Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes/Wikimedia Commons
Hundreds of thousands of women protested abortion restrictions during the March for Women's Lives in 2004.
March is Women's History Month, and many people here in Athens, across America and around the globe will long remember participating in the historic Women's March on Washington on the day after Donald Trump's inauguration as president in 2017. As memorable as that rally was, it was not the first time that women's rights advocates had upstaged a presidential inauguration, and it was not the first time that a "mega march" of feminists had surged through the streets of the nation's capital.
On Mar. 3, 1913—the day before Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president—several thousand women's suffrage advocates, led by pioneering feminist Alice Paul, marched from Capitol Hill to the White House. Crowds of angry, jeering men attacked the women and their small contingent of male supporters. Police were slow to respond to what was described as a "near riot," and Washington's police chief later lost his job over his department's response to the melee on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the aftermath of the 1913 women's rights march, the movement received much-needed publicity and support, and after seven more years of struggle, American women finally won the right to vote nationwide in 1920. In the America of 1920, black people were barred from voting booths in much of the nation, and the Ku Klux Klan was soaring toward a membership in the millions, but the triumph of the women's suffrage movement was a clear and resounding civil rights victory for all Americans.
During the election year of 2004, the women's movement again took to the streets of Washington. On Apr. 25, the March for Women's Lives became one of the largest protest rallies in Washington history, as hundreds of thousands of protesters descended on the city to demonstrate against the policies of President George W. Bush and to call for reproductive freedom, pay equity and equal opportunities for this nation's women. I was on the scene at the March for Women's Lives covering the event with pen and camera, and it was one of the largest human multitudes I have ever seen assembled on the streets of Washington. In the next morning's edition of the Washington Post, a dramatic front-page photo taken from atop the Washington Monument showed a view of the crowd as a solid carpet of humanity stretching from the monument to the Capitol Building in the far distance. I was glad to be a tiny thread in that great carpet of Americans in Washington 15 years ago.
On Jan. 21, 2017, the streets again resounded to the roar of rebellion as the Women's March on Washington came to town. By planes, trains and automobiles, hundreds of thousands of citizens made their way to Washington to put the new president on notice that opponents of his policies were on the march. Hundreds of Athens-area residents attended the event, and about 200 locals rode to Washington on an overnight bus caravan to the march. My wife, Joy, and I were on one of the buses, and we shall never forget the experience. The size and spirit of the march were inspiring. Despite cloudy skies and chilly temperatures, the huge throng of citizens at the Women's March on Washington dwarfed the crowds that had attended the presidential inauguration the day before. Joy compared the event to a force of nature. "When you tried to walk, it was like being a drop of water flowing up a river," she recalled. I again documented the event, and my photos of both the women's marches in 2004 and 2017 can be seen at my website, edtant.com.
Women's History Month reminds us how far all Americans have come in the struggle for justice, and how far we have to go. Early feminists who campaigned for the simple right to vote were ridiculed, arrested, jailed and beaten. They were brutally force-fed during attempted jailhouse hunger strikes. Still, they persisted. Thanks to women like Alice Paul and others like her, women won victories at the voting booth, in academia and in the workplace. The movement continues during Women's History Month, and every day across America and around the world. In a nation whose motto is “E Pluribus Unum”—“from many, one”—Paul's words from a century ago remind us all of the power and potential of a unified movement: "I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end."