Jacob Stern

The Walt Whitman Rest Area was packed with liberal women. We were still in New Jersey, three hours away from Washington, but cars clotted the parking lot and lines for the women’s room were so long the men’s had been taken over as well. There were women wearing t-shirts from both Obama inaugurations, women trying to keep their children from slipping away to the Cinnabon counter. There were college students in the kind of hip turtlenecks you don’t ordinarily see on the Jersey Turnpike and white-haired, anorak-wearing women towing men along in their wake. Already people were speaking in the slogans they would scrawl on cardboard the next morning; the woman in front of me kept looking around and remarking significantly on the “157 million women scorned.” It was 10 a.m. and although there were four empowered women in our car, only two of us could drive. I should have been grateful for the turnout, I knew, but all I could think was that the traffic was going to get obscene. We’d be on the road all night.

It was a long drive south after that, hours of highways that merged into each other at state lines, but I wasn’t as frustrated as I thought. Just as the line to the restrooms at Walt Whitman proceeded more briskly, more cheerfully than those lines usually do, the cars snaked firmly but politely towards the capital. We were bumper to bumper but in the friendliest way; no one cut anyone else off, no horns were honked. When there was a jam ahead, a wave of brake lights flowed gently backward down the highway, telling me I’d better slow down too and bathing the bumper stickers all around us in red: No human is illegal, Coexist, Ready for Hillary. In the back seat, Molly and Emily closed their eyes, and finally Coryna, staying awake in the passenger seat out of obligation, dozed against the window. But the uncanny order of the highway kept me alert. I was alone in the car with the heater murmuring, but here in the next lane was a woman holding hands with her partner over the console, here was a mother with three children strapped into car seats, there were a husband and wife in a pickup truck from upstate New York. We were all going to the same place, to do the same thing, and we were released, for the night, from our usual suspicious, defensive driving, made softer and kinder by being among all those other people who were on our team.

The lively tidiness persisted through the morning. There was bad cellphone reception on the streets and little guidance from organizers; turnout was much too high for the original march route and most people, tired of waiting around for direction that seemed unlikely to come, just started making their way down the cordoned-off streets in unofficial but perfectly organized marches. Space was made for people with strollers. Small children held signs saying “My mom is MAD,” and women carried laundry lists of concerns jammed onto small pieces of cardboard: immigration is good and climate change is bad and vaccines save lives and go intersectional feminism. Yes, there was a man screaming into a microphone about the hell awaiting witches and abortionists, but a circle of motherly women in reflective vests locked hands around him and told everyone to keep moving on. In fact, though there were people of all ages at the march, everyone seemed a little motherly, at least insofar as I associate that word with the immense anxiety and competence of my own mother. We are very worried about many things, these signs seemed to say, but we are very confident of fixing most of them. We were marching with Coryna’s parents, and to keep from being separated we followed her father’s sign, which he held tirelessly over his head: “Women’s healthcare is precious.”

When it got cold we stopped for a late lunch and afterward, fortified, walked to the ellipse in front of the White House, where the march was supposed to finish. There were thousands of people milling on the limp January grass, but no one was in charge, and no one declared the march over. No one told us what we’d accomplished, after driving all this way. Donald Trump was in the White House (bowling with his family, it was later reported), but he hadn’t emerged to promise that, since we had demonstrated so impressively, he would preserve immigration and end police brutality and declare himself a feminist.

So the crowd didn’t disperse. Biceps aching from holding up slogans, shivering in the dim afternoon, overcaffeinated and dehydrated, the marchers were restive. They spilled into streets which hadn’t been designated for the march and down which cars were crawling, shouting “Take them back! Take them back!” and waving signs at drivers who were confused, who just wanted to get home without hitting a pedestrian. In one of the squares, a fringe group had set up speakers, and the leader was shouting that we needed to occupy Washington like Tahrir Square until Trump was ousted from power. Instantaneously, it seemed, huge city blocks reeked of weed. People stood in anxious, jostling lines, trying to cram into sandwich shops. I’d been too blithe to notice them before but now everywhere I turned there was some mystifying sign that went beyond a slogan, the simplification of meaning, to a complete abandonment of meaning. “Pence Sucks Dick,” one announced. A sign captioned “Impeach” featured a mixed-metaphor cartoon of Trump whose face was a peach but whose mouth, which should have been the stem, had been turned into an anus. As I took these in, a woman brushed past me wearing pink cat makeup that had turned red and started running down her face. A man in one of the ubiquitous pink hats, a hat that looked like it had been handmade for him, got in a fight with two other men.

It seemed as though we had left behind, with the vigor and the energy of the morning, all the pretensions to unity we’d started out with. The people around me were no longer cogs in some large entity of solidarity but people again, people who did things for their own reasons, people with whom I didn’t agree. And I was a person again, a person who had to consider and evaluate instead of just marching forward. Did I think it was rad to toke up together in the nation’s capital, or was this a cavalier middle-class attitude that dismissed the actual ravages of drugs on cities? Were cracks at physical appearance unacceptable, even for Donald Trump, or was that a ludicrously prim thought in this era? What exactly was the point of a pink hat, if it didn’t stop you from getting into a brawl?

As the fight ended a man steered a little girl across the street in front of us. Under her parka, unnoticed, the girl was wearing a Make America Great Again cap. Her father was explaining to her that everyone had a right to protest and that was why there were people in the street. They looked as nice, as tender to each other as anyone could be. It would be impossible to tell the difference between them and the grumbling, barely pacified men, to tell who was on our team and who wasn’t, but for their hats, their signs.

The march was fascinating; it was exhilarating. But the dream of cohesion that captivated me on the dark highway was in the end just that — a dream, as elusive among thousands of ostensibly like-minded people as alone in one’s room. When we drove back to my house to spend the night, my parents were reading the articles that were already striving to make meaning out of the day, to identify the most iconic pictures and the signs that really summed it all up. What they seemed to take for granted was that it could be summed up at all. They did not want to say or think what struck me most: that half a million women, as idealistic and motherly as we all are or want to be, become half a million cold and hungry and discouraged women after a long day. That the vague umbrella of political sameness crumbles into half a million different ideas and priorities and hopes, all in conflict with each other. That women are sometimes a movement but other times are just frustrated, disparate people who need to wave a sign in someone’s face or shout something awful before we can go home.