Being there… The Women’s March on Washington January 21,2017

| By Jean Elizabeth Dickson |

Women united will never be divided! Vibrant chants were rising like waves in a sea of pink as crowds flooded downtown DC. In numbers far exceeding all projections, more than one million voices echoed throughout our nations capital sending shock waves of outrage and hope. On this day, global human rights campaigns were stepped up to the next level.

The Women’s March on Washington was attended by Americans of every age, shape, color, gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, sexual preference – a rainbow of diversity shining bright in peace and unity, from every corner of our country, uniting with a common vision. A peaceful assembly of multi-generations embraced tolerance and justice while protesting the war on constitutional rights… on human rights. More than one million people full of passion and message demonstrated with not one arrest!

This march was inspired by one grandmother’s post on Facebook. A spark quickly ignited, was passed to women organizers, and became a movement that included sister gatherings throughout the world – five million strong!

My decision to participate began the night of the presidential election, as I was shaken to the core from what I believed was the loss of our democracy. I remember watching the map glow from my laptop, sound turned off, unable to tolerate any more rhetoric. When did news reporting become so chatty?

My husband, Fred, kissed me goodnight and I curled up on our couch, focused mostly on the flames dancing in our wood stove with cautious glances back to the computer. My mind rationalized that I should just check the results in the morning. Surely, she will win. I stay put, surprised by the sudden urge to bite my nails, a funny impulse considering I never had that habit.

And then it began; the red started to spread, filling the map too fast for comprehension. The impact was deeply traumatic, like watching blood flow in slow motion on a battlefield. This can’t be! I turned up the volume and heard the edgy disbelief of the newscasters. My gut felt stabbed. A growing horror engulfed me. I sobbed as terrifying, apocalyptic scenarios played in my mind, fearing the worst for my family. Again, an unusual response for me: one who most always sees the silver lining. What kind of world will my grandchildren inherit?

I was grappling with a reality I never believed possible. What happened to our constitution? Aren’t we protected from this? I had faith in our checks and balances, that a candidate who fell short by millions of votes would not be the victor. I thought we were protected from an oligarchic government. What will happen to our democracy?

In shock and disbelief, I stumbled to bed, looking to escape this nightmare reality. The next few weeks I found myself gliding unpredictably through the many stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, an uncomfortable acceptance. I wondered: Where do we go from here? What can I do to make a difference?

As a woman, mother, grandmother, concerned about the health and wellbeing of my entire family, my neighbors, community and country, urgency called me to action. (I learned at the march this was a common theme resonating all over the country in women and men). My obvious first step was to attend the Women’s March on Washington and document it.

I traveled by plane to Richmond (with the last available ticket), rented a car to Fredericksburg to spend the night with dear long-time friends, Liz and Mark, who graciously opened their home as a base camp. Other guests from Vermont and NY were Hannah (Mark’s cousin), her daughters, and friend Mary.

We all sat by a warm fire making signs and sharing stories to prepare for the next morning’s journey. They were taking a bus; I had a train ticket to DC (miraculously, also the last ticket). Hannah’s daughter cooked a healthy, delicious meal. That evening set the tone for the entire experience – a safe community gathering together, nourished by love and devotion, for a common cause.

Since the 60s, Hannah and Mary had participated in many rallies. Most don’t realize the preparation involved in attending a march, beyond planning travel. Hannah had perfected the art of being prepared. She showed us the pink vest she created equipped with multiple interior pockets that stored every possible necessity; safety pins, Band-Aids, disinfectant, gloves, tissues, zip ties, a whistle, flash light… and more. She is a pro!

Early the next morning, when I arrived at the Fredericksburg train station, a large group was waiting on the landing with signs. Excitement was in the air as clusters of people animatedly talked among themselves. I looked around at the colorful assembly, separately clustered, yet obviously unified in purpose. Moved by the moment, I took out my camera, stood up on a bench and shouted out to the crowd: “Hey everybody – are you ready to march?” The group exploded in unison, cheering! It was electrifying! I said that I was from Asheville and everyone cheered as I took their photos. From the back of the group I hear, “We’re from Asheville!”

On board the train, I sat next to Joanie and Liz and they shared: “I’m Liz, 33, from Asheville and I’m here to stand together with a bunch of strong women to show unity, for peace, for love and for equality.” Joanie replied, “I live in rural Idaho, my daughter lives in Colorado, and my other daughter lives in Charlottesville, VA. Today is my 55th birthday! I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate it!”

Our packed train pulled up to Union Station. With hugs and wishes for good luck, we poured into the swarm of excited movement, colorful signs, chatter and laughter. For a while, I watched the trains and subways come in – filled to capacity. Swarms of smiling and energized marchers spilled out – a synergy of colorful groups of all ages, genders, ethnicities, religions… all moving together with bright handmade signs and countless pink hats, even the guys! Everyone seemed to know exactly where to go, an improvisation filled with impromptu chants and cheers – all seemed ready for a big day.

All day I was awestruck by the enthusiasm, exuberance, and peaceful joy exuded by so many gathered in one place. Even the police and security seemed to be uplifted by the sea of colors that effortlessly flowed through the space. They told me inauguration day was tense and sometimes violent. They shared their relief to encounter this peaceful, massive crowd. I often saw protesters high-five police as they passed by barricades. It was surreal. ‘This is what democracy looks like!’ A perfect chant for that moment.

I rode the subway to the rally area to pick up my press credentials. On my way, I hit a crack in pavement, twisted my ankle, and hit the pavement hard. A kind couple stopped and helped me, so I met Terry, 54 and her partner Joe, 60. Meeting them was my silver lining after my fall!

Terry: “This is so exciting – the atmosphere is positively electric. We attended the first gay rights rally in Richmond, VA about 23 years ago. Today, it’s so exciting to see so many people who care about the issues I care about and it makes me so hopeful. I hope this action goes beyond today, for people to call their congressperson and not stand for things that set us back.” Joe added: “And what’s critical is to be sure to participate in the midterm elections. People get really excited during the presidential elections and often won’t show up two years later for the midterms. If you really care about women’s issues, equal rights for all people, race, creed, gender identity – it doesn’t matter. You have to vote! Today, I am marching for women’s rights!”

I soon met Carol from Salem, Oregon, who shared: “I’m 60 years old. This is the most incredible event I’ve ever been part of. I’m with my son who is 35 who asked to come and is so excited to be part of this event. What’s very exciting are all the young woman here and their realization that we can’t go to sleep again. We have to stay active and be part of this. It’s also exciting to see older women here because we, as Gloria Steinham said, “We do remember when it was worse.” And I think we can do two things; let young people know that it WAS worse and encourage them to take the torch and make it better.”

I met two friends who traveled together from Oregon. “I’m Kate, 66 years old – I just wanted to let the east coast know that the west coast is here to support them. This is so important. We need to start from day one to let our voices be heard and make sure we do as much as we can to squash the new agenda that’s coming down the pike.”

“I’m Katherine, 63; I think it’s important that we stay on top of it and day one is a good place to start. Those our age and older, who fought in the 60s and created a pathway, we need to stand up (again) for our future generations.” I stepped up on a cement platform to get a better view. I met Mary, 52, from Massachusetts: “I’m here because I really believe that sisterhood is powerful, I really believe that if the women of the world unite that would be the most powerful wave. I’m half Polish and I’ve seen the women rise up and do the women’s strike when they have far less liberties than we do. I thought, My God what are we doing? We’ve got to get up and go. I really felt like this was the march, this was the place to be today. This is historic and exactly where I need to be. I come from a political family, and I know what it feels like to shut up for years and years, so I’m ready for the long haul. I believe this is what is going to energize the whole thing. Bringing it all together.”

It was heartening to meet young, brave women who were able to take a stand and speak out: “I’m Kaylin, 21 years old and a student from Liberty University. I came because our school president is in favor of Trump, and I’m very much not. I wanted to show that not all Liberty kids are Republican.”

“My name is Zoey, I’m 18 and from Chapel Hill. I am very passionate about women’s rights and I wanted to make sure that our new president knows that women’s rights are still relevant and important.”

Concern about healthcare was strong: “My name is Michelle and I’m from Greensboro; I came because I’ve been a feminist since the 70s and I’m a caregiver for older Americans and depend on Obamacare.”

I was astounded that most people I spoke with were from other states. Another group that traveled together was Adrian from NYC, Gabby and Ruth from Chicago, and Heather from Boston. They came to send the message: “We’re not going anywhere! We came here to prove that we can unite around issues and mobilize! Lots of multi-generations represented here today – so great! Check out our agenda for the Feminist Majority Foundation – in existence for about 40 years!” (

“My body! My choice!” Women chanted and men joined in, “Her body! Her choice!” A rhythm unrehearsed, yet powerfully delivered, repeated and pulsed through the crowds. My spirit quickened with each click of my camera. Moments in time, frozen in the image… passion, discipline, strength, love, determination, humility, devotion, compassion, honor, pride… hope. A day of new beginnings, A time to wake up, speak up and take action. It is time!

Near the end of the day, I started toward the train station, thinking I was complete with all I came to witness and record, walking up Constitution Avenue. It was barricaded with no traffic. I spied a lonely bleacher left over from the inauguration and felt inspired to climb it, even though there wasn’t much to see. To my left was the Capital, to my right the Washington Monument, and directly ahead a road, barricaded and empty, leading to the mall where people continued to gather. Unexpectedly, I saw barricades being moved by police on the two roads closest to me, allowing two separate crowds to march towards me. The groups merged in front of me and marched together towards the Washington Monument. I was at the perfect point to capture the steady flow of marchers that lasted more than an hour. Throughout the day, new routes were frequently created to accommodate the overflow attendance that was four times larger than planned.

I boarded the train and thought my journey was complete. My first plane in Richmond was delayed by hours. Weary and hungry, I was disappointed to find the only restaurant packed with people. As if reading my thoughts, a woman seated at a table with her daughter invited me to join them. Perfect, for they too had been at the march!

Laura attended with her 15-year-old daughter, Grace, from Minneapolis. Laura: “This is not my first march, but by far the biggest I’ve ever seen! I’ve never seen a march with this kind of global energy – that is historic in and of itself, not to mention more than a million women and men marching in D.C. Unbelievable, especially considering how mad I think a lot of people feel about this election and all the craziness – the fake news and the interference from abroad, and people have a right to be really angry at the sewer level of language during this election, and yet, there wasn’t any of that sentiment at the march. There was outrage and people speaking out, but the mood was hopeful and there was excitement, and it was optimistic and powerful – it was like people got it that here’s the power – and we have a right to be marching and standing here and no one is going to intimidate us, make us feel like we don’t belong here in this country.

“I have never been in such a diverse location in my life – every age, every race, every gender identity was there and someone said “This is what America looks like. This is the best of our country!” It was the perfect antidote to the frustration I felt from the election. The level of misogyny that I feel like no one is talking about is something we need to address. People banding together saying this is not the best of our country, this is not the best that we can be, we’re going to stand up for equal rights for women, people of color, people of all gender identities, knowing that when one person is oppressed, we are all oppressed.”

After dinner, I headed back to the gate. Just when we were ready to board the plane, an announcement reported another hour delay. I spotted two women and a girl sitting on the other side of the room. A sign was leaning against a vacant seat next to them, inviting me to move closer. They were also at the march, heading back home to Atlanta.

“My name is Kim and I’m here with my 9-year-old daughter, Tessa, and my colleague, Jen. I’m a mother of four and a climate scientist and professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech. As a woman, mother, and climate scientist, I felt morally obligated to get up to the march in DC. I could have marched in Atlanta, but given that this country’s evolution proceeds by large marches and demonstrations, and bringing voices to DC, I really felt like this was the moment. I still believe this is the leaf turned over and a new chapter is beginning for America, and hopefully for the world. That’s what it felt like being there yesterday.

“Working as a climate scientist, who is under the microscope permanently, and to be under threat right now as a collection of scientists whose work represents an inconvenient truth to this administration, it felt even more important. I was there representing a group called 500 Women Scientists ( that started on the heels of the Trump election. Out of the shock and depression emerged this small group that has already grown to 13,000 signatures on their letter to Trump, as well as 7,000 on an email list. They organized a group of their chapter that was at the march representing women and scientists, and so we wore lab coats (photo) and I wore a rainbow necklace and carried my sign: Fearless female scientists. My parents live in DC so we biked six miles to the mall. This is a cathartic movement for our scientists, especially as women, as mothers. This was an event I will never forget.”

Jennifer, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech: “I have been inspired to get back to protesting because of this election. I protested as a teenager in my hometown of Olympia, Washington. I haven’t marched in quite a while, but this election really solidified it for me, that I needed to get back into the political scene. Selfishly, our careers are at stake, science is at stake, but in broader context our whole society and our whole democracy is at stake. I was marching for people that couldn’t be there and are threatened in various ways. Immigrants particularly. I have very close friends from middle-eastern countries who are also scientists and their immigration status is threatened. This is threatening our whole nation, because if we lose these brilliant immigrants, who our whole nation is founded on, our national security is at risk, as we are not able to innovate so quickly. I want to acknowledge how much immigrants have transformed science and how much the first-generation immigrant community has contributed to science, engineering and technology, and we need to protect them because they are helping to protect our country. So, it’s vital for our own interests to protect immigrants who are here legally, and are doing excellent work. We’re all immigrants, right?!

“Also, I want to emphasize that with this new administration, our whole scientific field is at stake. Today we heard a ridiculous quote about alternative facts. A total oxymoron. There’s no such thing. There are facts, and we are searching for facts, and we can revise the truth as we learn about it with a hypothesis of how we prove or disprove it, but at any time there are facts – not alternative facts! There was another quote I heard that numbers couldn’t be quantified. These statements make no sense! We can count and there are facts in the real world. I study tiny microbial cells and bacterial cells that have global impact. They can transform gases from one form to another, from a climate active form to a non-climate active form. So even though they are only the size of a micron, they have an impact. I think the same thing about us and that crowd at the march: you may not be able to see us, but ultimately, all together, we are making a huge difference. Yesterday did make a huge difference. It was the largest protest in our nation’s history, ever!”

Reflecting now from home, I am deeply heartened by participating in this powerful march conceived, organized, and empowered by women. It proves that it is our time to lead. Women are intrinsically able to work in the highest visionary and productive ways. After all, we have the creative force within us that carries life to birth. “It is our time to birth this movement and lead the way.” The torch is lit, now we must carry it forward and light the way to our new American life, one that respects human beings on all levels and in all ways.

I pray that years from now, I will see this time as one of great transition and awakening for the American people. I will see how women led the way to nurture respect for all people to be treated with tolerance and respect. I will see new, altruistic leaders that steered us away from greedy, self-serving politicians, true leaders who care about people. As a grandmother, I pray my children and grandchildren will see this as a time of the awakening of the human spirit, unifying and thus breaking the chains of oppression, racism, judgment, and fear that have held us captive.

There has never been a more auspicious time. This is our time. We can each make a difference and, as I learned from this gathering, collectively, we are powerful. This is our new beginning. Women united can never be divided!

Jean is a photographer,writer, artist, and creativity coach living and loving in Asheville.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker