Above the sea of bodies, signs and pink knitted “p—y hats” jostling for space a block from the Mall on Saturday, 22-year-old Aya Kantorovich stood on a riser holding a sign that read “Jewish women will never stop fighting for human rights.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this,” she shouted from her perch.
It was almost noon and it was unclear whether the Women’s March on Washington would end in an actual march or, swamped by its own size, stay put and be satisfied with a rally, speeches and its celebratory mood.
Debra Schultz, a professor of history at City University of New York who stayed with a friend in Baltimore the night before the march, saw a sign — similar to Kantorovich’s — that spoke to her, which said, “Jewish women have always been nasty,” referring, of course, to now-President Donald Trump’s comment during the campaign that Hillary Clinton was a “nasty woman.” Schultz specializes in the study of civil rights and women’s rights, particularly the role of Jewish people in both, and taking part in this movement, she said, was poignant.
“It felt to me like the fruition of all those decades of work,” she said. “There were so many citizens coming out to claim Washington, D.C., as their space and send a message.”
That message was intentionally — even aggressively — intersectional, addressing women’s rights, the environment, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, disability rights, immigrant rights, voting rights and the Affordable Care Act, and bringing an estimated 500,000 people to the nation’s capital on Jan. 21. The event, first a simple Facebook post-election lament, was organized in 11 weeks into a groundswell response to Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, the disabled and, front and center, women.
“I think I expected to feel angry, as I have been since the election, but I didn’t,” said Staci Wolfson, a Baltimore native. “I felt hopeful.”
Wolfson said she received some hateful comments on her Facebook and Instagram feeds about how those at the march were simply whining about the election result, but “that just misses the point entirely,” she said. In contrast, one of Wolfson’s favorite parts of the march was just the demonstrated kindness of all these relative strangers to each other.
It was clear, from the chants, the headgear and the signs that the founding text of this gathering — larger than Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, larger than the March on Washington for Soviet Jews in 1987 — was the 2005 tape recording in which Trump infamously said “grab them by the p—y.”
Trump dismissed the conversation as “locker-room banter,” but the half million attendees here weren’t buying it.
They filled the mall and spilled out from it like a river overflowing its banks. Demonstrators clogged the Metro stations, cars and platforms, where waves of shouts went up at intervals. From the corner of 4th Street NW and Madison Drive, the Jumbo Tron, broadcasting the speeches near the Capitol, looked like a distant star. Millions more marched in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and in other cities across the country and around the world.
The sister march in Baltimore drew about 5,000 people to Charles Village, including Congressman John Sarbanes, who had been in Washington that morning.
“Places like Baltimore, I think, are going to be really critical in terms of channeling people’s sentiment in a positive, productive way going forward,” he said. “Civic engagement is at the heart of our democracy and it starts with these kinds of gatherings.”
About 200 organizations partnered with the Washington march, including the National Council for Jewish Women, which was involved early in the planning and drew at least a thousand participants. The Reform movement, while not formally affiliated with the march, also drew more than a thousand participants, according to JTA.
Other Jewish groups represented at the march included Jewish Women International, Bend the Arc, Jews United for Justice and T’ruah. Jewish Women International, Jews United for Justice and T’ruah also sponsored a Friday night service at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue downtown.
Molly Amster, Baltimore director for JUFJ, which organized two buses to attend the march, said it was the beginning of the organization engaging in both federal and local issues, as opposed to its typically localized approach in previous years.
“I think the march, while it doesn’t change anything, was an important statement refuting the normalization of hate,” she said. “And making a statement against the policies the new administration has said they will implement, which are really objectionable.”
For many Jews who attended the march, including Rabbi John Franken of Bolton Street Synagogue, it felt like an extension of their Judaism. Franken, who wore his tallit while marching, called the experience a “really, tremendously powerful, moving day,” and said he was reminded of the quote by noted Rabbi Abraham Heschel that, when he marched for civil rights in Selma, “I felt my legs were praying.”
Despite the march not marching much due to the huge number of people or that he couldn’t hear any of the speakers, Franken said the importance of the day was felt.
“It didn’t matter,” he said. “What really mattered was the patriotic outpouring of Americans who came there to make a statement of what they think the country stands for.”
The long roster of speakers included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder and senior rabbi of the Ikar community in Los Angeles; and Gloria Steinem, the feminist writer, activist and organizer, who said, “And remember the Constitution does not begin with ‘I, the president.’ It begins with ‘We, the people.’”
“If you force Muslims to register, we will all register as Muslims,” she said.
The presence of Muslim civil rights activist Linda Sarsour as a march organizer led to criticism from the right.
Jody Rabhan, the National Council for Jewish Women’s director of Washington operations, said that before NCJW became involved, it “asked lots of questions about the rally’s messaging, signage, speakers and security.”
Some of those questions were to Sarsour, a Palestinian American. “Linda could not have been more open with our questioning,” Rabhan said. In her speech, she said “nothing to do with Israel or anything that would give a Jewish group pause.”
After noon, the marching began spontaneously. Marchers filled Madison Drive and Jefferson Drive in the direction of the Washington Monument. A group of students chanted, “We believe in science.” Others shouted, “This is what democracy looks like.”
Other marchers reached Pennsylvania Avenue and poured in the direction of the White House. When they passed the Trump International Hotel, they booed, and the chants of “shame, shame” ricocheted off its granite walls.
Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.