Mexico City and sent the message that morning.
Beaming with pride, she reads: ‘Deja – I’m so proud that you are expressing your disagreement. Not only are you right, but you’re brave as well. Just take care of yourself. We love you.’
On the ground, each face reflects a different story – Black, White, Latino, Asian, young and old, straight, queer and trans, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, women and men, even Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump.
They’re all marching for different things – gender equality, the treatment of women, Obama’s legacy, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigrants and refugees. Some just want to see Trump’s tax returns; others are more concerned about preserving healthcare, marriage equality and access to abortion. There isn’t a single issue that can really unify all of them, but they’ve emerged in large numbers to express dissent – by the end of Saturday, there are 673 events taking place across the world, showing unprecedented numbers: up to 700,000 in Washington, 750,000 in Los Angeles, 500,000 in New York.
In London, women march toward Trafalgar Square singing anti-Trump songs; in Nairobi, Kenya, women march in a long line through Kurara Forest. In Antarctica, Linda Zunas, who’s on expedition, holds up a sign for peace along with her fellow travellers. And in my hometown of Sydney, thousands gather on a sunny, sweaty day at Hyde Park’s Pool of Reflection to march proudly alongside their American sisters.
This level of consciousness-raising led by women, for women, is amazing, but also somewhat bittersweet.
This level of consciousness-raising led by women, for women, a century on from the march of the suffragettes, is amazing, but also somewhat bittersweet. The overwhelmingly White suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote did so at a time when America sorely lacked diversity. In the 2016 election, 53 per cent of White women who exercised their democratic rights decided they did not want a woman as their president – instead tipping the scales to a man who had openly boasted of sexual assault, and stereotyped Muslim-American women as oppressed and unable to speak for themselves.
There are women of colour who choose to stay home today – some never felt a connection with Hillary Clinton in the first place, others are tired of ‘routinely being tasked with fixing White folks’ messes.’ And yet, there are many veteran women of colour activists – Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez – doing exactly that, leading one of the largest protests in history.
But there’s a certain level of emotional labour poured into these kinds of actions, and women are all too familiar with it. In the 60s, feminists rallied against the constant expectation for women to smile, care or radiate happiness towards men. Today, this inequality has expanded to unpaid or low-paid emotional and caregiver work – nannies, nurses, teachers, social workers – generally roles performed by women. And whenever women – or any marginalised group of people – march for their rights, they sacrifice something. They are striking from their jobs, they are speaking out, and they are putting their bodies on the line – channeling their anger and fear into a very public demonstration.
Back in 1913, when women marched, men mocked, tripped, shoved and spat on them. Around 100 women were taken to hospital. Today in DC there isn’t a single arrest made, and later videos emerge on Twitter of policemen high-fiving the marchers. An old man I met at the march said, ‘My wife had to go to work, so I’m here for her instead.’ He’s one of the many men and boys who eagerly join the march.
Where will this demonstration take us? The Women’s March on Washington has resolved to take 10 actions in 100 days – an ongoing campaign to build on this momentum and urge women to keep fighting for their rights. Almost simultaneously, after just three days in office, Donald Trump signed an executive order decimating Planned Parenthood and reinstating a global gag rule that blocks US funding to any individuals and organisations worldwide that discuss abortion.
America (and indeed the world) now faces two stark realities, marked by the past and future. The past – that despite the popular vote, this nation chose to elect Donald J. Trump as President for the next four years. The future – that millions across the globe are now rapidly joining a movement of mass resistance to his power.
Only time will tell how things will change. In the meantime, the capacity of women will be stretched thin in more ways than one.