On April 8th, 1989 I, my girlfriend Daphne and six other Brown University students and recent graduates, including Geraldine Ferraro’s daughter Laura, went from Providence to Washington for the first March for Women’s Live rally.
Four of us drove down in Daphne’s blue convertible Corvette. When we hit the Maryland line, the southern skies opened up and we flew down to D.C. with the top down listening to early R.E.M. Daphne and I stayed in her family home in Bethesda and still remember the relief felt when her parents approved. On the drive back, we ran out of gas in Connecticut and, as it were, I was chosen to run to the nearest gas station carrying the red plastic can.
500,000 filled the plaza which still held the whispers of King’s speech in 1963. The march, arranged by the National Organization for Women, protested anti-abortion laws pending in the Supreme Court threatening the reversal of Roe v Wade.
1989 was a momentous year for global human rights. A few months after that first Women’s March, the Berlin Wall came down. As we were marching in April 1989, Tiananmen Square was filled with its own protesters for a moment freezing tanks with their truth.
All the women in the picture were committed second wave feminists. Daphne went to medical school and became a nationally recognized psychiatrist. Wendy teaches college in Chicago, works with inner city kids and volunteered for Barack Obama’s very first Illinois state campaign. Jude spent two years organizing workers in Central America and became a civil right’s lawyer in Washington State. Laura devoted her career working for progressive non-profits.
Fast forward to yesterday’s People’s Solidarity Rally in Washington Square Park, done in concert with marches in Seneca Falls and Washington, D.C. In Rochester, more that 1,000 people gathered on the day after President Trump’s inauguration to make their voices heard.
To see how people felt about the last 28 years of the women’s equality movement since that first march in 1989, I showed the old photograph — the still vivid colors testament to Kodak’s enduring analog value — to about 25 people.
For some people, the photograph represented how much more work still has to be done. When looking at the picture, these six women pointed to some gains made. A woman had come within a hairs breath of becoming president. And more women than ever were going to college. But equal pay for equal work has not happened.
Their mood was, understandably, deflated. They feared the new administration and the Republican congress would, as one said, bring us back to the 1950s. One said that the women in the picture probably went to Washington to defend their reproductive rights, ruefully noting that these same rights are still endangered 28 years later.
Alas, a pessimist assessment of the women’s movement was more widespread than I anticipated. Several people, looking at the photo felt a kind of deja vue. As several said, how many more marches will it take until gender equality is finally be realized? For one older woman the photograph reminded her of pictures of her grandmother as a suffragette or from her own youth in the early 70’s when it felt the woman’s movement would irrevocably alter consciousness — the dream still deferred.
One young woman (pictured) thought the second wave feminists who marched in 1989 represented a high point in the movement. She pointed to the backlash of the 1990’s when feminism became a dirty word — when talk radio’s “feminazi” somehow became an acceptable term. Like several others, she felt that, as much as woman have made gains, women have become more — not less — hyper sexualized and hyper objectified, seen writ large in internet pornography. She was despondent that so many woman had cast their votes for Trump, in her words, choosing race over gender.
However, some of the gloom in the air was dispelled when I met three women who had been with us in the plaza back in that heady year of 1989. Like us, they were college students — Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College — who had made what now felt like a pilgrimage. Recalling the sprawling hundreds of thousands on the capitol steps on that overcast afternoon, one of the women said the experience was, as much as anything can be, formative and life changing.
For these women, the picture — that could have been them — was about what the movement has achieved. Their second wave careers would not have been possible without the sacrifices of the first wave. All were involved with Planned Parenthood and saw its positive impact on woman’s lives. One woman saw in the snapshot a meaningful continuity between herself then and herself today making her voice heard in Washington Square Park. She was reminded that believing in and acting for gender equality has been enriching, liberating and empowering. The picture was about a life commitment. 1989 actually did not seem so far away.