This weekend is the Women’s March 2020.
If you didn’t know that, don’t feel too bad—the annual event has gotten little national attention, there are few celebrities involved, and the Women’s March D.C. has just under 6,000 RSVPs on Facebook. Only three years after the first Women’s March—the largest one-day protest ever in U.S. history—the Women'’s March 2020 seems dinky and almost embarrassing, like showing up to your high school reunion and finding yourself in a sparsely filled gymnasium.
In the time since the first Women’s March, we’ve seen the explosion of #MeToo and a record number of women elected to office. We’ve also seen two more anti-choice Supreme Court Justices appointed to the highest court in the land and hundreds of extreme conservative judges appointed to lower courts, reshaping the judicial branch for a generation. More than 200 members of Congress have asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Odds of the first female president, which seemed so hopeful at the beginning of the 2020 race, have plummeted.
Three years of bad news has left us scattered and tired. The raw outrage that propelled millions of people out of their houses and into the streets for the first Women’s March has been blunted over time, each terrible headline bringing with it not just horror, but shame. If it’s this bad, maybe we should just drop it. It doesn’t feel like there’s a compelling reason to put on sensible layers and take a long walk in the middle of a Saturday in the dead of winter, to chant into the wind about a number of causes that feel beyond hope. The march on Saturday will probably be small.
So it’s ironic that turnout for the Women’s March in 2021 could be the biggest ever. I’d bet the cash equivalent of a Mar-a-Lago wedge salad that if Donald Trump is reelected, people will march after his second inaugural. If we’re staring down another term of a president who described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and white nationalists as “very fine people,” who has authorized the rollback of civil rights and social services, and whom two dozen women have accused of sexual assault, people will want to do something. The flame will be stoked. We’ll take to the streets. As we did in 2017, so we will in 2021—“What could be more important than this?” We’ll think. “How else would we ever want to spend our weekend?”
We’ll feel, again, that stinging, raging feeling, that desire to make things right, that terror that it’s too late, that promise to ourselves, again, that we’ll fight whatever is coming. We’ll clear our schedules. We’ll gather our friends. We won’t think it’s too cold outside.
Right now activists have their best chance to curtail the Trump White House since he was elected—with an election on the horizon and Democrats back in control of the House of Representatives. But somehow it’s right now that marching feels less urgent. It’s a trick of the mind—these next months are the best time for political mobilization we’ll have until 2024.
For all its drawbacks, the Women’s March was not just once the biggest, shiniest mobilization tool, but the one with the lowest barrier to participate. That’s a huge deal. Showing up to march doesn’t directly influence elections, but it provides an entry point unlike any other for people who want to get involved.
In 2017, the Women’s March was the first, defiant shout of life from people who felt defeated but found retreat unthinkable. Across America and outside of it, waves upon wave of women stood together, rejecting violence and division and baseless hatred and the rollback of basic rights. Right now it sounds like a fantasy. But it was just a Saturday when a lot of people decided to show up.
In 2018, the marches were smaller, which was to be expected—it’s almost impossible to re-create a historic event.
In 2019, discord among the national leadership of the march and serious accusations of anti-Semitism against some of its leaders fractured and fizzled the momentum. (Since then, the original leadership has been almost completely replaced with a new board of directors.)
Millions of marchers in 2017 turned into hundreds of thousands in 2018 turned into tens of thousands in 2019. Now what? The relentlessness of bad news—and the feeling of our powerlessness in the face of it—is overwhelming. The world is burning and kids sicken and die in cages and women’s rights to health can be rescinded and wars can be started on social media. How do you even presume to respond to that?
“I think that there’s a lot of sense of people not necessarily knowing how to make their best contribution” says Rachel O’Leary Carmona, the new COO of the Women’s March. “There’s been a lot of efforts to distract women from building power, and a lot of distractions in the news—it’s very hard with a country going through an impeachment of the president, an international provocation that brought us to the brink of war, and in the midst of a presidential election,” she added. “But I think that’s why it’s more important than ever all those things are a demonstration of the abuses of power that Trump has engaged with.”
“How do I contribute?” is the first question that so many of us ask about our role in making the world feel less like one all-encompassing Porta Potty. After Trump’s election, thousands of people—and women in particular, if the outcome of the 2018 midterms is an indication—were spurred to participate in politics and political activism far outside their comfort zone, whether it embarrassed them or felt a little lame or not. Women surged into office. But for more of us, “How do I contribute?” is also the last question we ask before throwing up our hands.
The thing that the Women’s March did so well was give us an answer that made political engagement simple. In sending a national invite to join a clear action that required merely that people be able to move in one direction, it welcomed millions of people to the world of protest. The Women’s March allows people to participate in an act of organized political protest at little personal cost. To be a part of a march, show up. It’s quicker and easier than (but not a replacement for) voting. It’s a bridge between the isolation of reading the news and the much bigger ask of phone banking or donating. It’s not sufficient on its own, but it’s also the easiest possible first step.
The Women’s March also made people feel good. That’s partially why it’s treated with suspicion, as if having a good time means what you’re doing isn’t also serious. (Meanwhile, attendees at Trump rallies don’t seem to do a lot of hand-wringing about mixing fun and politics.) Marching in 2017 made joining together in a massive action feel both consequential and joyous. Winning in 2020, not to mention the general project of making America more just and more livable, will require more from us than spending a few hours in the streets. Marching is often less like protesting or canvassing, and more like praying—it refocuses and centers you, it sharpens your resolve, it can form exceptionally strong bonds and build a sense of fellowship.
“The broader goal is to create a big tent for people to organize with community and build capacity and build relationships so that there’s an infrastructure for feminist organizing in 2020,” Carmona says. Marching isn’t a replacement for other forms of activism; it’s fuel for them. If marching isn’t your thing, there are plenty of alternatives, even more effective ways of influencing political and social change. But we shouldn’t dismiss the form of activism that welcomed millions of people to political involvement—or worst of all, feel embarrassed about it.
Don’t wait for 2021, for the fifth march, for another Trump administration. If you’d go next year, go this time too. Better to be there when we still have time to march, to donate, to register ourselves and others, and to vote. Better to feel a little dumb at an underattended march, a little cold in the January weather, a little unsure about whether waving a sign around makes a difference. Ask the woman next to you—maybe she’ll have an idea.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour