January 19 - Two days before the march
My poster is ready. It is a bright neon green with ‘no freedom without choice’ on it in black block letters that show off all the doodling I’ve done in my life when I should have been paying attention. On the back, I’ve written the names of friends who can’t be at the march. I haven’t felt this excited since election day.
January 20 - Inauguration day
I’ve taken the day off work, but I am up early anyway and checking the news. The New York Times has an article about Trump supporters who are going to the inauguration today. Mallory, 26, says she had heard someone compare Trump to chemotherapy—”Sometimes a little poison can be good to cure the broader disease”—I guess she is hoping that he will kill ‘the cancer’ instead of us.
I get to Penn Station at 4:30 PM, an hour before my group is supposed to meet to catch the bus. A compulsive need to be early always leaves me with time to fill. I go to a BBQ joint close by and take a seat at the bar. It takes me a moment to settle in with my purse, back pack, and poster, and I notice that the couple sitting to my right has stopped talking and is watching me. The woman makes a loud remark to the man about how ‘something stinks’, and it takes me a minute to process the fact that they are talking about me. They proceed to talk about Donald Trump’s presidency as ‘pay-back time’. A dozen petty thoughts invade my mind, and I am so upset my hands are trembling, but I am determined to enjoy the beer I’ve ordered and to pretend I haven’t heard them. I take Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist out of my purse and place it on the bar in front of me.
We’ve been on the bus for two hours before we’re finally out of New Jersey. It’s mostly women, and everyone is marching tomorrow. The energy is like a cresting wave, every body is still and the voices are hushed, with an occasional burst of laughter. Jilly and I talk about our families, our friends, and how we both wondered whether it was appropriate of us to to pack makeup for the weekend.
(Bus selfie with Jilly)
The bus creeps into D.C. around 11:30 PM. It’s been raining and the city is clogged by traffic. We pass people in tuxedos and gowns on their way to and from inaugural balls. I am struck by the fact that most adults look as out of place in formal wear as teenagers at prom. We pass a man in a suit sitting on a concrete barricade smoking a cigar wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, and the entire bus erupts in laughter.
January 21 - The day of the march
I have barely slept. My body is humming with energy. It takes me a moment to remember why—the rally before the march is starting in just a few hours. I feel a flood of excitement.
My march group, Jilly, Steffi, Jaime, Corey, Jeremy, and I head downtown shortly after 9 AM. The trip takes the better part of an hour. The metro is crammed with people and is running so slowly that we end up getting off blocks away from the rally. We emerge onto a street teeming with protesters. Everywhere there are women wearing knitted hats with pointy ends in fuschia, magenta, coral, baby, bubblegum, and every other imaginable shade of pink.
We try to get close to the stage, but find it impossible even to get close enough to any one of the jumbotrons to hear the speakers. But, in a way, we know what they are saying, because we’ve been saying it to each other since the election.
Well before the march is set to begin, we hear reports that the crowd numbers over half a million people. News alerts, coming sporadically to phones with limited service, tell us that the size of sister marches around the US and the world are exceeding all expectations. My husband, who has stayed behind in Brooklyn to work and watch our dog, and who is averse to both strangers and crowds, sends me pictures from the march in New York City.
The volume of bodies on the National Mall traps us for over an hour in an immobile sea of protesters. My anxiety-wired brain reminds me that the throng of bodies is potentially dangerous, and a scene from the previous season of Game of Thrones flashes through my head: Jon Snow, trapped beneath the feet of his own men on a muddy battlefield, watching the sky above him disappear as the breath is squeezed out of his body. I am convinced for the hundredth time that I watch too much TV.
The crowd grows restless and begins to chant “Let’s march now” when the rally runs over time. Our voices, tens of thousands of them, are so loud it seems as if windows should be shattering all over the city. We start to march, slowly, like cars clearing from a traffic jam, relieved to finally move our limbs. Marchers lift up signs representing a menagerie of causes and opinions. Some are funny: ‘Orange is the new fascist’ and one of my favorites, which simply reads, ‘Ugh.’ Many are personal, bearing pictures of family members above the hashtag #WhyIMarch. The most striking are those which, as Jilly later points out, are statements of fact that have somehow become political opinions, like ‘Science is real’ and ‘Black lives matter.’
We march with teenagers whose enthusiasm is palpable and infectious. We march with a generation that remembers historic marches we learned about as students, and which we could not have imagined would be rivaled by anything in our generation, until today. We march with a diversity of people I’ve only ever seen before on the streets, buses, and subway cars of New York City. We march next to a group of women of color whose signs implore us to build an inclusive and intersectional feminist movement, and I am hit by the realization that while I march for my rights, protected from a myriad of harm by my white body, they march for their lives. We march by Muslim women wearing American flag hijabs, and I wonder how many of them live in parts of the country where arranging the scarf over their hair and walking out the door is a daily act of courage. I wonder if there are any places in America where it isn’t. We march with a woman who volunteered for Planned Parenthood as a sixteen-year-old in the 70s, who admits she is stunned to still be defending Roe v. Wade. I am stunned that she hasn’t thrown in the towel.
Rather than a single stream snaking through the city along the planned route, the marchers flood every square foot from Independence to Pennsylvania Avenues, converging at intersections and overwhelming streets and sidewalks. It takes us almost an hour to march to where my friend Ashleigh is waiting for us, just five blocks away. We march until our feet, legs, and backs hurt. We march towards the White House, until barricades of fences and bodies and fatigue finally overtake us, when we realize that none of us has peed, sat down, or had a sip of water in the last ten hours.
We walk to a falafel place over a mile away, stunned by our own resilience. Satisfied that I’ve walked myself into a calorie deficit (conditioned to count them by a lifetime of women’s magazines and ads for weight loss products), I promptly replace them with a sandwich bigger than my hands and an order of fries. Jilly has booked the back room of a bar in Petworth for a post-march Milk event, where we digest the day’s events over drinks. Everyone is exhausted, but everyone is smiling.
We stay up late talking about movements. We talk about history, about global politics, and about running for office. We talk until the talk turns ludicrous, as it tends to do when you’re tired and you stay up talking. I get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.
January 22 - The day after the march
We sleep in late and wake aching all over. Over breakfast we recount our experiences of the march, almost in disbelief that it actually happened, and that we got to be there. I am new to this group, having met most of them within just the last two days, yet they extend their friendship to me without reserve. Like many immigrants, I live with a constant nagging suspicion that people find me either weird or ridiculous, and I am rendered awkward and humble by their kindness. From Estelle, who organized transportation for over a dozen women from New York City, to Molly, who extended the offer for me stay in the house she booked for the weekend of the march before she ever even met me, to Jilly, who invited me to join her and her closest friends for the march, the weekend has been a lesson in the singular solidarity women are capable of.
I catch the 3 o’clock bus back to New York, while Jilly stays on in D.C. for a few more hours. Sean, a 22-year old Brooklyner who marched at the insistence of a female friend who flew in from Texas to be there, takes the empty seat next to me. We talk politics, music, and books the whole way home, and I am grateful that a weekend defined by connection to other human beings has afforded one more.
I take the subway from Penn Station and finally get home around 10 PM to my husband and my dog. The lines of their faces seem somehow sharper, as if I am seeing them more clearly, and I know that whatever change the marches have wrought, I will never be the same.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.