On Sunday, April 25, the largest ever assembly of peaceful protesters gathered at the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. at The March for Women's Lives. Conservative estimates put the total number of pro-choice marchers at 800,000; March organizers 1,150,000. Regardless of an exact count, most sources agree that The March for Women's Lives will go down in history for its size and impact. Helping to make the day historical were over 200 Idahoans.
Wendy Morgan, Community Organizing Director for Idaho Women's Network (IWN) said that in September, IWN met with representatives from three local branches of national organizations sponsoring the march: American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Planned Parenthood and the National Organization of Women (NOW). At that meeting, the group hoped to send twenty Idahoans to the march, despite lacking funds to do so. Auspiciously, in January, IWN received a call from the Tides Foundation (a progressive foundation that aids community-based nonprofits) inviting them to apply for grant monies the foundation was making available to conservative states wishing to send representatives to the March. IWN enthusiastically applied and was granted $10,000. Morgan and Ellie Merrick from Planned Parenthood traveled the state, recruiting women and men who wanted to attend—and needed financial assistance to do so—from places like Sandpoint, Moscow, Twin Falls, Pocatello and Sun Valley. The response was overwhelming; more than 300 people expressed a strong desire to attend. Finances and logistics narrowed the group to about 200, many of whom had never been to Washington, D.C.
Once at the march the entire group (collectively called Idaho for Choice) did their best to stick together in a sea of folks loosely organized by state. "It took five hours to march three blocks," Morgan said. The number of people gathered on Capitol Mall practically matched the entire population of Idaho. Morgan noted that every time someone in Idaho's contingency snapped a photo of the group, some unknown bystander also took a photo. Morgan says, "We were the unlikely suspects." Most people categorize Idaho as anti-choice due to people like Brandi Swindell. Morgan lamented that Swindell (National Director for Generation Life and resident of Meridian, Idaho) managed to get herself local and national media coverage as a counter-protester but that their 200-strong pro-choice contingent, did not.
Morgan viewed the march as "fascinating in terms of the Women's Movement and the way it is starting to shift. Men were everywhere and young people made up at least a third of the crowd." Many of the speakers applauded the diversity of the march—high attendance of youth, men, people of color, queer people and representatives from 57 countries set it apart from the last pro-choice march on Washington in 1992.
Speakers included politicians, activists, March organizers, celebrities and those with relevant stories to tell. Morgan particularly remembers the story of a woman whose mother died of an illegal abortion. She was also impacted by the words of Senator Hilary Clinton and ACLU director Anthony Romero who proclaimed, "The government does not belong in our bedrooms." Clinton said, "We didn't have to march for 12 long years because we had a government that respected the rights of women. The only way we're going to be able to avoid having to march again and again and again is to elect John Kerry president."
Clever, blunt and angry signs filled the mall, many of them anti-Bush like one that read: "Bush has hijacked our government and slammed it into our Constitution." But the most resounding message was simple, "Get out and vote."
Many speakers addressed the importance of voting Bush out of office; after all, if he continues to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, Roe v. Wade will likely be overturned. Bush also reinstated the gag rule (a ban on federal aid to family planning groups that promote or perform abortions abroad) his first day of office and he is the force behind legislation in 28 states that now recognize a fetus as separate from a woman.
Monday after the march, ten members of the Idaho for Choice contingent took to the Capitol Building to lobby Idaho's Congressional leaders. Morgan says, "It was nice to be able to walk into an office and say there's ten of us here, representing over 200 Idahoans, saying these things matter." The group talked about how abstinence doesn't work, and stressed the need to focus on prevention and education in order to give young people the tools they need to make good decisions. Morgan says, "Ultimately our goals are the same: reduce STIs, STDs, the amount of unplanned or unintended pregnancies, which in turn will reduce the amount of abortions. But our methods are very different."
Morgan is hopeful their lobbying efforts may help Idaho's policymakers look at things differently. Research points to the fact that young people who receive comprehensive sex education usually decide they are not ready to be sexually active.
The momentum gained from this pilgrimage to D.C. is something Morgan sees as a catalyst to get people involved in ways they weren't before. The experience was certainly an energizing one; Melissa Davlin, an 18-year-old University of Idaho student exclaimed, "I can die happy now, I've lobbied on Capitol Hill."
To maintain the buzz from the trip, IWN plans to hold a leadership retreat at the end of June, so march-goers can talk about where to go from here and how to stay involved in women's reproductive rights and other progressive causes in this critical election year.