They drew inspiration from Princess Leia, “Hamilton,” and Leslie Knope, and Beyoncé’s “Sorry,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and the late Fred Rogers. They walked down to the Mall carrying signs that said “Three Doors Down Hasn’t Had a Hit in Ten Years,” “We Are The Granddaughters Of The Witches You Weren’t Able To Burn,” and arguing for universal health care and Black Lives Matter and the integrity of science. They chanted “Hands too small! Can’t build the wall!” They waltzed in the crowd to “A Change Is Gonna Come.” They drove Lexuses with “Run The World (Girls)” blaring out the windows, and they pushed themselves in wheelchairs.
In Washington, where hundreds of thousands of women gathered to protest Donald Trump’s young presidency and to show solidarity for causes ranging from keeping Planned Parenthood open to supporting protesters at Standing Rock, the Women’s March was a lot like the feminist Internet from which it sprang: huge, varied, pop culture literate, a little bit disorganized and hugely promising.
“Our opposition knows how to stick together,” actress America Ferrera told the crowd as the speaking program kicked off in Washington on Saturday morning. “If we fall into the trap of separating ourselves by our causes and our labels, then we all weaken our fight and we will lose.”
The four hours of speeches and musical performances that followed didn’t so much resolve the tensions that cropped up around the march, or the debates about tactics, strategy and inclusion that have been part of every wave of modern feminism.
Part of what’s come to define feminism, in fact, is that it’s the place where the left comes to debate issues and priorities and approaches. Does focusing on representation in pop culture matter, or is doing so just giving corporations another way to convince women that we can spend our way to equality? If women of color are looking to advance issues that are particular to their race, ethnicity or immigration status, will white women or men of color be more likely to show them solidarity? Is it easier to make progress on economic issues like pay equity, family leave and occupational safety by framing them as women’s and family issues, or by talking about class?
The strength of the Women’s March, at least as it played out in Washington, was that it demonstrated that women and the people who care about them don’t need to have agreed on the answers to these questions to mobilize together.
It was an event where Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D) could invoke God’s blessing on the same stage where Gloria Steinem talked about the Goddess. It was a march at which newly elected California Sen. Kamala Harris (D) could insist that “imperfect though we may be, I believe we are a great country,” and march national co-chair Tamika Mallory could warn the crowd that “this country has been hostile to its people for a long time. For some of us, it is new. For some of us it is not new at all.” One speaker urged the crowd to think of themselves as marching “even for the 53 percent of white women who voted for that other guy,” while co-chair Linda Sarsour suggested, “If you want to know if you’re going the right way, brothers and sisters, follow a woman of color.” Van Jones encouraged the crowd to reach out to conservatives and encouraged them to be their best selves, while Michael Moore insisted that “I’m sorry, but the old guard of the Democratic Party has to go.”
As logistics went, the sheer variety of voices and opinions on stage made for a program that lasted an hour and a half longer than planned, with periodic cries of “March!” emerging from the crowd, only to quiet for Alicia Keys and Janelle Monáe, who brought the Mothers of the Movement in an emotionally raw performance of her protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” But as a piece of politics, the decision to juxtapose just about everything that feminism can be on single stage and on a single day was a powerful reminder that a women’s movement doesn’t have to settle all of its internal debates, or choose a single set of goals, for sisterhood to be powerful.