They came from Boston and Bucharest, from California and the Czech Republic, from Arizona and Albania. More than one million people from nearly 60 countries filled the Mall that stretches for a mile in front of the US Capitol in Washington DC, on Sunday, April 25, 2004. They marched peacefully, demanding justice, privacy, and human rights for women everywhere.
The March for Women's Lives, which followed similar events held in 1989 and 1992, was organized by a coalition of organizations including The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Black Women's Health Imperative, the Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
As tens of thousands of marchers converged on the mall and tried to locate their groups, celebrities, politicians, women's rights activists, labor leaders, and entertainers revved up the crowd with rousing music and speeches. One such celebrity was Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady and now Democratic Senator from New York State. "We didn't have to march for 12 long years because we had a government that respected the rights of women," she said, urging the audience to vote for John Kerry in November.
Somehow, the throngs of people got organized to march down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House bearing banners that read, "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries", "My Oval Office is Not Happy", "Reproductive Justice For All", and "Condoms Cause Sex Like Umbrellas Cause Rain". T-shirts said, "Stand Up For Choice", and young girls wore hats declaring "We Love Pro-Choice Boys"!
An impressive roster of speakers addressed the marchers for four hours. A choir sang "If Men Got Pregnant", and the popular Indigo Girls offered "Grandma Was A Suffragette". Then actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg told the cheering throngs, "Even God gave us freedom of choice! Let's quit fooling around and put the right person in office!" Holding a hanger in the air, she declared "Never again! Never again!"
Nancy Pelosi, majority leader in the House of Representatives and a self- proclaimed "devout Catholic", said she is pro-family and pro-freedom. "It is our decision to make, with our family, our physician, and our faith," she said of abortion. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the right to choose is "a global imperative", adding that reproductive rights and education are "essential to every corner of the globe." Gloria Steinem called the Bush Administration "the greatest danger on earth", and urged the crowd to "take back our country".
This year's march clearly broadened its purpose to move beyond the single issue of abortion rights for American women to reproductive health and education throughout the life cycle, and social justice, for all women. The day preceding the march, women from numerous countries held a rally across from the White House. Carrying their country's flag and with their mouths gagged, they protested the Bush Administration's "gag rule" which prohibits any organization receiving US foreign aid from providing abortions or related information or counseling.
Hilary Fyfe of Zambia decried the rule. "Women no longer have choices and those who need information can't get it," she said. In Zambia, abortion is legal but four doctors and a woman's husband must concur with the woman's decision. "By then it's too late," says Fyfe. "And women don't even know it's legal [in Zambia], so we have a lot of unsafe abortions, teen pregnancies, and baby-dumping. The people on the right don't know, they don't want to know."
Daniela Draghici of Romania also spoke up. "Despite the fact that the gag rule doesn't impact Romania directly, the non-governmental organizations that get USAID funds for reproductive health programs sign papers that they will not counsel, refer or advise on abortion or related services of any kind. This has a big impact on counseling for other reproductive health services such as HIV/AIDS." In countries like Poland, Russia and Slovakia, which do not have a reproductive health policy like Romania does, the situation for women is even more dangerous.
Another demonstration preceding the march was mounted by Catholics For A Free Choice which staged a protest in front of the Vatican embassy. Francis Kissling, president of that organization, noted that there is a range of public policy issues affected by the Vatican's power. "It's fundamentalism we must defeat," she said. A woman from Uruguay added, "Our message to the Church is respect for all people, and separation of Church and state."
Focusing on reproductive rights and access to comprehensive reproductive health care, leaders of the historic march called upon women and the men who care about them to act so that "our daughters ... will never face those dark days again". Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU reminded the crowd that "Reproductive freedom, like so many of our civil liberties, is currently under siege. Politicians must stop interfering in the private lives of Americans and start protecting core American rights."
But perhaps it was 81-year-old Joanne Simpson, a retired scientist whose mother worked with birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, who said it best: "I just want young people to be able to carry on." Nine-year-old Sydney Nelson, a Catholic-school student from Maryland who attended the march with her mother and aunt, is one of those young people. She said she was probably the only one of her classmates to attend the march. She was looking forward to talking to them about it when school resumed.