Over 400 New Mexicans were among the estimated 1.15 million people who converged on Washington, D.C., for the April 25 March for Women's Lives. Although there was no consensus on the number of participants, organizers are saying it was the largest ever, not only for women's rights, but for any cause. Some New Mexicans traveled to the national capital independently, others went in groups organized by the seven official sponsors of the march. NARAL Pro-Choice New Mexico put together its own coalition of supporters and organized the high-profile presence of a group of pro-choice politicos. Among them were Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, Jill Cooper Udall (wife of Congressman Tom Udall), State Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero and his wife Margie Lockwood, and Bobbi Baca, wife of former mayor Jim Baca. Not surprisingly, march organizers had, in general, attempted to include as many high-profile government officials (Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright), Hollywood luminaries (Whoopie Goldberg, Ashley Judd) and veterans of the women's movement (70-year-old Gloria Steinem) as they possibly could.
As a D.C. native and veteran of a half-dozen political marches over the past 15 years, I can say this was definitely the biggest, calmest and most focused I've attended. At 11 a.m., an hour before the scheduled start of the march, the crowd assembled on the National Mall was swelling at an alarming rate but spirits were high and hassles kept at a minimum. Participants were buoyed by their own numbers but uniformly outraged at President Bush. A succession of speakers addressed the vast assembly over powerful speakers and giant video monitors, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of woohoo-ing before the swollen sea of marchers began to seep out onto Constitution Avenue.
Along the route, demonstrators for the opposing viewpoint were few and far between, but it was impossible to ignore a series of huge signs, held by a group of about a dozen young men, showing what they claimed were aborted fetuses and suggesting a link between abortion rights and Nazism. But the marchers also noticed something else and a chant rose from the crowd: "Where are the women?! Where are the women?!"
Anti-abortion groups are often criticized because their leaders are almost all men. There were perhaps more men among the marchers than one would have expected but they were a minority, there in support of their mothers, daughters, girlfriends and wives. Notably present were former presidential candidate Howard Dean, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, media mogul Ted Turner, Julian Bond of the NAACP and Anthony D. Romero from the ACLU.
Members of John Kerry's family marched, but he did not. The Republican Pro-Choice coalition, which includes members of Congress, were also present.
There was a noticeable effort among organizers to promote the number of young people who had turned out for the cause. One speaker proudly claimed that a quarter of the crowd was aged 15 or younger. It's hard to imagine how they made that calculation but looking around it seemed hard to disagree. Speaking at the post-march rally, Gloria Steinem told the men in the crowd that their presence had been noted and that in the upcoming feminist revolution they would be spared. Waves of laughter rolled through the crowd, by now seated on the grassy Mall.
But it seemed to underscore a crucial shift that has taken place since the '70s feminist movement. Having taken advantage of opportunities their mothers and grandmothers won for them, the younger generation seems less in pursuit of feminist revolution and more just disinclined to take orders from politicians, especially evangelical Christian politicians. It's hard to imagine that it's feminist revolution in particular that's on the minds of girls carrying signs that read "The Only Bush I Trust is My Own," crude drawings and dark brown faux-fur confirming the double-entendre. The younger women in the crowd, who didn't have to ask permission to get their navels pierced or their necks tattooed, probably don't approach the issue with the same feelings as their mothers—women who, just over 30 years ago, needed their husbands' written permission in order to have their own tubes tied.
"In the '70s women had to fight to gain rights, now we're fighting to keep them," says Giovanna Rossi of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Our big push has been to get younger women involved. We were excited to have such great diversity of younger and older women at the march." Her organization raised enough money to sponsor the travel expenses of 17 younger people from New Mexico (myself included). Rossi is counting on momentum gained from the march to propel pro-choice voters to the polls this fall.
NARAL Pro-Choice America is the only one of the seven march sponsors working full-time on abortion rights. The other organizers, the ACLU, National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood, Feminist Majority, Black Women's Health Imperative and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, each work on aspects of the official agenda: choice, justice, access, health, abortion, global and family planning. Speakers from these allied groups seemed to agree that abortion was the major issue of the day but sought to place it in context of the greater fight for women's rights.
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, warned, "They're not just after abortion rights. This is a full-throttle war on your very health—on your access to real sex education, birth control, medical privacy and life-saving research."
Many talked about the danger posed to women worldwide by the "global gag rule," a Bush administration policy preventing overseas health care providers who receive U.S. aid money from providing or even discussing abortion. Others railed against Bush's dogged promotion of abstinence-only sex-education initiatives and opposition to stem-cell research, demanding that religious ideology be removed from health-care policy. Chants of "Not the church, not the state, women will decide our fate!" were common during the day.
Larry Fahn, president of the Sierra Club, put his group's support in terms preserving the environment. His statements were reserved but the message was clear: There are too many of us on this planet to ignore population control and family planning. The ACLU's angle on the issue is privacy. Executive Director Anthony D. Romero explained that reproductive freedom is only one of the issues at stake since the federal government has granted itself sweeping surveillance powers over all citizens in the name of keeping the nation safe from terrorists. Alluding to the Patriot Act, he said, "The government does not belong in our bedrooms. It does not belong in our doctors' offices. It does not belong in the bank accounts of innocent Americans and should not have the power to monitor their e-mail or track their bookstore purchases or scrutinize the books they check out of local libraries."
In the midst of a deeply partisan election season, Romero's argument is telling. Abortion rights are usually most thoroughly supported by Democrats but activists are no-doubt hopeful that pro-choice-leaning Republicans and libertarians (who are inclined to oppose government intrusion in citizens' lives) will jump ship and vote against anti-choice candidates. One thing is sure: Abortion will be a hot-button issue this year. Pro-choice organizations are mobilizing their supporters in record numbers, hosting voter registration drives and planning get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Bush administration is sticking to its guns with a carefully charted strategy aimed at a distinct voting bloc. The very same steps that have women's rights activists marching in the streets are designed specifically to appeal to voters from the Christian right, a group the administration is intent on mobilizing in November. As the election season progresses, we can surely expect increasing vitriol from both sides. When Bush advisor Karen Hughes was asked to comment on the march, she invoked the fight against terrorism, saying that the major difference between "us" and the terrorists was that "we value every human life". Eleanor Smeal of NOW and other pro-choice leaders demanded an apology. None came.