As president of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life group based in Texas, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at the site of the Women’s March on Washington at 7:30 AM on Saturday--but she was prepared for the worst. She anticipated a verbal altercation, or maybe even a fist in her face.
New Wave Feminists had been accepted as official partners by the March’s organizers on Friday, January 13, then were removed from the list and website a few days later: there had been a backlash in response to an article in The Atlantic reporting their involvement.
Many prospective attendees and affiliates didn’t think anti-choice advocates deserved a seat at the table. After all, one of the March’s “unity principles” was “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people.”
Still, the purpose of the march was to affirm support for a variety of issues and minority groups that had been targeted during Trump’s campaign: the Affordable Care Act, Black Lives Matter, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and illegal immigrants, among others.
The march’s overarching message was that “women’s rights are human rights,” and organizers vowed that no group would be excluded.
So it seemed hypocritical to some pro-lifers when organizers disassociated with New Wave Feminists and, in a statement, insisted that the “Women’s March platform is pro-choice and that has been our stance from day one.”
Many pro-life groups, including New Wave Feminists, remained determined to attend the march, hoping to stand in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of women on issues where they had common ground, like paid maternity leave, the wage gap, women’s access to healthcare, violence against women, and rape culture.
Abby Johnson, who worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas for eight years before she converted to the pro-life movement, was anxious about attending.
Planned Parenthood was the march’s biggest sponsor, and Johnson had not left the organization on terrific terms.
She’d claimed at the time--and stands by her claim to this day--that she’d had a moral crisis when she witnessed the termination of a 13-week fetus.
Shortly after she left in 2009, she went to one of Planned Parenthood’s biggest foes, the Coalition For Life, seeking help finding a new job. Planned Parenthood responded by seeking an injunction in court to prevent Johnson from exposing confidential information about the organization.
When Johnson called out on Twitter the organizers’ hypocrisy in excluding groups like pro-lifers after vowing to be inclusive of everyone, she said one user threatened her. “She replied, ‘Don’t come to the Women’s March. The Women’s March wants you dead,” Johnson, 36, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Friday night.
Johnson runs a charity designed to help abortion clinic workers find other jobs, and also works for Obria Medical Clinics and The Guiding Star Project, which provide women with healthcare options like treatment for STDs, prenatal care, and family planning--everything but birth control options and abortion services.
“There are certainly a lot more issues beyond abortion that are concerning to me as a woman,” Johnson said, citing pay inequality, domestic violence, the sex-trafficking industry, the stigma against breastfeeding in public, and postpartum depression. “There are probably issues of commonality among all of the groups there, so for the organizers to be divisive and exclusionary based on one issue is frustrating.”
Marchers on Saturday had mixed feelings about whether or not pro-lifers should be there. Many thought that they had a right to participate, but understood why the organizers decided not to officially partner with them.
“I think that we all need to talk to each other, but there’s a big difference between sponsoring the march and participating in it,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, Director of Legal Advocacy for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, an organization that represents and defends the rights of pregnant women, whether they decide to end their pregnancies or carry them to term.
“All I care about is that people aren’t going to deny me my human rights,” said Rosenbloom, who had come with a dozen or so other women from her organization.
It was around 3:00 PM, and marchers were finally on the move after being trapped in a crush of people.
Up until that point, it had been more of a claustrophobic stand-in than a march, with throngs of people stretching the length of the Mall and clogging the surrounding streets, either immobile or inching along in no particular direction.
Hundreds of thousands of women carried colorful signs alluding to reproductive rights. “My body my choice,” one read. “Our pussies are not up for grabs, neither are our rights!” went another. “My little pussy, not yours!” “You wouldn’t try to regulate my vagina if it fired bullets!” “If abortions are murder than blowjobs are cannibalism!”
A coat hanger spattered with blood was painted on a large white sheet. “Not going back, we stand with PP!” it read.
Caitlin Bargmann from New Jersey held up one end of the 6-foot long sheet, with her sister stretching it taut and leading them through the crowd up ahead.
Bargmann, 36, said she was taken aback when she saw someone holding a New Wave Feminists For Life sign, though she was quick to add that she didn’t want anyone there to feel like they shouldn’t have a voice. “We’re all pro-life here, and they should be allowed to march--but I don’t think they should be involved in an official capacity,” she said.
The tension between pro-life and pro-choice feminists exposes one of many rifts and ideological nuances in the movement today. Some would argue that you’re not a true feminist if you don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose.
But on the day of the march, political disagreements mattered less to participants. At one point, a gay man in a jean jacket embroidered with the blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign flag approached a bible thumper from the Gospel of Ministries. “I just want to say that while I disagree with you, I respect your right exercise your religious beliefs.”
His name was Sloan Wiesen, and he’d driven from nearby Reston, Virginia to march with his husband. He worked for the Human Rights Campaign from 1993 to 1999, and had taken part in the Million Women’s March in 1997.
“We felt it was important to come out today to support women and men, our Muslim brothers and sisters, each and every American,” said Wiesen, 47. “We can’t just pop out when our narrow interests are at stake anymore.”
Earlier that day, on a “bitch bus” ferrying New Yorkers from Brooklyn to D.C., people were open-minded about the idea of pro-life women marching alongside them.
The election had spurred 33-year-old Cora Foxx to take action: as soon as she learned that a Women’s March on Washington was being planned, she chartered a bus. The election also made her want to get outside her ideological comfort zone.
“There’s a need for dialogue between people who have different opinions, largely because we’re in these bubbles,” said Fox, a graphic designer from Bushwick, who wore a vintage, oversized blue sweatshirt with a fluffy, white feline head on the front. “I want to be able to communicate with people I disagree with rather than just being reaffirmed by my Facebook friends. And maybe we’ll never agree with each other, but at least we can treat each other like humans.”
Herndon-De La Rosa, Johnson, and others had come to the March with low expectations about civility, knowing their “feminists for life” signs would give them away.
For Johnson, the lowest point was a hostile encounter with two people when she and a few friends briefly met up with Students For Life on a sidewalk off the marching path. She was pushed and called a few names, she said, but for the most part people were either quiet or supportive--“not of our cause but that we were there. And I was thankful that we were there because we had so many good conversations,” she said of her and a few pro-life friends, speaking from her hotel afterwards.
Asked if pro-lifers belonged there, Erica Sackin, Director of Political Communications at Planned Parenthood, echoed the march’s unity principles in an email to The Daily Beast: “The Women’s March platform clearly states support for access to abortion as a core principle. Everyone who supports that entire platform was welcome to march here today.”
Herndon-De La Rosa didn't fall into that category, but she was still giddy about the experience hours after it ended.
“It was honestly the most beautiful day,” she said. “It was so cool to realize that while all of these forces try to divide us, whether it’s politics or the media or whatever, women can still unite and stand up for a common cause.”
Other marchers voiced their disagreement with what she stood for, but also thanked her for cheering alongside them about other issues.
“Pro-life isn’t a dirty word to me, but I understand why it is to other people,” she said. “They associate it with pictures of bloody fetuses and pro-life assholes out there, and there are a lot of them.”
Yes, Herndon-De La Rosa believes abortion is a "human rights violation," she said. But she’s not trying to make it illegal on a state or federal level.
“I think if we overturned Roe v. Wade today, we would be making criminals out of thousands of women,” she said. She just doesn’t want women to feel like they don’t have any choice but to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. To pro-choice women, though, her aspirations aren't as anodyne as she makes them sound when she puts it like that.
Maybe it was just the spirit of the day that made people overlook their differences, with activists and apostates using the same language to describe the march: it was “amazing,” “powerful,” “inspiring.” Inevitably, they’ll go back to feuding on Twitter and rolling their eyes at each other’s beliefs.
They may ultimately disagree about how the patriarchy manifests in society, how it empowers and disempowers women. But on Saturday, they only cared about toppling it.