Flashback: Over One Million March for Women’s Lives

The following is an article from the Spring 2004 National NOW Times, written by former Communications Director Lisa Bennett. 

March for Women's Lives, 2004

A small portion of the crowd, marching through Washington, D.C.

In the weeks leading up to the March for Women’s Lives, organizers knew the event would be one of the largest of its kind ever in Washington, D.C. Marchers were coming by car, bus, train and plane from all over the United States and even the world. But no one could predict exactly what heights the attendance would reach.

On April 25, 2004, a year of planning paid off when 1.15 million women, men, girls and boys marched to protect and advance abortion rights, birth control and access to a full range of reproductive health care options.

Marchers began gathering shortly after sunrise at the National Mall, between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. By 10 am, when speakers and performers took the morning stage, a sea of activists were pouring from the metro stations into the heart of the nation’s capital. A photo taken from atop the Monument shows an amazing mile-long column of people clad in purple and pink t-shirts and waving a collage of signs. “You look beautiful,” NOW President Kim Gandy told the crowd.

The March itself took hours to complete with so many people participating. The route took reproductive rights supporters past the White House and down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol building. Back on the Mall again, more speeches and entertainment rounded out an incredible day.

An Unprecedented Coalition

NOW has organized every mass march for women’s rights over the past three decades, including the 1992 March for Women’s Lives which drew 750,000 to Washington, D.C., and helped change the course of that year’s elections. This time, an unprecedented coalition of women’s rights and social justice groups banded together to make this March for Women’s Lives a breathtaking display of support for reproductive freedom.

The March was led by seven organizing groups: National Organization for Women, American Civil Liberties Union, Black Women’s Health Imperative, Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro Choice America, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. More than 1,400 organizations co-sponsored the event, from the NAACP to the National Association of Social Workers.

Those marching represented tens of millions more who couldn’t be there, all unified in the conviction that women must have a right to abortion, birth control and all reproductive options, including the right to have children and determine their own family formations without government interference.

An Important Agenda

With women’s reproductive rights under greater threat than at any time since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, NOW and the other lead organizations knew that it was time to call another march. “Going back to the days before Roe, when women died from illegal abortions, is not an option,” says Gandy.

The groups committed to bringing a broadly diverse crowd to D.C., because the lives at risk include women and girls of all ages, races, ethnicities, economic classes, religious beliefs, sexual orientations and abilities. And by all accounts, we succeeded.

High on the list of goals for the March was to sound a call that women’s health and lives are truly on the line. Demonstrating the depth and breadth of support for reproductive rights was another top priority. The more than one million participants guaranteed that the March was a front-page news story across the county, helping meet these two crucial goals.

Creating an event that would inspire and invigorate legions of activists was a must. The March would be only the beginning of a massive effort to advance the lives of women and girls. Gandy told the crowd: “We are going to take the passion and energy of this March and we are going to take it home!”

To provide a focus for the marchers, something they could work on back at home, NOW launched a new voter registration campaign, 10 for Change, at the March.

Heroes, Celebrities and Entertainers

The leaders of the seven organizing groups were all on hand with inspiring messages for the crowd. Gandy made sure that everyone shouted loud enough for the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House to hear.

Feminist heroes like Gloria Steinem, Dolores Huerta, former NOW Presidents Eleanor Smeal and Patricia Ireland and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright made lasting impressions on the multi-generational audience. Marchers cheered a tribute to the legendary Dr. Dorothy Height, chair of the National Council of Negro Women, who was hospitalized and unable to speak as scheduled.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton welcomed us to Washington, and other members of Congress spoke both before and after the March, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and a surprise appearance by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom the crowd went wild. House Women’s Caucus co-chair Louise Slaughter introduced other members who spoke, including Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Rep. Hilda Solis, and Rep. Maxine Waters.

Actor LisaGay Hamilton of “The Practice” was our host for the morning stage and Whoopi Goldberg was emcee at the afternoon stage. A long list of other celebrities were on hand, both marching and speaking: Curtis Armstrong, Amy Brenneman, Tyne Daly, Janeane Garofalo, Frances Fisher, Sharon Gless, Ashley Judd, Christine Lahti, Camryn Manheim, Julianne Moore, Kathy Najimy, Susan Sarandon, Cybill Shepard, Kathleen Turner and many more.

Musicians from the Indigo Girls to Moby performed, including two who will sing in concert for this summer’s NOW Conference—Cris Williamson and SONiA of disappear fear. Entertainers abounded, from Margie Adam and BETTY to Sandy Rapp and spoken word from NOW’s own Nitche Ward. Ani DiFranco gave a powerful performance toward the end of a long day, and Kay Weaver closed the march with “One Fine Day.”

Courage and Tragedy

Perhaps the most moving speakers were those who have personally experienced the obstacles, hazards and tragedy involved in exercising the legal right to abortion and reproductive health care in the U.S.

Dr. Susan Wicklund attended NOW’s march in 1989 and left committed to using her skills as a physician to make a difference. For years, Wicklund braved threats and harassment to fly between three states, providing abortion services to rural women. This year she spoke on stage and urged marchers to find some way that they, too, could change their lives to make a difference for women.

Attorney Fay Clayton, who argued the groundbreaking NOW v. Scheidler case before the Supreme Court—a case which charged perpetrators of clinic violence with racketeering—introduced some of those who survived violent attacks: Emily Lyons, maimed by a bomb in Alabama, and June Barrett, injured when her husband and a doctor were killed outside a clinic in Florida.

The father and brother of Becky Bell, who died at 17 from an unsafe “back alley” abortion, testified to the dangers of parental notification laws.

Many, many more courageous and dedicated women and men spoke on April 25, and more than a million participants heard their call to make the March for Women’s Lives an event that will impact the destiny of women and girls for generations to come.

“We are going to fight like our lives depend on it,” said Kim Gandy. “Because they do!”

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