So much has been said about the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21. I want to tell you what it was really like for me… on the ground. It was grueling, frustrating, physically painful, exhausting… and one of the best days of my life.
Ever since the march was announced, I knew I had to be a part of it. And now that I live so close to DC, I felt it was my responsibility to be among those who gathered. As disheartened as I have been about our new president, I will not stand by and passively watch while my country moves backwards. I couldn’t not be there.
Now, you need to know that I have an extreme aversion to big crowds. That’s one of the reasons why I always get my Christmas shopping done in early November. What I love most is cuddling under a quilt with my pets while reading a book or watching TV in the quiet solitude of my home. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely Saturday watching the marches around the country from comfort of my reclining couch. But for me, that wasn’t an option. I would never be able to live with myself if I were able to be at the Women’s March, and I decided to sit this one out.
I was thrilled that my daughter Gretchen decided to drive down from NYC to march with me. She left after teaching school on Friday and, a trip that should have taken her 3.5 hours, took her 6.5 hours. After watching reports of people traveling via planes, trains, buses, cars from all over the country, I was starting to get a feeling that the turn out in DC was going to be bigly YUGE!
Gretchen and I boarded a morning bus with some friends from Ascension and we were off. Among the items I brought with me—a hand-made sign that read, “Hell hath no fury like 163,000,000 women scorned”, my cell phone charger, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and two bags of miniature Hershey bars.
I felt a strong sisterhood with women on other buses that were on the road with us as we all converged on our nation’s Capitol. On the way we followed social media for reports of other marchers. That’s how we learned that the Metro was a mess. People were waiting for hours to board from the end of the line so that in the city all the trains were filled. We all had Metro passes but none of us used them. We would be walking the entire day. I can’t tell you how many miles it was, but by day’s end, I didn’t know how I could possibly take another step. It was brutal.
So we headed toward Capitol Hill on foot. Along with hundreds of thousands of other people, we were struggling to figure out how to make our way to the rally. Everywhere we looked, streams of people were flooding by us, and they weren't all headed in the same direction. How can we get into the rally? Where is the entry point? No one could answer our questions. Well, I should say that they all had different answers. We had no way of knowing what was going on, so we just worked our way forward as best we could, no knowing if we were going the right way, but hoping that sometime soon we would receive some clarity.
A few times we passed lines of people, a block or so long, waiting to use port-a-johns. There’s no way I’m standing in a line like that to relieve myself, I thought. Surely, there would better options when we got inside the Mall.
We pushed ahead through the crowd. And then we came to the sardine can. Actually, that metaphor doesn’t begin to describe what we encountered. Imagine a million people crammed into a space that might hold 200,000 people somewhat comfortably. And imagine all those people trying to get someplace else. Well, the problem was, there was no place to go.
The rally was going on, but we couldn’t hear it. We learned that it was taking place on the other side of the Air & Space Museum from where we were stuck. If we could just get around that building… It should be doable.
You may know how it is working your way through a large crowd of people who are pressing against each other. If you see the slightest opening, you slide into it. If a line of people snakes past you, you slither behind them, hoping they might clear the way for you. Nine of us were together, inching our way forward.
It became clear that there was no way in hell we were going to make it to the Mall. I finally got within sight of the bottom right-hand corner of a jumbo screen that was showing the stage. But as a 5’4” person surrounded by giants holding signs above their heads, that was as good as it was gonna get.
At last I had a moment of clarity. Now I knew what we were up against. And I started to think about what would surely be our greatest challenge, and that was getting to a port-a-john before any of us had a bladder emergency. I suggested that we try to extricate ourselves from the mob and find a potty. My cohort was in agreement, and we decided that we would make our way to the Air & Space Museum. That was the first big turning point of my day. I led the way.
I’ve been trying to find the correct metaphor to describe what the next hour-and-a-half was like. To return to the sardine can mentioned above, imagine sardines smooshed in a can so tight they can’t be separated. Imagine that can being the length of a football field. And then imagine one of those sardines, on the far end of the can, deciding that it’s going to make its way to the opposite end of the can... Well, I don’t know if that accurately describes the experience… Imagine that sardine trying to make its way through a concrete wall the length of a football field. That may be more of what I was up against. People were standing shoulder to shoulder. They were immovable, mainly because they had nowhere to move. And I was trying to squish between the cracks, often creating them as I went, pushing people aside and apologizing again and again.
I suspect I moved about a foot a minute as I made my way. There were a couple of times when I muttered to myself, “Just take me now, Lord, because I can’t do this.” But there was no room for me to lay down and die, so I had to push on.
Somewhere along the way, I left the people behind who were with me. I pressed on because I figured that we were headed toward the same place, and eventually we’d all meet up at the Air & Space Museum. I just had to press on.
When I finally reached the steps that led to the museum entrance, I was elated. Climbing them, I heard the “Rocky” theme playing in my head. I got to the top, threw my arms in the air and then looked out at the crowd below. The only person I could spot who I knew was Gretchen, and she was about 50 feet away, which was much further than it sounds, considering all that stood between her and me. I held my big yellow sign above my head, and she saw it!
We never laid eyes on any of the other people in our original group again until we returned to our bus at the end of the day. It was a miracle that Gretchen and I found each other, and I hate to think of what our day would have been like if I hadn’t brought that sign.
I had spent a couple of hours making the sign on Friday. It was on foam-board, two-sided and laminated with clear contact paper. When we entered the Air & Space Museum, we had to go through a security check, which meant I had to leave my sign at the door. I would never be able to fight my way through the crowd again to get it back. I traded it in on a trip to the restroom, which, in such dire circumstances, seemed like a good deal. Yet when I later marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, I really wished I had it back.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Do you really think Gretchen and I waltzed right into the Air & Space Museum? Ha! We had to wait. In line. For about an hour-and-a-half we stood in a line along the side of the building. This really wasn’t awful. For the first time, we actually could hear what the speakers were saying at the rally and, since we were going to be standing anyway, we had probably found the only place where we could do it without being suffocated and squeezed on all sides by the bodies of strangers. We enjoyed the people standing in line with us, and I had fun handing out chocolates to people who were passing by.
There were desperate women that day who couldn’t stand in line for hours on end waiting to use the restroom. Some women formed circles to block the eyes of onlookers while they took turns squatting in the middle and doing their business. At times this happened over drains, and at other times, no drains were involved. Desperate women needed to take desperate measures. This may sound disturbing to you if you weren’t there, much like people who weren’t a part of the Donner party might not understand what they did to avoid starvation, but if you were there, you understand completely. The beauty of it all was that we were looking out for one another. And I found that to be true throughout the day. Given the intensity of the situation, people were patient, supportive and caring with one another. I think it’s because we were all family.
Eventually, Gretchen and I got into the Air & Space Museum. This was the second big turning point of my day. I felt like we were entering a palace. It gave a whole new meaning to the words, air and space, as both were in abundance. Yes! This was when we waltzed. All the way to the restrooms. And… No lines. Empty stalls in abundance. Flushing toilets, sinks with electric hand dryers. We had died and gone to heaven!
We didn’t exit the building the way we had entered, which meant that at long last we found ourselves on the other side of the Air & Space Museum. This had been our goal about four hours earlier. Finally, we could see the Mall.
As we made our way through the crowd, we were swept up in a tsunami. Where are they going? Gretchen and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s go with them.” As if we had a choice.
We gradually realized that we were headed toward Pennsylvania Avenue, and we were in the middle of the protest march. This was the third turning point of the day for me. All the other discomforts of the day paled in comparison to the way it felt to march toward the home of the most powerful man in the world with people who were making it clear that we would resist any abuse of that power.
A few times I had tears as I thought about the enormity of the moment. Marching beside my daughter, and knowing sisters and brothers were marching with me all around the world, I was caught up in something so much bigger than myself, or even this moment. This was why I had come.
There was plenty of humor along the way. I wish I could show you some of the signs I saw, but I was savoring the moment rather than trying to capture it all on my cell phone. I also wish I could remember some of the things we were chanting along the way, but I can’t recall any of them. I only remember that sometimes they were defiant, and other times they were hysterical. Mostly, it felt good to be with so many people who felt as strongly as I do about the future of our country.
I will never forget how deflated and defeated I felt on election night. Our march down Pennsylvania Avenue has filled my soul again. This is a great country! Always has been, always will be. Political powers will come and go, but basic principles of love, justice and human decency will get us through whatever comes. And the struggle will make us stronger. I’m thankful to be a part of it.