At the March for Abortion Rights, a New Generation of Activists Takes Center Stage

At the March for Abortion Rights, a New Generation of Activists Takes Center Stage

At the March for Abortion Rights, a New Generation of Activists Takes Center Stage

The march felt like less a reaction to impending crisis and more the announcement of a rejuvenated feminist movement.


Anna stood backstage at Saturday’s Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C., one month into a near-total abortion ban in her home state of Texas. It was the biggest Women’s March in the nation’s capital since the first one, when the inauguration of President Trump inspired the largest day of protest in US history. The crowd of 20,000 filled a small plaza near the National Mall; in 2017, half a million people in pink pussy hats practically shut down the city. You could blame this on the Delta variant, or on burnout, or—as some activists have said both privately and publicly—on a sense that march organizers failed to adequately support or engage abortion funds and groups doing the work on the ground. Still, there were 660 marches across the country, a number similar to that in 2017, and 85 percent of the organizers of those events were new to the Women’s March, according to Executive Director Rachel O’Leary Carmona.

“The size that we’re talking about right now is pretty unprecedented, unless you’re comparing against our own numbers,” Carmona told me the day before the event.

But the person I want to tell you about is Anna.

“My story is going to be a doozy,” she says, as she waits her turn to speak. A poised 21-year-old in platform combat boots and round, wire-frame glasses, Anna is here with a contingent of activists from Texas that feels like a delegation from the future.

I say this not only because states elsewhere have moved to pass laws copying the near-total ban in Texas, or because, in less than two months, the Supreme Court with its new conservative majority will hear a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. If the court upends Roe, as many as 26 states are expected ban abortion, cutting off access to almost half of all women of reproductive age, and even more trans, and non-binary people who are able to get pregnant.

I want to tell you about Anna because compared to 2017, Saturday’s march felt to me less like a reaction to an impending crisis, and more like the national debut of a new generation of visionary feminist leaders—many of them young, many of them Black, or Asian, or Indigenous, or Latina, many of them queer, many of them from the South, many of them from Texas, in particular. Many of them who have had abortions. All of them unashamed of that fact.

“It’s OK to have abortions after some hot sex simply because you don’t want to be pregnant,” as Kenya Martin, an abortion storyteller with We Testify, put it.

In speeches that channeled a deep reserve of moral righteousness, the speakers whipped a crowd that had traveled from as far away as Wyoming, Ohio, and New York into such a frenzy of hopefulness that the march—coming amid what is, from a legal perspective, a historic low—felt remarkably like a celebration.

“Today, we put the entire world on notice that we will always fight,” the Rev. Erika Forbes of Just Texas said from the stage, raising a hand for emphasis, and stomping her platform sandal. “We will keep fighting until this hell freezes over, and then we will fight on the ice.”

“The last month in Texas has been a hell,” Forbes told me, minutes before taking to the stage alongside Anna. Forbes has had two abortions and is building a network of Texas clergy willing to declare their support for reproductive freedom. On September 1, the Supreme Court allowed Texas to ban abortion after embryonic cardiac activity can be detected and incentivize private citizens to sue anyone who helps a Texan get an abortion after that point. At midnight, when the law took effect, a 16-year-old girl texted Forbes for help.

“How am I going to navigate getting to another state when I couldn’t figure out how to get the bus to Fort Worth?” Forbes recalled her asking. Forbes told the girl to wait, then called upon her network of clergy, and found one who was willing to drive the young woman out of state.

Yes, she admits, after hesitating for a few beats, she has broken the law.

“And I knew that I would,” she told me. “Because I took a sacred vow that for me supersedes this law.”

Here is the other way the Texas delegation offered a glimpse of the future. Forged in the “hell” of a fight that began years ago, a cohort of leaders like Forbes and Anna have emerged onto the national stage to confront a challenge the contours of which have become clear to many only in the past month.

“The idea that Roe could be overturned is unfathomable,” said Cindy Wolfe Boynton, president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women, who traveled overnight on a train to reach D.C. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

But Texans like Anna have lived the unfathomable. The month she turned 17, Anna tried to get hormonal birth control, but couldn’t, because Texas law requires minors in most cases to get parental permission. After a condom broke while she was having sex, Anna went to buy emergency contraception, but the pharmacist refused to sell it to her because of her age. When she protested that it is supposed to be available to all ages without a prescription, the store threatened to call security. She eventually obtained EC, but feared it was too late to prevent pregnancy. Every day for weeks, Anna took a pregnancy test, until it showed up positive. Texas law requires parental permission for minors to get an abortion. Because her parents lived outside of the country, Anna had to ask a judge instead.

“I had to prove to the judge that I was a good student and mature enough to have an abortion,” she says from the stage. “Do you know what I wanted to say to the judge? I am not a baby-making machine and I should be able to decide if and when I become pregnant!”

The crowd cheers and claps, as Anna stands behind the plexiglass podium, flanked on either side by two fellow “Janes,” young people like her who had to navigate the weeks-long judicial bypass process. Anna’s gray sweatshirt, made by a team member at Jane’s Due Process, the legal group that helped her through the ordeal, reads “Jane Doe Academy.” It seems a fitting way to express how that experience forged her into a leader ready to meet this moment. The second wave of feminism was shaped by stories of women dying from illegal abortions, filling up septic wards in hospitals. Anna’s generation, the generation rising to power now, has been shaped by the cruelty of incrementalism, the quieter process of access disappearing law by law.

Anna looks out over a crowd that encompasses every generation, children and grandchildren, mothers and daughters. The marchers wave signs that read “Your reason is the right reason,” and, “Come for one, face us all.” Some have made their own signs paying tribute to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“Ruth sent us” and “This wouldn’t happen if Ruth was here!”) and condemning the Republican Party (“We need to talk about the elephant in the womb”). There are signs calling for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and for the protection of Roe. From the stage, the overwhelming message is one that looks ahead.

“I ache most deeply for a radical vision of the future,” Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, says. SisterSong was formed in the 1990s after a group of Black women coined the term reproductive justice to describe a sweeping vision of racial and economic rights that includes the right to parent and raise children safely. The reproductive justice movement coalesced during the Clinton era’s apologetic “safe, legal, and rare” approach to abortion, and has risen to provide the struggle for abortion rights with a vision that it has often lacked but sorely needs—that of a future worth fighting for.

“Look, y’all, this moment is dark,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says, wearing a pink blazer over a T-shirt that reads “Bans off my body.” She urges the crowd to “turn pain into power—the power to determine what happens to our bodies, what happens to our lives, and our futures, for every woman, every trans man, every nonbinary person, anyone who may ever need an abortion.”

Here, too, is a sense of the future, of what it will take to win—an understanding of the interconnectedness of abortion with racial injustice and LGBTQ rights.

“We all deserve that right to choose,” Schuyler Bailar, a swimmer, and the first openly transgender athlete to compete on an NCAA Division I men’s team, says, before leading the crowd in a chant: “Our bodies, our choice!”

There is a sense, too, of a majority beginning to understand its power. When anti-choice counter-protesters interrupt a faith gathering ahead of the march, the clergy drown out their chants with a rousing rendition of the Jewish song of praise, “Ashrei”: “I sing for what is holy and is true.” Standing between the counterprotesters with their bloody-fetus signs and the clergy is a line of young women in black leggings and matching backpacks that read “Mind your own uterus.”

“Drown it out! There’s more of us than them!” someone shouts, as the marchers clap, cheer, and close ranks to shield the faith leaders. That’s true in the national sense, too; 77 percent of Americans want Roe to remain in place, even as the Supreme Court appears poised to overrule that majority.

After the rally, the crowd moves onto the street to march the Supreme Court. At the very back, I meet a pair of marchers who seem to embody the steady determination it will take to face the years of struggle ahead.

Ramona Daily, 71, a retired hospital chaplain, wears her deacon’s stole as she marches down the closed-off avenue to the Supreme Court.

“I just wanted to come out and put my body out here to protest what’s going on in our country,” she says. She leans heavily with her forearms on a walker. Next to her, her daughter, Jasmin Carroll, holds a homemade collage with the words “My life, my choice” in block letters.

We fall further behind the march as we talk about the role of the church in the fight ahead. Behind us creeps a caravan of vehicles with their flashing lights. A line of police has gotten ahead of us. Marshals in their yellow vests hover. They offer to take Daily to the front of the march in an air-conditioned bus. Daily declines.

“I bought this so I could walk,” she says, referring to her walker. They offer again. She declines.

At one point, her daughter seems to get self-conscious about their place as the last people in the march. “We’re losing the race,” she says, but her mother presses on.

With the certainty of someone sure of her place in history, she says, “We’re not losing the race.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy