An estimated 1.2 million women, men and children marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. on Saturday. Some expressed frustrations about the up-in-the-air status of women’s healthcare. Others took their young sons and daughters, hoping to show them the power of democracy in action and have them experience a historic moment. The chants and slogans painted on poster boards varied, but the overall message was cohesive: “We are here, President Trump, and we will be heard.”
The mass movement – which mushroomed across the globe starting on Friday with a first march in Japan and dozens of others on Saturday – began in the early morning hours, as D.C.-area metro stations filled up with an unprecedented number of riders, with lines stretching outside the stations.
Leon, a 10-year Maryland Transit Administration employee who asked to be identified only by his middle name, said the hundreds of people lined up outside the Greenbelt station was nothing like the scant crowd he saw gathered there for the inauguration the day before.
“In the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he told a few women in line. “Y’all represent.”
A river of pink knitted “p*ssy” hats – a response to Trump’s lewd comments about “grabbing” women by their private parts that spawned widespread backlash in October – moved visibly through the heart of D.C.
In the tradition of feminism, hundreds of signs repurposed the term, one typically thrown at women (and men) in a derogatory way, into a statement of power and rebellion. Posters that read, “P*ssy grabs back” were common, as was other vaginal imagery. Several marchers even dressed up in vagina costumes.
However, this effort to morph insult into weapon didn’t sit well with everyone. Elizabeth Suarez, 18, found the focus on female reproductive organs to be exclusive of women without them – notably, trans women.
“I saw a lot of signs centered around cis-women and the only time I saw anything trans-inclusive was during Janelle Monae’s performance,” said Suarez, a freshman at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida.
Singer and actress Janelle Monae performed “Hell You Talmbout” before the march, joined onstage by the mothers of slain black men Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, Jordan Davis and Mohamed Bah.
Actress America Ferrera and feminist leader Gloria Steinem both spoke, and singer Alicia Keys performed. They were followed by performances of spoken word poetry, speeches and songs by other activists.
“I feel there could have been way more emphasis on the lives of women/femmes of color, but I don’t think there was much malice behind it, just people fighting for their own causes,” Suarez wrote in a message.
The crowd was predominantly white, raising questions about the legitimacy of the women’s movement’s goal of intersectionality.
“I want people to know that anything cool or revolutionary they come across was, 10 times out of nine, previously done or said by a woman of color, and most likely a black woman at that,” Suarez said.
The most concentrated diversity was seen onstage during the rally when a black Muslim woman, a Chicana Mexican-American activist and a young Latina girl all spoke. The girl, Sophie Cruz, addressed the crowd in English and then Spanish, asking that they “fight for love with faith and courage.”
Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson took the stage to share her experience with Planned Parenthood as a teen living in New York City and beginning to make her own healthcare decisions.
At 15, she went to a Planned Parenthood clinic by herself. She called it “a safe place where I could be treated with gentle care,” emphasizing the freedom it gave her and her best friend, who later got cancer screenings there, to make their own decisions without outside interference.
The reproductive rights debate has resurfaced recently in the wake of the election results and Trump’s promises to reverse the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that gave women control over their bodies and access to legal abortions.
Johansson spoke directly to President Trump, saying, “I want to support you. But first I ask that you support me.”
Cheers would wash over the marchers periodically, in what was a surprisingly communicative and organized group, considering its size. When it was time to begin the march, everyone turned to face the Washington Monument, pointing toward it to instruct others nearby to do the same. Then, chants of “March, march, march” rose up and the walk began.
When an ambulance needed to get through, the crowd moved to the side, and when a woman was separated from her children, a man put her son on his shoulders and those surrounding him pointed at him and chanted, “We have your kid,” until the pair were reunited.
The chants during the actual march changed every few minutes. Someone would start up a “My body, my choice” chorus and soon after it turned into, “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here” or “Black Lives Matter.”
Marchgoers also used humor, taking jabs at Trump and his behavior throughout the election cycle, yelling phrases like, “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter” and “Hands too small, can’t build a wall.”
Groups of friends, families and strangers merged together and marched from Independence Avenue to the front of the White House, only to be faced with fences and Secret Service when they arrived.
Typically, the sidewalk in front of the White House would be fair game for protesters and open to the public, but the mass of people posed a “security issue,” according to one officer.
A Secret Service agent said he could not comment on the reason for blocking off the segment of the street, but said it had “nothing to do with” the march. The area will be closed indefinitely. Despite this obstacle, protesters surrounded the White House by filling to capacity the streets they could access.
“Build a fence around Mike Pence” and “We will not go away, welcome to your first day” rang out on Pennsylvania Avenue and, shortly thereafter, marchers decided to leave their colorful signs up against the fences that kept them away from the person they most wanted to see them: the new president, the one with the lowest favorability rating ever for an incoming president.
People flooded into the nation’s capital from all over, from Canada, Boston, New York, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, Oklahoma and even Italy, to practice the ultimate form of American dissent and empower each other to take action.
A teenage girl seen perched in a tree along the route holding a sign that read “Trumpism is fascism” was leading chants. Others were drumming and cheering, “My body, my choice!”
Attendees, however, did not find the mood bitter, spiteful or even angry. The sense of community created an infectiously hopeful atmosphere, according to Connie Inglish, who traveled from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Everybody was kind to each other,” she said. “It looked like the kind of country I’d like to live in.”
Inglish marched with three friends, two of whom she did not know before they all decided, through a mutual friend, to make the trek to D.C. Inglish had been going through a rough time trying to sell her home when her husband encouraged her to make the trip.
“My husband thought I needed to come,” she said. “He thought it would be historic.”
Inglish marched for peace in the 1980s in New York City, she said, so the atmosphere was familiar to her.
For Alina Rossi-Conaway, a 20-year-old student at Northeastern University, the fight for equality and empowerment overlaps with all other major issues, making the march a perfect place for the exchange of ideas, about “calling people in instead of calling people out.”
“It’s connected to every other social justice cause. It’s not in isolation,” she said.
Rossi-Conaway also traveled to D.C. with friends as part of a five-van caravan arranged by the university’s feminist organization. That feeling of not being alone, she said, was what reminded her of the purpose of marches and rallies.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re up against so much … it’s comforting to come to something like this,” she said.
For Suarez, the Women’s March on Washington was a collective catharsis, a global pep talk for those anxious about what will happen now that Trump has taken office.
“I think today was a good healing place after yesterday’s events and what we’re going to be dealing with for the upcoming years,” Suarez said. “It was like a deep sigh you take right before saying, ‘Alright, let’s do this thing.’”