Most of the previous marches have occurred in January, but organizers decided to host this year’s event in October to fight imminent threats to abortion access. Texas recently enacted one of the most restrictive abortion laws in decades, and a U.S. Supreme Court case out of Jackson, Miss., could overturn Roe v. Wade this fall. Eleven other states have trigger laws set to ban abortion if Mississippi prevails.
Leaders of this year’s march said they applied for permits for 10,000 people. They will rally at 11 a.m. at Freedom Plaza then wind toward the steps of the Supreme Court. Participation at the D.C. march may be smaller than 10,000, though, organizers said, as fewer people are traveling this year and instead are rallying in their hometowns. Activists have planned more than 600 “sister marches” across the country in cities from Charleston, W.Va., to Boise, Idaho.
Deputy Director Tamika Middleton said the march may be her organization’s marquee event, but the real focus is on recruiting new activists to help fight for abortion rights over the next year.
“October 2 will be a day to really galvanize folks across the country and begin that push for at least the next year around abortion access,” Middleton said. “We see it as an opportunity, especially in this moment, when there are some states where they just need more capacity. They need the word to be spread. They need to have more boots on the ground doing the work.”
The first Women’s March was widely considered to be the largest single-day protest in American history. But as subsequent events drew smaller crowds, and the national leadership found itself embroiled in controversies, critics suggested the organization might not maintain its momentum.
Still, researchers say the first march had a lasting impact. Sociologists at Purdue University found that participants continued to stay active in their communities and online through Instagram. Elle Rochford, a Purdue professor who co-authored the report with Rachel L. Einwohner, said she has found that many activists “get their sea legs” at the marches, then either engage in direct activism or use their social media accounts to persuade others to act.
“The Women’s March is kind of a friendlier space if you’re new to activism or organizing or the feminist movement,” Rochford said.
Cindi Schorr was one of those women. For 50 years, she was not an activist. The Houston resident voted, and she watched the news, but she avoided protests and other forms of activism. That changed when Donald Trump was elected president. In January 2017, Schorr joined millions of other people and headed to her local Women’s March to protest.
“It was really a turning point for my life,” Schorr said. “Especially in a red state like Texas, it can feel like you’re isolated in your values or politics or beliefs. Seeing thousands of people who were there in solidarity was so overwhelming, inspiring and empowering.”
Schorr has since worked on election campaigns and voter drives. This year, she is traveling to D.C. to help train and recruit volunteers at the national march.
Because the march has such a large platform, the nonprofit has moved toward boosting smaller organizations, but Rochford said some local organizations don’t need or want the structure a national organization can provide.
Michelle Colon, an activist in Jackson, Miss., has long resisted national sponsorships. She has spent two and a half decades fighting for abortion access and women’s rights in Mississippi. For the last three years, she has run SHERO, a nonprofit dedicated to building leadership among Black women and girls in the state.
Often, Colon said, national organizations use Mississippi to drum up financial support. They send out emails, promising to funnel donations toward the state’s lone abortion clinic, then they never show up to back activists on the ground, and they don’t support women, especially Black women, when they need help outside of abortions. Mississippi also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, as well as the highest infant mortality rate.
When the Women’s March approached Colon to lead an “anchor march” this year, something felt different. Middleton and other new leaders have worked as grass-roots organizers, and they didn’t impose their vision on Colon. Instead, they listened when she explained why she would rather host a rally.
“Marching to the Capitol here in Mississippi, especially on a Saturday, no one’s there, and they don’t take us seriously on an open day, so what is the point in having people come to the Capitol?” Colon said.
Colon’s event, called “Abortion Freedom Fighter’s Rally,” is “homegrown Mississippi,” Colon said. The Women’s March is boosting it in part because Mississippi leaders have asked the Supreme Court to decide whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional. The Court will hear the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in December.
Sponsoring small, Black-led groups like Colon’s has been an intentional evolution for the Women’s March. Middleton said they’ve spent much of the year building a national coalition of groups who have long been working to better their own communities. Activists like Colon have “often been the lone voice in the room,” Middleton said.
Colon said her experience with the Women’s March has been positive, and she’s hoping their support will bolster her work as local activists gear up for a busy fall.
“We need to show people that we are supportive of their decision because the first thing is dismantling the stigma, taking that power away from the ‘anti’ legislators and anybody else who’s antiabortion,” Colon said. “We need people to say the word ‘abortion,’ and to have these discussions in the home and in the workplace.”
Though Schorr will be in D.C. this year, she said she’ll be doing so to rally for access in her home state. That first march “sounded an alarm we had previously not heard or ignored,” Schorr said, and she intends to remain vigilant.
“These bans and restrictions disproportionately impact communities that have survived systemic oppression, as well as people who hold multiple marginalized identities,” Schorr said. “We need to rally for abortion justice because all people should have the ability to make decisions about their lives and bodies, to access abortion care when they need it, in the way that works best for them, and with the guidance and support of providers they trust.”