Marching for Equality: A Brief History of Women’s Marches

The night before Donald Trump took the Oval Office, more than 2 million women had signed up to participate in one of hundreds of protest marches across the US and around the world.

“We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health and our families—recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country,” according to Women’s March, one of the largest organizers of events.

In the days and hours leading up to the inauguration, social media was filled with photos of protest signs, demonstrations, slogans and words of advice on how to avoid getting arrested and what to do if police took a protestor’s phone; all practical advice given in the spirit of keeping people safe while also transmitting to the world the conditions in which protestors were treated and handled.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 women marched to the Capitol Building in support of earning their right to vote; the march coincided with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Image:

“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized and threatened many of us—immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault—and our communities are hurting and scared.

We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear,” the website continued.

But don’t for a moment think this is the first time large demonstrations of women have gathered and marched through the streets, whether it be Washington, D.C. or other major cities, assembling in a show of strength, unity and opposition to a perceived oppressor.

Suffragettes in Washington DC
Suffragettes carrying signs urging the incoming president, Woodrow Wilson, to acknowledge their right to vote. Image:

The grandmother of all women’s marches took place more than 100 years ago, in 1913, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Up to 8,000 suffragists and their supporters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, singing songs, carrying signs and shouting slogans to gain attention and support for the effort to secure women’s ability to vote alongside white men.

The march’s organizers, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, went through the proper channels to secure a permit for the demonstration, but many who gathered were assaulted and attacked by the opposition. It was this mistreatment, in addition to the size of the gathering, which began to turn the tide; women had the right to vote by the end of the decade.

In January 1968, one of the women who had marched for the right to vote only to later become the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin, returned to Pennsylvania Avenue.

This time, she was protesting the Vietnam War. Again, she was accompanied by about 5,000 supporters, demonstrating between Union Station and the Capitol Building. Upon arrival, they presented a peace petition to John McCormack, then Speaker of the House.

Women protest 1978
Women marched through New York City’s Financial District in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1978. Image:

Later that year, in September 1968, women gathered outside the Atlantic City Convention Center to protest the Miss America pageant taking place inside. It was a smaller group—only about 400 women—but those in attendance burned their bras to protest the “ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously,” organizer Robin Morgan said at the time, according to Time magazine.

In August of 1970, thousands of women converged, this time in New York City, for the Women’s Strike for Equality. This time, 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue in a movement organized by the National Organization for Women and led by Betty Freidan, who wanted to show the power of feminism.

Freidan had wanted American women to go on strike for a day to prove the invaluable efforts and tasks they complete in a given day and highlight “the unequal distribution of domestic labor,” Time magazine wrote in the days leading up to the protest. “It isn’t clear how many women truly went on ‘strike’ that day, but the march served as a powerful symbolic gesture,” the magazine recapped recently. “Participants held signs with slogans like ‘Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot’ and ‘Don’t Cook Dinner – Starve a Rat Today.’”

Women’s Strike for Peace-And Equality, Women’s Strike for Equality, Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, August 26, 1970. Image: Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society

The March for the Equal Rights Amendment, on July 9, 1978, in Washington, D.C., was attended by more than 100,000 people, rallying in support of the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment. First proposed in 1923, the bill proposed a federal requirement for equal treatment under the law and equal pay for women.

Ultimately the bill was not ratified (yet?) but women across the US, in Boston, Berkeley, Detroit, Indianapolis and other cities gathered to demonstrate they wouldn’t be locked in a kitchen.

There have been a series of marches under the banner of the March for Women’s Lives, including in April 1992 and in April 2004. In 1992, the demonstration took place around the same time the Supreme Court “refused to endorse Pennsylvania’s new restrictions” on access to abortions, as made legal in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Some 75,000 gathered on the streets of Washington for this event;  a rally by the same name saw more than a million protestors and activists march two miles between the Washington Monument and the White House as part of a four-hour rally in support of abortion services and rights.

One of the speakers during the 2004 rally was Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who told participants that their efforts in 1992 brought about the election of her husband, Bill Clinton, and a pro-choice administration; she encouraged voter registration for that fall’s election.