“Everything we’ve been doing has been leading up to this,” said Caitlin Breedlove, deputy executive director of organizational advancement for the Women’s March. “We’re not only in resistance. We’re actually fighting for what we need to build.”
The march is taking place days before the Senate holds its first vote to confirm Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal leader and feminist icon. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on the nomination of Barrett, who would cement the conservative advantage on the court. The Republican majority is expected to approve the nomination.
By 11 a.m. Saturday, several hundred people had gathered at Freedom Plaza ahead of a noon rally urging women to vote and calling on Congress to suspend the Supreme Court confirmation process. After the rally, participants plan to march southeast along Pennsylvania Avenue NW and then Constitution Avenue NW to the Supreme Court.
Amid the protesters decked out in bright pink hats and bejeweled face masks, 7-year-old twins Harriet and Myles Gilliam of Boston sat stoically next to their mother. Harriet, who was dressed as Ginsburg, complete with lace collar, was taking part in her third Women’s March. Myles was dressed in a suit and held a sign that resembled the one held by the late congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) in his iconic 1961 mug shot taken after he was arrested for using a bathroom reserved for White people in Mississippi.
“You can use social media all you want, but there’s something to be said about showing up,” said Justina Gilliam, 40, who said she had attended every Women’s March in Washington.
This year’s event has an urgency akin to the first one, she said. “There’s a desperation to it.”
A group of a dozen women dressed as handmaidens, with red dresses and white bonnets, lined up in a row with signs hanging from their necks with the words “Trump Pence OUT NOW!”
The costumes were a reference to Barrett’s leadership role in the Christian group People of Praise, a position that had been called “handmaiden” until 2017 when “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, was adapted for TV and the term was associated with women subjugated by men.
A few feet away, Kelsey Weir, a 29-year-old artist from southern New Jersey, held a sign with the words “W.A.P.: Women Against the Patriarchy.”
Weir said she feels terrified about the years ahead, especially with Barrett on the Supreme Court. She said she felt it was her duty as a citizen to march. “Women are threatened in a world where a Christian theocracy is threatening to take over,” she said, pointing to the women in handmaiden costumes. “This is the crisis for our world. The next few weeks are going to decide so many things for women.”
Protesters plan to wrap around the U.S. Capitol and end the march on the Mall, where a smaller group of demonstrators will take part in a text-a-thon event to urge women across the country to vote. Thousands of Women’s March volunteers have already texted more than 4 million female voters and aim to send 5 million texts Saturday, according to the group.
At the same time, a counterprotest organized by a conservative women’s organization will also take place at the Supreme Court. An “I’m With Her” rally in support of Barrett and organized by the Independent Women’s Forum is scheduled for 1 p.m. to send the message that the Women’s March participants “do not speak for all women.” The counterprotest is expected to be smaller than the Women’s March.
Several D.C. streets prohibited parking, while others closed Saturday for the events, which started at 11 a.m. and are expected to end about 5 p.m.
Each year since pink-hatted women first flooded the nation’s capital the day after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Women’s March has organized marches in January nationwide, promoting a list of policy demands and helping motivate women to run for office in record numbers. But the marches in recent years have drawn much smaller crowds than the first historic showing. The national organization has at times struggled to remain relevant, as scores of its initial attendees have redirected their attention toward other causes.
At the most recent Women’s March in January, some attendees said they hoped they wouldn’t need to march again following the 2020 election.
But last month, “the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reset the whole country,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March.
The group’s organizers quickly planned hundreds of marches, both virtual and in-person, focused primarily on voting rights and the Supreme Court confirmation process.
“We didn’t want to drain any energy from the election process,” Breedlove said. “We actually wanted to help harness the power of the women we work with.”
The march comes amid an economic recession that has fallen especially hard on women of color and mothers, a Supreme Court nomination that many fear threatens the reproductive rights of women, and a presidential election that could be decided in large part by women. Former vice president Joe Biden holds a 23 percentage point advantage over Trump among female likely voters (59 percent to 36 percent), according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Meanwhile, Trump and Biden split men, with 48 percent each.
The gender gap is even bigger in the suburbs, where women favor Biden by 62 percent to 34 percent, according to the poll. Men in the suburbs lean toward Trump, with 54 percent supporting his reelection, while 43 percent back Biden.
The initial Women’s March brought scores of these suburban women to the streets, including many who had never previously attended a protest. But concerns about coronavirus cases, which are rising again in many states, might lead to a much lower turnout this year, especially given the relatively older demographic of the Women’s March base.
The average age of those who attended the first Women’s March in 2017 was 43, according to Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland professor who studies protest movements. Meanwhile, the average age at the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer was more than 10 years younger.
Women’s March leaders say they are hoping for a smaller crowd in D.C. because of social distancing concerns. Unlike previous years, organizers are discouraging participants from traveling to D.C. from states that are on the self-quarantine list and are not involved in organizing buses to come from other cities. Instead, they encourage supporters to attend local marches or to get involved with its text-a-thon efforts, O’Leary Carmona said. In D.C., LED screens will be placed around the area to encourage mask-wearing and social distancing.
The women marching Saturday have an almost singular focus on voting Trump out of office. But even if Biden wins the election, Women’s March organizers say, they will continue to play a role in energizing women to get involved in activism and politics.
“The need for that is not going to end after this election . . . because it’s a correction that needs to happen in politics in the United States,” Breedlove said. “There needs to be some organization for women that says, ‘Come as you are. . . . There’s a place for you.’ ”