The March for Women’s Lives—an Analysis

1,150,000 Marched on Washington, D.C., to Voice Opposition to Government Attacks on Women’s Reproductive Rights and Health

The Official Crowd Count Was the Largest Ever for a Women’s Rights Rally in the Nation’s Capital

by Linda Thompson Lancz

The author can be reached at

(Washington, D.C.)—An estimated 1,150,000 descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on April 25 to give an urgent wake-up call to government leaders and the nation regarding the threat to women’s health and the right to abortion. Women were there to point out that their lives are at risk as lawmakers and government officials keep intruding on a woman’s right to access critical reproductive health services and make deeply personal decisions about their health and lives.

Using standard crowd estimate methods, March participants were counted in designated grids on the National Mall, which are designed to hold a predetermined number of people. The March also verified this count by assigning 2,500 volunteers to stand at key entry points to the March area and at bus drop-off locations and count people by placing March stickers on participants as they entered these entry points. The National Park Police has stopped giving march estimates since it became embroiled in controversy over other actions. However the corporate media referred to the size as hundreds of thousands, playing down the scope of the turnout, although the New York Times did quote the estimate of over one million, given by the march organizers.

On April 25 women marched to uphold—Choice, Justice, Access, Health, Abortion, Global and Family Planning. The March for Women’s Lives was led by seven organizing groups: American Civil Liberties Union, Black Women’s Health Imperative, Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. However, the coalition that organized this march was far broader than the sponsoring groups and included other women’s groups as well as civil libertarians, trade unionists, students, and environmentalists. More than 1,200 organizations including some of the nation’s leading women’s, civil rights, health, and faith organizations and delegations from around the world mobilized to demand that women, regardless of income, age, race, and ethnicity, be able to exercise their reproductive rights through legal access to safe abortions, birth control (including emergency contraception), reproductive and prenatal health care, safe delivery and comprehensive, medically accurate sex education.

The following quotes are highlights excerpted from remarks given by leaders of the coalition that organized the March. They are taken from an e-mail put out by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).

“The government does not belong in our bedrooms. It does not belong in our doctors’ offices. It does not belong in the bank accounts of innocent Americans, and should not have the power to monitor their e-mail, or track their bookstore purchases, or scrutinize the books they check out of local libraries,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Our fundamental right to privacy is under serious attack by this government.”

“This historic march is sending an unmistakable message: women’s rights and women’s lives are nonnegotiable,” stated Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. “We are building an expanded and inclusive movement that will make women’s reproductive rights—just like social security—a third rail of politics.”

“My friends, make no mistake. There is a war on choice. We didn’t start it, but we are going to win it!” said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “They’re not just after abortion rights. This is a full-throttle war on your very health—on your access to real sex education, birth control, medical privacy, and life-saving research.”

“My greatest wish is that there would never be another political debate about the right to choose,” said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “But history teaches us that every right—no matter how basic—is always at risk. And I’m confident that the young people who have led this march today will lead our movement in a new wave of activism that will keep the right to choose alive for the next generation.”

“This March is a giant wake-up call,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). “We won’t go back to 1968, when women couldn’t buy birth control; we won’t go back to 1972, when women were dying from illegal abortions. We’re marching for our rights before it’s too late.”

“The reproductive health of Black women is in a state of crisis. Black women are suffering and dying too often, too soon, and needlessly,” said Dr. Lorraine Cole, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative. “When we leave here today, let’s turn pain into promise, let’s turn promise into partnership, and let’s turn partnership into power.”

“We demand an end to coercive and punitive policies that prevent us from making informed decisions about our health, our lives and our futures!” said Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health. “We envision a day when no Latina will live in a climate of fear and oppression, when every person has access to comprehensive and affordable health care. That is reproductive justice!”

The unity expressed by the coalition of organizations developed to organize the march was the cause of the turnout and was impressive. The inclusion of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health was an attempt to address a long-standing issue of the predominantly white women’s organizations failing to either reach out to or successfully incorporate third world women in their agenda or organizing efforts in the past. For the first time, organizations representing women of color were playing a central role in leading a women’s rights march. Representing the urgent needs of women of color, who are least likely to have health care options and who suffer from reproductive health disparities, a diverse coalition of women’s health and civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, and the National Latina Health network helped to broaden the March’s aim to fight for equal access to solutions for the full range of women’s health care concerns. This is the first time that the NAACP has taken the historic action of endorsing a march for reproductive rights.

The age composition of the march deserves comment. In this writer’s opinion, it appeared that the crowd was roughly one-third young, one-third middle-age, and one-third older marchers. Speakers referred to the passing of the baton to the younger generation of women who must take up and lead the fight. The coalition honored the young women organizers on stage, and each one addressed the crowd. Black and Latina youth spoke militantly about the need to address the issues of minorities and to organize them into the women’s movement for reproductive rights and health care.

This was one of the best-organized marches that this author has ever attended since some of the largest actions in Washington, D. C., against the Vietnam war in the 1960s and ‘70s. The mall was completely full, yet people were still streaming to the mall from side streets and Metro stations. Parking was organized outside the city, and the press reported that 325,000 people rode the Metro that day, a figure that seems too low from what this reporter witnessed. The coalition had positioned the type of giant-screens-with-sound used at rock concerts all around the mall, so that everyone. no matter how far from the stage, could see and hear the entire rally, thus setting a new standard in professionalism for march organization. The event was being videotaped and relations with the press were well organized.

Also impressive was the large number of female actresses, including but not limited to Susan Sarandon, Kathleen Turner, Cybill Shepard, and Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi Goldberg opened the rally and made one of the best speeches of the day. Brandishing a coat hanger over her head she led the crowd in a chant “we will not go back,” referring to the days when death resulted from back alley and self-administered abortions.

Other speakers included Gloria Steinem, Carole Mosley Braun, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Patricia Ireland, past president of NOW; Dolores Huerta,  of the farm workers union; Ted Turner, Rep. Nancy Pelosi D/ CA, and Genevieve Aguilera (ACLU).

The hypocrisy of Madeleine Albright speaking at this March for Women’s Lives must be noted. This former secretary of state under Democrat Bill Clinton is notorious for her assertion that the death of half a million Iraqi children—as the result of U.S./UN sanctions after the 1991 war on Iraq—was “worth it.” (Surely half those Iraqi children were female.) I question the wisdom of the leadership of this march in inviting one of the architects of, and a chief apologist for, U.S. imperialist policy on Iraq to be a speaker.

Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, could not be present but was heard and seen on video. Also represented were many gay and lesbian groups, lawyers, social workers, welfare rights organizations, the National Council of Jewish Women, Catholics for Free Choice, the Asian Pacific Environmental Group, the NAACP, Network of Young Women Mexico, student organizations, and a host of women representatives from the U.S. Congress.

All together, there were 50 speakers in the morning and 70 speakers for the afternoon rally, an organizational accomplishment in itself.

How Much Real Outreach to Women of Color?

An article by Ginger Adams Otis, a WeNews correspondent dated 4/22/04, claims that, unlike other pro-choice rallies, this one was being led by women of color and organizations that represent them. She points out that the real impact of this new element in the women’s movement will extend beyond the march itself. She maintained that the participation of women of color has pushed the focus of the rally beyond the right to abortion and created a call for a broader range of goals such as access to day care and child care.

Loretta Ross, Executive Director of the National Center for Human rights Education and the first African American woman to co-direct a national protest for choice, said that putting the reproductive issues that most matter to women of color will forever change the women’s movement.

“Women of color are going to be joining other women in really large numbers to show their outrage at what’s being done to their reproductive rights,” Ross said. “When we approached the principal organizers about being included, they invested a lot of money in mobilizing among communities of color and making sure the message goes out to a lot of people. That hard work is going to pay off on Sunday.”

“…the right to have a child and get health care, an education, safe drinking water, day care—these are the issues Latinas link to reproductive rights,” said Silvia Henriquez, director of the Brooklyn-headquartered National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “It’s as much about taking care of their families as it is being able to terminate a pregnancy.”

Many of the immigrant women who turn to this organization come from countries where reproductive health care has been severely constrained. “they come from countries where forced sterilization is still common and where an abortion is really dangerous and can land you in jail. They’ve seen their health care providers criminalized and jailed for just giving them birth control pills.” Otis quotes Henriquez as saying that as a result many Latinas are anxious to attain reproductive justice in this country…” With the Hispanic population set to be the largest U.S. minority within the next several decades, Otis notes “the women’s movement has much to gain by broadening its agenda to include this very large population of women.”

In spite of this new attempt to involve women of color on the part of the march organizers, the crowd was still predominantly white. This raises questions of what can be done to promote unity between white women and women of color in the future. It is interesting that Loretta Ross is quoted as saying that she approached the principal organizers of the march to be included. This indicates that the problem still persists of the predominantly white women’s organizations calling and planning actions before seeking to include the leaders of women of color. This author is not aware if attempts were made to include the organizers of the Million Woman March or not.

March organizers referred to this as the single largest feminist rally to take place in the United States after the March for Choice of 12 years ago that drew an estimated 750,000 marchers. However, no one referred to the Million Woman March, which was estimated by some to include one million to one and a half million marchers in 1997 in the city of Philadelphia and drew a predominantly Black female crowd. Did the organizers of this year’s march attempt to involve the organizers of the Million Woman March, and if not, why not?

The power of women united, if these two powerful forces were one and decided to act independently of the two major parties on behalf of the needs of millions of women of all races can only be imagined.

Pro-Democrat Orientation

This failure could be indicative of the attempt to keep the speakers, key organizers and organizations included in the speakers list limited to those who strongly endorse and support the march leadership’s orientation of getting Democrats elected and defeating Bush in the upcoming presidential election. Many speakers addressed the need to defeat Bush and some openly called for electing Kerry. Kerry signs were common throughout the crowd giving the political impact of the rally a pro-Democratic Party one. Official policy stated the following in regard to signs and banners: “The March is a nonpartisan event focused on the threat to women’s lives. To ensure it is strictly nonpartisan, do not display any signs or banners that contain endorsements for or opposition to a political party or candidate for elected office…Official March banners may not display support for or opposition to any candidate or political party. Such banners may not carry the name of a political party or a candidate committee, but may carry the name of an individual who is a candidate with or without his or her official title. For example: a banner may say ‘Senator John Doe’ or ‘Mayor Jane Doe,’ but not ‘Doe for Senate’ or ‘Doe/Smith ’04.’”

The official policy statement continued: “The March logo may not be used to promote any electioneering or partisan political activity. Neither the logo nor the name of the March may be used in a way that suggests a connection between the March and any political campaign activity.” 

No Mention of Iraq

In spite of this official policy on the march web site, there were many “Kerry for President” signs and banners at the march, and it was clear that Democratic Party organizers were working the crowd. A small number of speakers called for support to Kerry. This was probably why there was not one mention or reference to the war on Iraq and the billions of dollars going to promote that imperialist crime, which Kerry supports. This was a remarkable omission at a women’s rally led by organizations like NOW, which claim to stand for peace and against violence against women and violence of all kinds. Even Susan Sarandon, who is passionately against the war and who has spoken out militantly against it at antiwar marches, refrained from making the links between funding for the military and the cutbacks in funding for reproductive health around the world. This suggests that speakers could have been asked not to embarrass Kerry on this question, which might undermine support for him.

Unfortunately, this was the position promoted by the official march organizers and shows that on the question of how best to defend reproductive freedoms, the right to choose, and the needs of the vast majority of women, this leadership lacks a program to bring about change. Eleanor Smeal, the leader of the Feminist Majority, an organization that she built after she was no longer president of NOW, at one point was leading a movement to build a Feminist Party and was pointing out the record of both the Democrats and the Republicans in failing to defend the needs and rights of women. However, she has been strangely silent on this score for years now, since abandoning the call for a third party and independent political action.

Some of the leadership preferred to keep sights sharply focused on last fall’s passage of the so-called partial birth abortion ban, which outlaws most abortions beyond the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and makes no exception to protect the health of women. President Bush signed the ban into law, even though the Supreme Court found a similar law unconstitutional. Activists have filed lawsuits challenging the ban, including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the ACLU. and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Until rulings are determined in these three lawsuits the federal ban is temporarily blocked by a federal court injunction.

In light of the continuing defeats that the women’s movement has sustained over the last decade, one has to question why the leadership of the major women’s organizations waited for 12 years to march. Hillary Clinton made the remark that under her husband’s term it was not necessary to defend the right to abortion. However, it was under the Clinton administration that serious inroads were made by the “right to life” movement, inroads that have culminated in the partial birth abortion ban.

It is interesting to note that NOW and the other major reformist organizations only seem to march before elections they wish to influence and don’t see the need to mobilize women independently on an ongoing basis.

This is the task of a new women’s leadership that must be built that can provide an alternative, especially for young women and people of color, an alternative to the policies of the two major parties. Women have to confront the question, Why has the Democratic Party been so woefully ineffective in supporting women’s rights and defending women from the right-wing attempt to take back the gains that have been made. Women have to ask why a woman has never been nominated for president by a major party in the twenty one national elections since women won the right to vote. Women have to ask why there are only five women governors in fifty states. Women have to ask why they hold only 13 percent of the seats in Congress. Women have to examine why the Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat. And women have to ask if the strategy of those who promote lesser evil politics has been getting us anywhere. 

As Michael Moore wrote in Stupid White Men: “So figure. Suddenly women had more votes; they could have thrown our collective male ass into the political trash heap. But what did they do? They voted for us! How cool is that? Have you ever heard of any group of oppressed people that suddenly, by their sheer numbers, takes charge—and then votes in overwhelming numbers to keep their oppressors in power? The Blacks of South Africa, once free, did not continue apartheid by voting for whites…No, the usual thing a sane society does is give the boot to the boot that’s been on its neck for umpteen years.”

However, eighty years after women gained the right to vote, the leadership of the women’s movement in this country is still doing exactly that, proposing to vote our oppressors back into office—as the lesser evil of course. How cool is that? It isn’t cool at all; in fact, it’s downright embarrassing.

Let me raise the possibility of the grass roots supporters of the March for Women’s Lives joining collectively with the grass roots women who attended the Million Woman March in Philadelphia to begin to run candidates and build a party with other working people independent of our oppressors and for policies that defend the majority of working women in this country. How cool would that be? Very cool!