Under the oxymoron of a bright January sun, calling for everything from President Trump’s impeachment to the end of rape culture to wilder feminist sex, preaching diversity to a sea of mostly white faces, as roving hordes circled up and down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway without any sense of direction, the 2018 Women’s March in Philadelphia lived up to the legacy of its historic 2017 predecessor.
The movement remains an epic, rolling ball of contradictions, gaining momentum in spite of itself, almost certain to take out someone or something in the coming 12 months.
That no one knows exactly who or what is the beauty of the thing.
“The joy is in the camaraderie and the recognition that the anger and the fear that the shock that we deal with every day is not something that we experience alone – that there is camaraderie and sisterhood and support,” said Julia Riches, a 49-year-old from the Graduate Hospital neighborhood who attended the massive Women’s March in Washington last year.
She was trying to explain how a movement born largely from rage over the election of Trump in 2016 despite a slew of sexual misconduct and assault allegations led to a mass event with such a festive aura — moms pushing strollers and holding the hands of grade-schoolers with their spunky signs calling for a women president or equal pay, with the occasional man wearing a pink pussy hat or dressed as Ben Franklin with a large “Resist” placard occasionally punctuating the scene.
But the Women’s March really doesn’t need to explain itself as it celebrates its second birthday. When as many 4 million women and male allies flooded the streets of virtually every U.S. city for the 2017 march, the day after Trump’s inauguration, people — mainly of the male persuasion — asked what the movement really wanted, or what it thought it could it achieve. Some 364 days late, the uprising known as #MeToo or #TimesUp has taken down or badly dinged dozens of powerful men from senators to media moguls and Hollywood stars. Indeed, one more stark reminder of that tsunami came before Saturday’s march even ended, with a report from the New York Times on a sexual-harassment case involving a Philadelphia-area congressman, Rep. Pat Meehan of Delaware County.
And so the sea of signs that bobbed up and down the Parkway seemed evenly split between references to sexual harassment and assault and more pointed political messages slamming Trump. The ostensible theme of the 2018 Women’s March was electing more women candidates to office in November — a record number of female congressional hopefuls have already heeded the that call — and that was driven home from the main stage at the foot of the Art Museum.
“Those feelings of anger and frustration turned into something else for me,” said Rebecca Rhynhart, describing how despair over Trump’s election inspired her to run in 2017 to become Philadelphia’s first female controller, taking out an entrenched male incumbent. “I thought somebody needed to do something. Then I thought I needed to do something, and I ran for office. And I won.”
But for many of the thousands who descended upon the Parkway, the march wasn’t so much agenda-driven as a chance to show solidarity, to be a part of something much bigger than themselves after a year that many spent yelling back at the TV set as Trump rolled back cherished protections on the environment or voting rights while appointing the most male-dominated administration in decades.
That’s why 78-year-old Sister Terry Shields, founder of Germantown’s Dawn’s Place for women caught up in sex trafficking, was waiting in the morning chill to catch the Norristown High Speed Line to attend the Women’s March for her first time. She told me “people need to stand up for the rights of people on the margins.”
And it’s why 18-year-old Shannon Eaton, who attends a small Christian school in rural Snyder County in central Pennsylvania, got up at 3 a.m. with her mom and aunt, threw on her pink “Feminist” hat, grabbed her sign that said “I wish this were fake news!” and rode all the way to Philadelphia. “I’m just hoping that we put an end to rape culture and that we promote equality,” she said.
There was one more thing that many of Saturday’s marchers had in common. They were white. That, too, is in keeping with the short and sometimes contentious history of the event, and in Philadelphia any racial disparity — black turnout seemed particularly low in a region that is 20 percent African-American — may have been exacerbated by a last-minute controversy over the role of Philadelphia police and whether attendees would be searched. (In the end, they weren’t.)
Pink-scarfed Antoinette Herring, a state social worker from Newark, Delaware, told me she didn’t the scarcity of other women of color felt like a problem on Saturday, although she said felt next’s march could be better advertised on spots besides Facebook – where the movement was born after Trump’s election – to get a wider audience.
But it’s hard not to think that any lack of focus of the Women’s March – a place where women can air any grievance, and there are so many legitimate ones – is a feature, not a bug. That’s something it shares with the other protest movements of the 2010s like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, which were ripped for lacking an agenda and which then changed the conversation on the minimum wage or ending stop and frisk. After spending a bright and breezy January afternoon on the Parkway, I honestly can’t tell you exactly where the awesome, and growing, power of the new women’s movement is headed in 2018. All I can tell you is, watch out!