As soon as I saw that there was a planned Women’s March on Washington, I knew that I would be there. With the protest just ten days away, I’ve been trying to come up with a really good sign slogan and figure out whose air mattress I’m going to sleep on — but I’ve also been thinking back to my first big march on Washington, and how it changed the course of my life.
Let me set the scene for you: It was the spring of 2004, nearing the end of George W. Bush’s first term. In the previous 12 months, Dubya had invaded Iraq and signed federal legislation banning specific abortion procedures. Before that, he’d granted massive tax cuts to the rich, while also cutting off funding for family-planning services at home and abroad.
I loathed the president. But I was, admittedly, pretty caught up in my own problems. It was my senior year of college, and after years of studying journalism, I had been rejected by every newspaper I’d applied to work for. Although I had stopped uttering the caveat “I’m not a feminist, but,” I had never seriously considered a career as anything other than an “unbiased” news reporter. Now, on what was supposed to be the cusp of my career, no newspapers wanted me. And I wasn’t sure I wanted them, either.
That’s when a group of feminists asked me to help raise money for a women’s march on Washington. We lived in central Missouri, 934 miles away from the capital, and they wanted to send eight busloads of young people to D.C. for the planned protest against Bush’s policies toward women. This was going to require some serious fundraising, and they wanted my help.
I said yes. I’m still not sure exactly why, though I think it had something to do with being asked directly. I’d been a supporter of groups like Amnesty International, and I’d written letters on behalf of imprisoned dissidents on other continents. But I hadn’t always been great at connecting my big-picture beliefs to action on behalf of my friends and myself. Here was a group of women asking me to do just that, and something clicked. It probably didn’t hurt that I thought these ladies were really, really cool. I wanted to hang out with them.
Thirteen years later, I’m about to head to Washington for another major protest of another terrible president. Which means I’ve been thinking about the real purpose and value of taking to the streets en masse. The New York Times hosted a virtual debate over whether a women’s march against Trump is “a useful endeavor.” It must have been easy for them to find detractors. “We all know this is a fruitless exercise that will make us feel better but will have no effect on anything else,” wrote Angie Morelli, a business owner and Bernie Sanders supporter.
Others argued it will be immediately politically consequential. “This march is doing exactly what it should be doing and what no one else is doing — galvanizing and focusing mass public opposition to a dangerous and erratic administration,” wrote labor organizer Ai-jen Poo.
My decision to march in 2004 did nothing to alter the course of George W. Bush’s presidency. But it did alter the course of my life. I’d grown up in a conservative family, attending Catholic schools, and living in red states, which means I’d always felt like a political outlier. The social internet was still too young to connect me to a movement. In the streets at the march, though, for the first time I got a sense of the number of people who shared my beliefs. A few months later, I took an internship at a women’s-rights nonprofit. A few months after that, I started blogging for a site called Feministing. And the rest of my career has been shaped by my commitment to the issues I care about.
As I gear up to march on the capitol with hundreds of thousands of protesters again, on the surface it feels like we’re back where we started: Futilely screaming against another president with a disregard for the powerless, who was elected without a majority. I have no illusions that this year’s Women’s March on Washington will change Donald Trump’s beliefs about who is worthy of living in the United States, whose body parts have the right to remain un-grabbed, and who is deserving of access to safety-net programs. But I am certain that it will change the people who show up. We don’t just march to change policies. We march to change ourselves. The act of transforming our political beliefs into something concrete — a sign we carry, a message we shout — transforms us. I think I changed the moment I stepped on the bus to travel to Washington, when I decided there were some beliefs worth taking to the streets to defend.
Large-scale protests are a way to mark the evolution of our personal and collective politics. Although the 2004 protest was called, holistically, the “March for Women’s Lives,” the narrative was overwhelmingly focused on reproductive rights. The march was a sea of “Keep Abortion Legal” and “Stand Up for Choice” signs. I vividly recall seeing a giant stuffed-uterus puppet. My perspective on what constitutes a “women’s issue” has changed dramatically since then, and I’m not alone. This year’s women’s march is much broader than reproductive justice. In the first sentence of their mission statement, the organizers include “immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault.”
This intersectional focus has been tough for some white women to accept. Which, as a white woman who strongly supports an inclusive approach, is all the more reason for me to attend. I’m marching to create a counter-narrative: Not just to oppose Trump, but to stand apart from the majority of white women voters who cast their ballots for him. Indeed, I’m marching because I’m aware that I am not the most vulnerable to Trump’s policies. I’m a white, straight, documented citizen with the financial means to pay for basic health care out-of-pocket. Which means that I need an accountability system. I want to look around at the march, see that I’m not alone in wanting to strive for something better, and then actually follow through. “Exclaiming your resistance, while necessary, is insufficient,” writes Charles Blow in the New York Times. “You need to augment your outrage with actions that are affirming, behaviors that reinforce principles and values.” I think that marching can accomplish both of these things.
I recently dug out my stack of photos from 2004. Among those pictured are women who have undergone health crises and abortions and miscarriages and transitions and illnesses, and emerged stronger and more energized about their beliefs than they ever could have predicted. Among them are women who went on to devote their careers to ending domestic violence and fundraising for queer artists and teaching other women the art of self-care. They are friends who have helped hold me accountable to my own beliefs for more than a decade.
And there’s a photo of me. I’m hugging my best friend, who is wearing a matching shirt. We’re pressed against a crowd of women carrying signs, and the Washington Monument is visible against a gray sky behind us. I don’t look like an angry young activist, enraged at the loss of her rights and the futility of her street protest. I am grinning, and gazing slightly off-frame at what I can only assume is my future.