WASHINGTON — Wearing costumes and carrying signs, thousands of people gathered for the Women’s March in downtown Washington and in cities across the country Saturday to protest the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett and to build momentum to vote President Donald Trump out of the White House.
Women wore white lace collars and black robes to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and red robes and white bonnets to mock the woman expected to take her seat — vivid reminders of the cultural battles playing out in the country and the intensity of emotions swirling in the weeks before the election. Some there for the march faced off in a tense confrontation with a group of counterprotesters at the Supreme Court who had come to support Barrett and oppose abortion, yelling, “Keep your laws off my body!”
Ginger Belmonte, 23, said she has come from her home in Frederick County, Md., to Washington every weekend since Ginsburg died.
“Every weekend, the signs are getting a little more hostile and darker,” she said.
The child-care provider said this year’s march feels even more urgent than the first one, after President Trump’s inauguration.
“We didn’t know the severity of how bad it was going to be,” she said. Now, especially with the new makeup of the Supreme Court, “it’s actually happening.”
Nearly four years after an election that galvanized millions of protesters to march in cities nationwide — many of them for the first time — Women’s March leaders hoped to bring a final show of force before Nov. 3 with a rally in the nation’s capital and in more than 429 marches across all 50 states.
In Houston, Chicago, New York, San Diego and other cities across the nation, people posted photos of events, most with people wearing masks and standing at a distance in an attempt to gather safely despite the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers had discouraged participants from traveling to D.C. from states that are on the self-quarantine list, encouraging them to attend local marches or to get involved with its text-a-thon efforts to get out the vote. Still, some drove from New Jersey, West Virginia, Florida, New York and other states to be at the epicenter of power.
The march took place days before the Senate holds its first vote to confirm Barrett to replace Ginsburg, a liberal leader and feminist icon. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on the nomination of Barrett, who would cement the conservative advantage on the court. The Republican majority is expected to approve the nomination.
Tensions over the nomination came to a head outside the Supreme Court on Saturday afternoon, as marchers confronted several dozen counterprotesters who were chanting Barrett’s “ACB” and holding anti-abortion posters. They were quickly drowned out by the several thousand Women’s March attendees, who countered by yelling, “RBG” and “My body, my choice.”
“We have the votes!” Students for Life protesters chanted, holding up signs with pictures of fetuses with messages such as “She could be Audrey,” “She could be Oprah” and “She could be Alexandria.” A Women’s March volunteer stood between the two groups, keeping them separated, but many young women held heated one-on-one debates, sparring about abortion, birth control and health care.
A woman spray-painted two of the anti-abortion protesters’ signs, while others nearby got into a shouting match.
“Pro-life is pro woman! Abortion betrays women” some yelled into others’ faces, and “You’re a traitor!” “My body, my choice” the marchers responded angrily.
Katelyn Fitzgerald, 20, was among the line of young people wearing blue shirts from Students For Life. “I wanted to show that I can be pro-woman and pro-life,” said Fitzgerald, who is a student at Liberty University. “It’s not an oxymoron.”
The Women’s March began Saturday morning at Freedom Plaza in Washington. Amid the protesters decked out in bright pink hats and bejeweled face masks, 7-year-old twins Harriet and Myles Gilliam of Boston sat stoically next to their mother. Harriet, who was dressed as Ginsburg, complete with lace collar, was taking part in her third Women’s March. Myles was dressed in a suit and held a sign that resembled the one held by the late congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., in his iconic 1961 mug shot taken after he was arrested for using a bathroom reserved for White people in Mississippi.
“You can use social media all you want, but there’s something to be said about showing up,” said Justina Gilliam, 40, who said she had attended every Women’s March in Washington.
This year’s event has an urgency akin to the first one, she said. “There’s a desperation to it.”
A group of a dozen women dressed as handmaidens, with red dresses and white bonnets, lined up in a row with signs hanging from their necks with the words “Trump Pence OUT NOW!”
The costumes were a reference to Barrett’s leadership role in the Christian group People of Praise, a position that had been called “handmaiden” until 2017 when “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, was adapted for TV and the term was associated with women subjugated by men.
A few feet away, Kelsey Weir, a 29-year-old artist from southern New Jersey, held a sign with the words “W.A.P.: Women Against the Patriarchy.”
Weir said she feels terrified about the years ahead, especially with Barrett on the Supreme Court. She said she felt it was her duty as a citizen to march. “Women are threatened in a world where a Christian theocracy is threatening to take over,” she said, pointing to the women in handmaiden costumes. “This is the crisis for our world. The next few weeks are going to decide so many things for women.”
The march comes amid an economic recession that has fallen especially hard on women of color and mothers, a Supreme Court nomination that many fear threatens the reproductive rights of women, and a presidential election that could be decided in large part by women. Former vice president Joe Biden holds a 23 percentage point advantage over Trump among female likely voters (59% to 36%), according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Meanwhile, Trump and Biden split men, with 48% each.
The gender gap is even bigger in the suburbs, where women favor Biden by 62% to 34%, according to the poll. Men in the suburbs lean toward Trump, with 54% supporting his reelection, while 43% back Biden.
“We’ve been fighting before four years and we’re still fighting,” Nee Nee Taylor, a core organizer for Black Lives Matter DC from Southeast Washington, told the crowd, which had swelled to thousands by the afternoon. “My community has been ready and we’re still coming. We’re coming to set our people free.”
The crowd was predominantly White, a marked difference from the racially diverse protests that filled the city this past summer following the death of George Floyd in police custody.
“There’s some degree of protest fatigue,” said Cherie Craft, founder of Smart from the Start, a community engagement organization that serves primarily Black families in Southeast Washington. “After the summer, people think you know, is this really making a difference?”
After the rally, participants marched southeast to the Supreme Court.
Twins Alexis and Alicia Johnson, 22, drove 12 hours overnight from Florida with their mother and grandmother to make it to the march.
“We couldn’t miss it,” Alexis Johnson said, adding that she and her sister would “walk through broken glass” to vote for Biden and Harris in the coming election.
“It matters more than ever before,” her sister said.
“How do we say? It’s …” Alexis started, looking back to her grandmother, Katheryn Carachi, 67.
“Dangerous. These are dangerous times,” the white-haired Carachi said.
Marching up the hill on Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court, she wielded a sign with a message that made clear why she’d decided to spend the night on the road: “NOW YOU’VE PISSED OFF GRANDMA!”
Several District of Columbia streets prohibited parking, while others closed Saturday for the events, which started at 11 a.m. and are expected to end about 5 p.m.
Each year since pink-hatted women first flooded the nation’s capital the day after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Women’s March has organized marches in January nationwide, promoting a list of policy demands and helping motivate women to run for office in record numbers. But the marches in recent years have drawn much smaller crowds than the first historic showing. The national organization has at times struggled to remain relevant, as scores of its initial attendees have redirected their attention toward other causes.
At the most recent Women’s March in January, some attendees said they hoped they wouldn’t need to march again following the 2020 election.
But last month, “the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reset the whole country,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March.
The group’s organizers quickly planned hundreds of marches, both virtual and in-person, focused primarily on voting rights and the Supreme Court confirmation process.
The first march was remarkable, but the real impact was what followed, said Carmona. She said the movement had helped motivate women to run for office in record numbers in the midterms.
“Now four years later, with 17 days to go, we’re going to finish what we started,” she said. “His presidency began with women marching and now it’s going to end with women voting.”