women's march 2017

Strength in Numbers: Marching on Washington With Planned Parenthood

Marcella Tillett, vice-president of Project Street Beat at Planned Parenthood of NYC. Photo: Dayna Evans

Midday Saturday, when the Planned Parenthood buses arrived in D.C., the Washington Monument was shrouded in a fog that cut it off midway to the tip. Mother Nature had done a coy job of concealing the city’s foremost phallic landmark on the day of the Women’s March on Washington — you could almost forget it was there.

Planned Parenthood had chartered three buses to the march, which set out from the organization’s Manhattan headquarters at 4:30 a.m., carrying 150 supporters. They’d make the return trip just 12 hours later. Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, was scheduled to speak at 10 a.m. before a united “sea of pink” — though, with the traffic getting into the city and the crowds in attendance, getting anywhere close to the stage was a challenge even for members of the organization’s own fleet. “Today we’re here to deliver a message,” Richards said. “We’re not going to take this lying down.”

The men and women onboard the PPNYC bus (more women than men, by far) were decked out in pink hats embroidered with the “PP” logo. They were also energetic and galvanized to fight back, following Paul Ryan’s announcement that legislation to repeal Obamacare would mean the loss of $500 million in federal funding. Marcella Tillett, the vice-president of Project Street Beat at PPNYC, a community outreach program, wore a leather jacket with the Marilyn Minter slogan, “Don’t fuck with us, don’t fuck without us.” (A friend at a place called Tagoe’s Closet had made it for her.) There were three women who had come down on behalf of GLAAD, a delegation from the Shout Your Abortion movement, and several various others who had boarded the buses as supporters of the organization only. “The reason I’m here is to keep up the momentum,” one told me, wearing a PP scarf. When the buses docked at RFK Stadium, the groups split up and took off on foot for the two-mile walk toward the march. Though there was a great deal of excitement among the 150 people who had come down with the NYC affiliate, it felt like business as usual.

This wasn’t their first time marching, and it wouldn’t be their last.

“In a world where there is no ACA anymore and people can’t use their Medicaid dollars at our health centers, there would be a huge gap in health services for women and girls that would be palpably felt,” Planned Parenthood of NYC Action Fund board member Lisa Rubin told me on the walk over to Capitol Hill. “I really think that there is strength in numbers.” At that point, around noon, we didn’t yet know what the day’s numbers would be — still, the scale was hard to miss. Each turn around a new corner brought a fresh sense of the crowd’s breadth, and its crackling energy. During one fairly popular call-and-response — Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like! — a female guard smiled as we walked past. “It looks happy!” she said. On several occasions, people in the crowd started cheering when they spotted the marchers from Planned Parenthood in their magenta beanies, pink-and-white scarves, and “Care. No Matter What” pins.

Looking around at the people who had come along to fight (and their impressive signs), Rubin added, “I want the folks who govern this country to see a broad mosaic of women, children, husbands, and partners here supporting the issues that matter most to women, and understanding that it’s not just one issue. Women feel ignored.” The army who turned out to march — 10,000 of them in D.C. on behalf of Planned Parenthood — were a sign that women wouldn’t quietly accept it. So was the fact that, in the six weeks following the election, Planned Parenthood received 300,000 individual donations, which is 40 times their normal rate.

Even greater numbers of PP staff, volunteers, and supporters came from around the country to populate the women’s march in D.C. (and in their own cities, as well): For them, the organization’s survival was an urgent priority. If the Obamacare repeal goes as planned, stripping the organization of its federal funding could cripple health-care access for the 2.8 million nationwide who rely on Planned Parenthood for affordable reproductive health care, 79 percent of whom are below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. What frustrates staff at PP most is that so few people even know what their funding does or where it goes. Rebbeca Donn, a nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood for 13 years, said people often react with surprise when she says who her employer is. “Have you ever been to a doctor’s office? Picture going to a doctor’s office and asking them about your health. That’s what I do.” That misunderstanding — that Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider only — is what continues to fuel conservatives’ fight to defund it.

“I do well exams, breast exams, Pap smears. I test for sexually transmitted infections. I do a lot of counseling on contraception. I do IUD insertions. I do medication-abortion services. I perform the whole range of services, but those are just the things that I do when I’m in the clinic,” Donn told me, explaining her work. “I also have a job doing quality management, where I do audits, I train providers. People take what they do at Planned Parenthood so seriously. If you go to any Planned Parenthood around the country, you’re going to get the same care. Especially in the states where there is a lot of adversity, they really care about this mission. They’re not there just as a job. They want to be there.”

“I’ve been calloused enough to the constant attacks on Planned Parenthood that I had anticipated the recent Paul Ryan news,” said Sophie Wheelock, a 23-year-old Planned Parenthood of New York City recovery room volunteer, describing her reaction to the prospective loss in funding. “We are going to keep doing what we do. What’s another punch? We’re exceptionally resilient people.”

In times of high emotion and turmoil, numbers like “$500 million in federal funding” can feel dauntingly abstract. Maybe numbers stopped making sense on the night of the election, when the TV pundits started doing mathematical gymnastics as the results came in, trying to square the numbers in the Electoral College with the polls and the expectations and the popular vote. I remember grieving that no matter what, the facts — the numbers — remained.

Immediately after the election, we talked about numbers that tallied things like the cost of a recount ($5 million), the size of Clinton’s win in the popular vote (2,864,974), the stark reality of racial divisions (53 percent of white women voting for Trump). But with each new day, it was easier to get overwhelmed — completely spun around — by the numbers. Even the numbers we liked and thought were galvanizing — the way America really voted, the new administration’s absurd combined net worth — could be rendered useless. Trump, it was easy to feel, could drown it all out by shouting that he had CREATED 10 BILLION JOBS or whatever else he felt like.

Estimates have now put the numbers at the march on D.C. at over 500,000 people, which triples the number of people who were said to have been in attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration the day before. Nationwide, the estimates for the Women’s March have come in at around 3 million people. At the rally, dozens of signs presented the number 45 (as in the 45th president) with an asterisk next to it: His presidency had been won through tainted circumstances.

Dennis Barton, a 65-year-old part-time parent educator at Planned Parenthood of New York City who was born and raised in the South Bronx, affirmed that the numbers are what matters — and on Saturday, they were neither abstract nor deniable. “Just look around you,” he said, gesturing to the crowds of people. If this many people would fight for women’s rights today, he said, the opposition has their work cut out for them. “This is a united front.”

Participating in the march was a reminder of the resilience, the comfort, and the safety in numbers. The Washington Monument looked like an oddly lonely structure, solitary as it towered over the throngs of people who had gathered to protest one man. On Saturday, the numbers appeared to be overwhelmingly on their side. To the Planned Parenthood supporters who marched steadfastly with the crowd, $500 million was nothing compared to the over 2 million people nationwide they served, and the many more who supported their mission.

“I know that there will be several very hard years ahead of us,” Wheelock had said to me earlier that day. “But I’m here to gain energy. This, to me, is only day one.”

Here’s What It Was Like to March With Planned Parenthood