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The March for Women's Lives

by Jo Freeman

On Sunday, April 25, 1.15 million people converged on the Washington, DC mall in the largest march on Washington in US history. Called the March for Women's Lives, this was the first march focused on women's reproductive freedom since 1992. When half a million marched that year, it was declared one of the largest political events in the city's history. The numbers had jumped considerably since 80.000 Marched for Women's Lives in 1986, and 300,000 marched in 1989.

Although the name was the same, and abortion was still the primary issue, the number of sponsors and the number of themes was vastly expanded over previous years. In addition to the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America, which has organized pass marches, they included the Feminist Majority, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Black Women's Health Imperative. Themes included women's health, family planning, sex education, global access to contraception.

March organizers, primarily working through the Feminist Majority, spent the last year mobilizing people to come to Washington, intending that sheer numbers should "send a wake-up call" that women's rights were being eroded. They succeeded, filling buses and trains with people who came to vote with their feet.

People came and went all day. Some had arrived in Washington well in advance and were on the Mall at 6:00 a.m. when volunteers were given their tasks. Others went to breakfast events before walking down to find their place in the organizational grid. Locals came after church with their friends, or brought their children after soccer practice.

Swirling crowds filled the Mall between 3th St. and 14th St. for the morning and afternoon rallies. In between, most participants marched across the Ellipse before turning onto Pennsylvania Avenue and regarthering on the Mall. Since the street and park in front of the White House is closed, march organizers chose this route so marchers could be seen from the back of the White House. President Bush left town for the weekend.

On Pensylvania Avenue about 300 pro-life demonstrators, wearing blue T-shirts that said Operation Witness, stood along the sidewalk while chanting and holding posters in opposition to abortion. A police barricade and a few officers separated them from the marchers. Although the police presence was very light for Washington marches, there were no incidents, even when pro-choice and pro-life demonstrators occupied the same sidewalks with their signs. A few members of the Christian Defense Coalition were arrested when they ignored warnings to return to their designated demonstration area. Words were the weapons in this battle of the culture war. Opponents of a woman's right to choose have made an annual pilgramage up Washington streets around January 23 to protest Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's decision which legalized most abortions.

While all large marches are organized chaos, this was one of the most tightly organized marches in memory. Delegations and groups were assigned places in a grid laid out on the Mall. A sea of professionally printed signs jumped and waved above the heads of marchers. Those who brought their own banners or personal statements were burried by the tens of thousands of hot pink Planned Partenthood and Yellow NARAL signs in the hands of demonstrators. Representatives from 57 countries carried their national flags in the march, perhaps the only group that stood out among the pre-packaged signs.

Almost 120 speakers were squeezed into a a program that started at 10:00 a.m. on 14th St. and finished at 5:30 on 3rd St. They ranged from the usual politicians and entertainers to movement luminaries and ordinary activists.

Athough the march was officiallly non-partisan, few of the speakers or the participants were. Issues surrounding sex — abortion, gay rights, birth control, etc. — have become partisan litmus tests. Those who are out of step with their party are shunned or stay silent.

About fifty pro-choice Republicans bravely carried their own signs and T-Shirts but were lost in state delegations that were voting Democratic. Hard to spot were members of the Woman's National Democratic Club, who wore sashes proclaiming their affiliation. At least they were lost among compatriots.

Two days earlier Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry spoke at a support rally a few blocks away, while a few pro-life demonstrators chanted slogans to those going through the metal detectors. Although he did not personally march, Kerry's pro-choice views are well known.

The "Women for Kerry" rally was only one event among many in a five-day festival of reproductive freedom. One could choose to work or play, protest or lobby, march or dance, or a little of each.

A press conference was held on Wednesday, followed by a logistics briefing. Thursday, Planned Parenthood began its annual conference in a hotel on Dupont Circle In the Circle, PP sponsored booths and exhibits on Friday and Saturday. At one, people wrote notes explaining why they were marching. At another, they could register to vote. The DC rape Crisis Center personed a separate both, from which it led a rally and march on Saturday evening. Music and speakers blared forth from a stage.

A few blocks away the Human Rights Campaign Fund gave out its own posters linking gay rights and reproductive choice. In the morning about 200 members of Catholics for for a Free Choice marched on the embassy of the Vatican. Youth and Latinas held their own meetings, while NARAL hosted a picnic. There were theater parties and ice cream socials. A Gender Equity and Educational Achievement Conference was held at the National Education Association headquarters all day on Saturday. Religious services were held at the Mall on Sunday.

Saturday night those who came early could choose from a series of receptions held throughout Washington, some free and some paid, to both honor and celebrate the same luminaries who graced the speaker's stand on Sunday. However, at the receptions they were up close and personal. It's amazing that those who came early had enough energy left to demonstrate on Sunday.

Organizers intend that this march be only a beginning. Volunteers collected names and addresses of everyone there willing to sign a sheet. This will make a massive fundraising and voter mobilization list.

Editor's Note:

At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist, 1961-1965 is Jo's history and memoir of being a student at Berkeley in the early 1960's, published by Indiana University Press.

The History Book Club, a division of the Book-of-the-Month Club, has selected At Berkeley in the Sixties for one of its paperback book features. For more information about the book visit: http://www.jofreeman.com/books/Berkeley.htm

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