We couldn’t move. So many people crowded the National Mall from end to end—and the avenues that flank it were equally packed—that going anywhere was impossible. Among my strongest memories of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., is how the space was so full of protesters that the march couldn’t actually march. It was exhilarating.
The Women’s March was the single largest demonstration in the capital’s history, with over 500,000 people in attendance. It came together in record time for a protest of its size: The January 21 event went from a series of unrelated Facebook events posted the day after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election to a coordinated coalition effort to a global mobilization, all executed at lightning speed. It also evolved from an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class, cisgender project to one formally committed to intersectional analysis and led by a racially diverse group of co-chairs, though problems of white privilege and bias continued to surface.
The actual scale of the 2017 Women’s March was even bigger than the impressive numbers in Washington. Parallel demonstrations, where additional hundreds of thousands of people gathered, took place in cities across the United States. The protest—of Donald Trump’s blatant misogyny and history of sexual assault—was also picked up internationally, with protests on all seven continents. Yes, including Antarctica.
Measuring the Impact
The march wasn’t organized around a specific agenda or legislative program, so there is no easy way to gauge its success in relation to a list of demands. But a narrow focus on particular demands is not the best way to measure the impact of large Washington demonstrations anyway, which have become a regular feature of American political life; they rarely result in concrete concessions. They can, however, influence politics in numerous other ways, such as shifting the terms of debate. Organizer and movement journalist L.A. Kauffman notes that “sometimes the most consequential way a mass protest can work is by changing the protesters themselves, giving them the taste of collective power they need to stay in the fight.”
Something like this happened with the Women’s March. While originating as a feminist response to Trump’s vulgar and violent sexism, the march was also the opening salvo of the anti-Trump protests that seemed to go on nonstop in the first year of his presidency. The “Penguins for Peace” and “Seals for Science” signs at the Antarctica Women’s March signaled that this broader agenda was present from the outset. Mrinalini Chakraborty, head of field operations and strategy for the march, put it this way: “Our goal was … to turn the fear and desolation that people felt as a result of the elections into direct, positive action that makes a statement: We will not normalize the toxic, divisive rhetoric of the election cycle, and we vow to do everything in our power and come together as a global movement to stand up for and protect the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.”
That vow was put to an almost immediate test. A week after the march, Trump issued the “Muslim ban” Executive Order. And sure enough, among the thousands of people who descended on John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and other airports across the country in response, some were newly mobilized and reenergized activists who had been at the Women’s March a week earlier. No studies have analyzed the impact of the January 21 march on turnout at the Muslim ban protests or subsequent demonstrations, but anecdotal evidence abounds that it helped feed the wave of resistance that dominated the early political response to Trump’s presidency.
The Women’s March had an even more pronounced impact on electoral politics. By all accounts, it contributed to increased voter turnout, record numbers of women running for office, and, in 2018, the largest-ever number of women elected to Congress.
High Points and Pitfalls
The organizing infrastructure for the Women’s March morphed from an impromptu mobilization into a full-fledged nonprofit. While most of those activated through the initial march took their energy into new or existing ventures not formally connected to the march—from party politics to labor organizing—others continued working under the Women’s March banner. The Women’s March continues now as an organization, with staff, a board, a budget, projects and initiatives, a website, and social media channels. The march’s long-range impact is measured by the efforts stemming from this entity in addition to those flowing from the energy unleashed by the initial organizing effort and event.
Women’s March, the organization, has worked to get out the vote, train activists and organize in defense of abortion rights, among other things. Most visibly, the Women’s March was a major player in the protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the court—in the face of significant, credible evidence of a history of sexual violence as well as the display of a character of intemperance on live TV—is emblematic of the immense challenges that progressive feminist activists, whether affiliated with the Women’s March or otherwise, face in this era of hostility to women’s rights. The same can be said for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which of course the Women’s March and so many others tried to prevent with countless actions.
Added to these setbacks is the ongoing challenge of genuine intersectional commitment. The long shadow of white (supremacist) feminism has dogged the Women’s March throughout its history. It is clear in the movement’s lack of focus on the appalling Black maternal death rate in the U.S. And a similar indifference is clear in the absence of Women’s March protests aimed at the Biden administration and devastating bipartisan policies like denying asylum to immigrants and increasing police budgets. Issues of bias and antisemitism along with a lack of intentional inclusiveness have also shadowed the march from the beginning.
Fighting Futility and Defending Democracy
“The biggest threat to sustained activism,” Christina Cauterucci said in a Slate analysis on the fifth anniversary of the Women’s March, is “a feeling of futility, because the political landscape sucks.” Despite its shortcomings, Cauterucci argues—and the evidence supports—that the Women’s March permanently mobilized hundreds of thousands and gave them a taste of the power of collective action. It provided that intangible ingredient of democracy: hope.
In an era where even the most elemental feature of democracy, popular elections, is under direct attack through disinformation, voter suppression and armed intimidation, another legacy of the Women’s March is as a democratic model of resistance. On January 21, 2017, half a million people in Washington, D.C., did not deny the results of the 2016 election—even though Donald Trump lost the popular vote—or violently storm the Capitol to overturn it. They marched (or tried to, in the crowded capital) to demonstrate the power of the people. That lesson continues to serve as a North Star for all those fighting for justice in the United States.
When teaching or talking to young people about the Women’s March, it is important to acknowledge and place it in the context of a global women’s movement that is ongoing. The rights and lives of women are under attack, across our country and across the globe. From transgender girls being denied health care in Florida to women being denied education and autonomy in Afghanistan, the resistance and solidarity modeled by the millions of participants in the Women’s March is needed now more than ever.
The Women’s March and the subsequent activism it inspired have an important role to play in highlighting the precarious position of women’s autonomy and human rights, worldwide. By helping young people understand the impact of the march, we can begin building the solidarity necessary to create a more intersectional and global women’s movement.