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Boomer Women on Their March on Washington

Some brought memories; others brought families

By Rebecca Theim

What began as post-presidential election despair felt by a retired Hawaii attorney and grandmother erupted Saturday into an international display of solidarity by women that drew more than 4.6 million to some 670 gatherings in the United States and countries around the world.

Women's March on Washington
Credit: PBS | Bryan Woolston / REUTERS

The centerpiece — the Women’s March on Washington — took place along a section of Friday’s presidential inauguration parade route. (A PBS To the Contrary segment, filmed before the event, appears below.) An estimated 600,000 drove, bused, took trains, walked, biked and flew to that event, so many that a formal march never occurred because the route was jammed from beginning to end. Boomer and Gen X women represented a significant portion of the massive throng, many bringing with them memories of protests past as well as younger family members.

“It was just very, very heartening to see that many people come out,” said Jane Miller, 67, who traveled from Louisville, Ky., to rendezvous with a lifelong girlfriend from Charleston, W. Va. “I’m past needing all of this, but my four granddaughters aren’t.”

Although politically aware, Charla Smith, a 47-year-old mother of four, had never been politically active until she heard some of the more controversial utterances by then-candidate Donald Trump during the 18-month presidential campaign.

At the top of her list: Trump’s disparagement of former POW Sen. John McCain and New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who has a physical disability. Smith, a registered Republican, is the wife of a career military serviceman who has completed three tours of duty in Iraq and the mother of two disabled children. “Our military service men and women and my disabled children deserve the respect of their president,” said Smith, who carpooled with four other women from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia to participate in the march.

Trump the Catalyst, Not the Endgame

While Trump’s words during the campaign were the initial impetus for Women’s March creator Teresa Shook and many protesters, the day grew to focus on far more than a single politician, Smith and other attendees said.

“The media kept referring to this as an ‘anti-Trump’ and ‘pro-choice’ march. It was so much more than that,” said artist Kathleen Sullivan, 58, who traveled from Comfort, Texas (pop. 2,363), to participate. “It wasn’t an event. It was a beginning of a process,” she added.

After years of attending protests with her feminist pioneer mother, Judy, who will turn 80 this year, before the March on Washington, Sullivan said, she “had put the whole feminist thing on the shelf for a while because I didn’t want to stay that pissed off.”

A Sea of Homemade Signs and Pink Hats

Clever, crude and creative signs were the props of the day, ranging from ones featuring elaborate drawings of women’s reproductive organs to quips such as “Melania: Blink Twice if You Need Help,” referring to the country’s new first lady, Melania Trump.

The crowd was dominated by large swatches of pink. Thousands of women (and even some men) donned knitted pink hats featuring cat ears, a symbolic rip on the infamous Trump comment leaked during the campaign in which he used a crude term referring to women’s genitalia. “I couldn’t believe how many pink hats — pussy hats — there were,” said Mason Hoeller, 54, a recreational hike leader from Basking Ridge, N.J.

The March on Washington also served to renew, and create, friendships.

Hoeller stayed with former college roommate Sally Erickson, 55, a contracts attorney with an international consulting firm who lives in the Washington suburbs and who she hadn’t seen since college. The two marched with a friend of Hoeller’s who also made the trip from New Jersey: Marge Greene, 58. They were joined by Miller and her West Virginia pal, along with the friend’s cousin, Jill Martinez, 63, who hosted the two in her family’s suburban Washington home.


Mothers and Daughters Marching

Nurse practitioner Caitlin Burchfield traveled from San Francisco to participate in the march with her mother, Ellen Bascom, 58, a crisis counselor from Chesapeake, Va.

“My mom called and said if I didn’t participate, I’d regret it for the rest of my life,” said Burchfield, whose husband, 27-year-old civil engineer Ethan Heil, remained home and participated in a local march.

Diverse Organizers, but Mostly White Marchers

Seasoned organizers who took over Shook’s initial idea for the march recruited a racially, ethnically, demographically and religiously diverse organizing committee and performance roster. It included feminist icon Gloria Steinem, independent filmmaker Michael Moore, CNN political commentator and strategist Van Jones, actresses and musicians Madonna, Ashley Judd, Janelle Monáe, Alicia Keyes and America Ferrera and 6-year-old immigrant rights activist Sophie Cruz.

“This is about our country,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), 48, an Asian-American retired military helicopter pilot who lost her legs and had her right arm damaged in an Iraqi combat mission. “I didn’t shed blood to defend this nation—I didn’t give up literally parts of my body — to have the Constitution trampled on. They’re not going to roll back the Americans with Disabilities Act, because without the ADA, I would not be here today.”

The throngs of attendees, however, were largely white, although the crowd grew more diverse as the day unfolded. “Masses of white American feminism here today,” New Orleans tavern owner Polly Watts, 51, who is white, commented on Facebook after attending the march with a Louisiana friend. “Encouraging and discouraging in equal measure.”

But Sullivan said she was encouraged by the sheer size and the ethnic and gender diversity, especially when compared to earlier marches she had participated in with her mother. “It was much bigger than I thought it would be, much more diverse and there were many more men than I expected,” Sullivan said. “We weren’t a fringe anymore. We’ve arrived.”

A PBS 'To the Contrary' segment about plans for the Women's March on Washington

Rebecca Theim is a former daily news reporter and periodic freelance writer. Read More
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