A Tale of Two Marches

A Tale of Two Marches

The streets of Washington were full of priests, pussy hats, and everything in between.


If you’ve never been to the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, you may not realize how religious it is. The anti-abortion movement has done a good job of presenting itself to the media as a non-sectarian just-folks movement of all kinds of people. Indeed, this year’s march was promoted with the slogan “Pro-Life is Pro-Science.” But January 18 was my third time attending the march as a reporter and, as far as I could tell, it was about 90 percent devout Catholic, with a sprinkling of Protestant fundamentalists and a dusting of unclassifiables.

As in previous years, thousands of high-school students were bused in from as far away as Missouri (that’s a 19-hour trip.) There were plenty of monks in rope-belted robes and lots and lots of priests. This year, I connected with the march at the rally only at its end point in front of the Supreme Court building, so I missed some favorite highlights from previous years, like the enormous tapestry of Jesus as a fetus and the wonder-working world-traveling oil painting of the Madonna. But I did see the men of the arch-reactionary American Society for the Defense of Tradition Family and Property stride by in their vaguely Ruritanian 16th-century regalia, holding on high their scarlet-and-gold banners. (Along with the rest of modern life, they oppose the theory of evolution and frankly state on their website that abortion is a religious issue, having not gotten the memo about science.).

The science memo also had failed to reach keynote speaker Ben Shapiro, who made headlines by announcing that he would not travel back in time to kill Baby Hitler, because Baby Hitler was a baby, and pro-lifers don’t kill babies. The solution to the problem, said Shapiro, would be to go back in time, remove Baby H from his family and give him to nicer people. It least now we know who’s to blame for World War II: Hitler’s parents.

I like to go to the March for Life and talk with people in the crowd, though, because it gets me out of my bubble and reminds me that even people with terrible ideas are not necessarily terrible people. So I was glad to meet Joseph Parker, pastor of the Turner Chapel AME Church in Greenwood, Mississippi, and his wife, who didn’t want to give me her name, two cheerful people who don’t think women have abortions because of poverty. “There’s always a way to take care of children,” Parker told me, noting, correctly, that poor women have been having babies since forever. Also, “there’s always a way to climb out of poverty,” so more help from government is not needed. All you need to do is pray and believe.

Since the poverty rate in Greenwood is 41 percent, either prayer doesn’t work, or the town must be a real hotbed of atheism, I didn’t say. I was a long way from the Upper West Side.

That was pretty much the way it went: extremely pleasant people eager to share their own facts. Young Adam from a Catholic youth group in Eureka, Missouri, told me that “the pro-life lifestyle” is summed up in the phrase “every person has a purpose.” What heart does not resound to that? When I asked about unwanted pregnancies, his friend Lena said, well, birth control is better than abortion, but Adam replied that “natural birth control” is all you need, and he’s learning all about it in his marriage-preparation class. (Note to self: Follow up with Adam in 10 years to find out how that challenging method is working out.)

I talked to a sixtysomething woman who had been evicted because she fed too many stray cats, and James Farrell and Emily Black from Scotland, who told me that Scotland had gone pro-choice because people are more materialist and selfish these days. When I asked her if she wanted abortion to be made illegal in Scotland, she replied, “I’d rather change people’s minds than the law.”

That is definitely not the official position of the March, but several people I met said much the same. “It’s a really nuanced conversation,” said Feleciea Benton, from Dallas. She was holding a large photo of her smiling 9-year-old daughter, who has Down syndrome and one hand missing all its fingers. Feleciea believes abortion will never be made illegal, “but people can be changed one person at a time.” A preacher’s daughter with degrees in musical theater and communications, she belongs to New Wave Feminists, which tries to put a hip, pro-woman spin on their anti-abortion politics.

Her friend Sarah Burke, a nursing student rocking shoulder-length green hair, is a member too: “The Republican party doesn’t do it for me,” she told me. “Donald Trump is the worst thing that has happened to the pro-life movement. People are saying things they never would have said five years ago.”

She was the only person I met who expressed disapproval of the president. As the whole world now knows thanks to the students of Covington Catholic, MAGA hats were much in evidence.

What makes the march so strange is that these conversations, in which ordinary people display at least some complexity, friendliness, humor, and willingness to engage, even if they have completely unfounded beliefs—churches can take care of all the poor, abstinence is the best birth control, the way to honor women’s equality is to force them into motherhood—take place against a background of loudly amplified harangues, exhortations, and tearful personal testimonies I swear I heard word for word in previous years. While I was having all these conversations, the women of Silent No More were loudly reciting the exact same tales of how the doctor at the filthy clinic held them down on the table after they said they changed their mind, and how abortion drove them to drugs and promiscuity and mental illness until they finally found Jesus.

The normality sits so oddly, too, with the many posters displaying a kind of religion-induced paranoia about ordinary life: “How many of my generation are MISSING?” “Who is missing from your family?”

Do these nice people really believe their mothers killed their nonexistent brothers and sisters?

I guess that’s no stranger than that the current hero of the pro-life movement that adores women and would never harm a baby, even baby Hitler, is a pussy grabber who puts children in cages.

The main story line for the third annual Women’s March in Washington, DC, was whether it would be as big as the first two. Cut to the finish: No, it wasn’t. Still, there were so many news reports of organizations dropping their sponsorship of the women’s march, donors bailing, cancelled marches and competing marches, so many interviews with women who were staying away because of charges of anti-Semitism aimed at co-leader Tamika Mallory, I was a bit surprised to arrive at Freedom Plaza around 9:30 am and find it packed.

Women had dusted off their pussy hats–yes, people still wear them, including me—and come from all over.

Patty and her daughter Sophie, for example, had flown from Orange County because they were just that mad. “They’re taking away babies at the border and people are behind their social media and they don’t give a crap.” Patty may look like a middle-aged middle-class matron, but she’s ready to roll: “There’s too much PC without action in California,” she told me. “Now you can’t say homeless, it has to be houseless.” Echoing one of the anti-abortion marchers I spoke to the day before, she concluded “we used to care about human welfare, now it’s all about yourself.”

Selena, who is studying for her master’s in public health in Chicago, was there with her friend Alyssa. Like many in the crowd, she had supported Bernie, but now she loves Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. How much did she think the drama around the leadership of the march mattered? “You’ve got to separate the political from the people,” she told me, by which I took her to mean that the ordinary women who came out for the march had their own issues and agendas and were not necessarily concerned with the leadership. As Katie from Gainesville, who had flown in with five friends, put it, “I don’t think the organization represents the movement. I’m here to fight for all my sisters.”

That’s how I see it too. The enormous energy of the first march poured into electoral groups like Indivisible, Sister District, Swing Left, and Resister Sisters. Those women were mocked by the hipster left as middle-aged suburban moms—resenting your mother apparently transcends politics—and it’s true that most of them had probably not read Marx since college, but what they did do was change America: taking back the house and swinging state legislatures and governorships across the country. They laid the groundwork for the #metoo movement. They revitalized and deepened the push for reproductive rights and connected those rights with racial and economic justice. Because of the march, women got involved in public life—and with one other—in ways they hadn’t been since the heyday of the women’s movement in the 1970s, and they show no sign of stopping. “Go ahead, underestimate me. This will be fun,” one hand-made poster read. “2020 is coming sooner than you think.”

I wish I better understood what’s gone on with the Women’s March leadership. I don’t fully grasp why the four original leaders are still there. They were brilliant at putting together that first march, but running an ongoing organization requires different skills, and knowing how to handle tough questions and unfriendly media is certainly on the list.

It says something that almost a whole year after her initial tweets praising the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, each time Tamika Mallory insists she’s not anti-Semitic, she seems to dig a deeper hole for herself and the march. Why is there all this drama, this focus on personalities? If it’s a grassroots movement, as Rebecca Traister has eloquently written, why do the leaders make it all about them?

The Women’s March has just announced the creation of a 32-member advisory board, which includes three Jewish women: one trans woman and two Jews of color. Tablet has already published an article by Lizzie Skurnick critiquing the march leaders’ use of the term “white Jews”: “the women’s march is suggesting that to be a full fledged member of their movement, you have to possess some other virtue that makes your progressive creds legit,” Skurnick wrote.

I wonder if Debbie, a middle-aged woman from the DC suburbs, will be sufficiently reassured that this new committee represents her. On Saturday, she held a hand-made sign reading “Women’s March” with an arrow pointing up, and “Anti-Semitism” with an arrow pointing down. Most of her congregation, she told me, had decided to stay away.

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