Marking change with ritual and belief 

I've never been a good candidate for any established feminist group. Growing up in the 1970s, the women I idolized were sexy, tough, unapologetic -- and fictional: Foxy Brown, Cat Woman, Charlie's Angels. By the time I entered college, I felt more aligned with sex worker/activist Annie Sprinkle than with anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin. I also identify strongly with Camille Paglia, who has been dismissed by many a feminist, and I have a somewhat extensive collection of porn. None of this sits well with traditional feminism.

So the last place I ever expected to be was on a tour bus filled with feminists headed for the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C. But I figure we're all in it for the same cause, so I'm willing to put aside my discomfort and sense of alienation.

We're scheduled to leave our meeting spot in Providence, R.I., promptly at midnight, but the bus arrives half an hour late, putting us slightly behind schedule. Everyone is irritated, but gets over it quickly. Little do we know things are about to get worse.

The bus finally starts moving, but 10 minutes into the ride the driver tells us the oil light has come on. So he stops to add a couple of quarts to the engine before we get on the highway. This takes another 20 minutes, putting us a full hour behind schedule.

We finally hit I-95 south, but 25 minutes later the bus breaks down, electricity and all. The driver calls for a new bus, but by now it's 2 a.m., and we're only 20 minutes outside Providence.

We're all freaked. The prospect of missing the march altogether seems to be coming to fruition. Like me, my friend, Jennifer Pereira, a 22-year-old student of international politics, was hoping to make her first ever pilgrimage to D.C. for an abortion-rights march. But she's feeling so tired and doomed by now that she's ready to go home.

I slide back into my seat and break out my Walkman, but the damn thing won't play. Great. I'll just listen to the crickets, then. Or chew the dirt from under my fingernails. There's plenty to do when you're stranded on a dark, lonely stretch of highway in the dead of night.

"I have more bad news," the driver says. "It's gonna be an hour before the other bus gets here."

On the road again

The new bus arrives at 3 a.m., and things are looking up again. Except the luggage compartment of the busted bus won't open, and that's where all of our signs and banners are. Mine are good, too: "John Ashcroft Is a Sexually Repressed Woman-Hater," and "The Christian Right Are Self-Righteous Hatemongering Control Freaks." Now I'll have to yell my slogans during the march and hope someone hears me.

Despite all the bad juju, our new bus miraculously makes it to D.C. by 9:30 a.m., which is logistically impossible. We were all asleep for the ride, but we're pretty sure that our driver pulled some Harry Potter shit to get us here on time.

Before we get off the bus, our organizer, John Osmand of the International Socialist Organization, briefs us on safety and meeting times. He warns us that there will be anti-abortion demonstrators and cautions us exercise restraint. No spitting, no hitting, no shooting, no wedgies.

I throw in my two cents. "Those people want a reaction. They want you to get upset and yell. Just ignore them. That pisses them off more than anything."

Everyone seems to agree, especially Jennifer. She's here to be a part of the sisterhood, to joyously unite with other pro-choicers. She's a Zen girl. She likes yoga and meditation and overpriced hot beverages with foam on top. She's not into confrontation and ugliness.

We decide to walk from 4th and K streets to the Mall, where the marchers are gathering and where the rest of the day's events are being held. It's a cloudy, but mild, day, we're enjoying the walk, Jennifer is seeing D.C. for the first time -- and then there they are, congregated on the plaza at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the anti-abortion Christian right, George W. Bush's prized demographic.

Sticking to my "ignore" policy, I say nothing to them. Jennifer agrees, this is the best strategy.

As we approach the Mall, and more anti-abortion loonies, I see a massive sign hailing the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, held up by an Army of God type, a group that advocates the slaughter of abortion providers and believes women who have abortions should be killed. His mother must be proud.

Looking left, I'm floored by the number of pro-choice demonstrators who have come here from all over the country. The vastness of their presence is so overwhelming that it takes my breath away. Not to mention the fact that to my left is comedian Sandra Bernhard, and to my right is former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Nora Dunn, two of my favorite funny women of all time. There's an impressive celebrity presence here: Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Cybill Shepherd, Julianne Moore, Ted Turner, Carole King, Howard Dean, Ashley Judd, Camryn Manheim, Carrot Top. Oh, wait, that's not Carrot Top. It's just a big vagina puppet.

Would you kill me?

After great anticipation, the march begins. But it's not exactly a "march," it's more of a shuffle. So many people are here that it's gridlock on foot. We walk a few steps, then stop. Walk a few steps, then stop. No one seems to really mind, though. After all, it's a day of unity and empowerment; as long as we can ignore, as I have sworn to do, the handful of anti-abortion wackadoos lined up along the march route.

But somewhere along the route, the tone changes, at least on the outer edges of the march -- closest to where the anti's are, armed with their leather-bound Bibles, which are especially useful for justifying bombing abortion clinics and condemning homosexuals. A marcher behind me starts yelling, "Go home and read your Bible!" The anti's respond with chants of "Baby killers!" and "Abortion is murder!" And of course, they've got their fetus pictures, the same four photos of mangled fetuses that they've been recycling since before Reagan was shot. You'd think that with the "murderous epidemic" of abortion in the United States, they'd at least have some new photos by now.

A man marching beside me spots a poster on which a Holocaust grave is juxtaposed with a picture of a dead fetus. On top it says "Hitler's Holocaust," and on the bottom "America's Holocaust." The man, who is wearing a Star of David around his neck, becomes enraged. "Oh you son of a bitch!" he yells. "How dare you! How dare you!"

The angry Jewish man has inspired me.

There's an Amish guy with silly facial hair a little further up, along with his subjugated wife, whose ankles are dutifully covered. I can't resist. "Go home and read your Bible, you butter-churning freak!" He yells back something unintelligible and waves his wooden crucifix at me, to which I respond, "I don't have to listen to anyone who doesn't even know what electricity is!"

Alas, I have broken my vow to "ignore." But at least I did not stoop to profanity. I make this my new rule: Yelling is OK, but no expletives.

This lasts all of about 12 minutes.

As we march down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Christian anti-abortion front get more obnoxious, and thus better protected by barricades and cops. The marchers angrily chant "Pro-life, that's a lie! You don't care if women die!" I glance over at Jennifer, and she looks madder than a wet hen. She's abandoned the group chant and is screaming, "Go to hell and burn your Bibles!" So much for Zen and meditation.

As we pass a group of clergymen holding signs that say, "What about the BABY'S life?" I yell, "What about my life?" One of the men tries to touch me and cries out, "Jesus loves you anyway! Even though you support killing babies, Jesus loves you!" That does it. I put my middle finger up an inch away from his face and scream, "Fuck you!"

Immediately afterwards, a row of about a dozen Catholic priests are lined up, silently passing judgment on all of us sinners. The marchers around me go nuts. Everyone starts yelling about pedophiles and the Pope being an irrelevant old fart. A few of the priests smirk, which makes me ornery as hell. I point at each of them and yell, "Pedophiles! Child molesters! Rapists of young boys! Burn in hell, you motherfuckers!" That's right, I told a bunch of priests to burn in hell. I've dreamt of this day ever since I was a disillusioned 15-year-old Catholic schoolgirl. My catharsis is off the charts.

Near the end of the march, I see something that turns my stomach. A man is seated with an anti-abortion sign in his lap. The thing is, he's seated in a wheelchair. He has severe physical deformities and cannot stand or even hold the sign himself. He also appears to be blind, as his head is bent back and his blank eyes are staring up into nowhere. I can't make out what he's saying because his speech is severely impaired. I move closer to hear him. He's saying, "Would you kill me? Would you kill me?" Just repeating it over and over, like a broken record, like he's been trained. This fellow has been reduced to a human propaganda tool of anti-abortion crazies, and he's completely at their mercy for his life sustenance. I'm not sure if his repeated question is rhetorical, or a plea for help.

The new sisterhood

It was supposed to be a day of sisterhood, of uniting for a common cause. And it was. But for me, it was so much more than that. It was the day I realized that old-school feminism is on the way out. There's a changing of the guard, and no one's singing "Kumbaya" or calling for Larry Flynt's head on a platter.

This new generation knows who the real enemies are. These women don't care about about my porn collection. For the first time in my life, I feel aligned with feminists, because they're speaking a language that moves me. We're fighting a common enemy: the Christian fundamentalists who have hijacked our government.

As the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote regarding the security of abortion rights, "a chill wind blows." Right now, the Rehnquist Court is one vote away from banning legal abortion in America. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans support a woman's right to choose, voter apathy (or foolish protest votes for Ralph Nader) could get Bush a second term. He will then appoint -- as he has vowed to do -- another anti-abortion judge like Antonin Scalia. Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and abortion will become illegal again, just like that.

Overnight, we'll be sent back to the awful time of deadly, back-alley abortions. I don't want to go back to those days. I don't want to live under the tyrannical rule of sanctimonious, old-world Christian men who hate women and don't care if we die.

Think about it. "Would you kill me?"

Why they came

by Emily Ruff

click to enlarge 042904_sisterjpg
A tiny woman in her late 60s wearing a pale blue habit, Sister Mariah is a member at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and chaplain at the National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C. She marched on Sunday to uphold her religious freedom and beliefs.

"I believe we have the right to choice, whether it is reproductive education, contraception, all the way through," she says. "I was raised a Quaker, and both faiths believe in scriptural tradition, but also rely on personal reason and using your brains."

Sister Mariah marched with her friend Tawna (last name withheld on request), a Buddhist in her early 40s who also resides in D.C. The two were among many religious participants in Sunday's march.

Caitlin Carrigan is another. Carrigan, 24, is originally from upstate New York, but recently moved to Coral Springs. She was among thousands of marchers with Catholics for a Free Choice, a pro-choice organization whose members passed out the magazine Conscience and stickers that read "Speak Out Against Fundamentalism!"

"When you consider the number of women dying from STDs due to poor sex education, from illegal back-alley abortions, you cannot turn your eyes away," says Carrigan. "Those in the religious community are especially responsible for working for justice, and reproductive justice translates into access to safe medical procedures, contraception and better education about the two."

James Garvin, 17, of Boulder, Colo., hasn't even graduated from high school yet. He and a friend came to join the group Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, an arm of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. Holding signs reading "Youth for Choice," Garvin and his friend joined hundreds of thousands of people under the age of 25 who made up over one-third of the march's participants.

"Young people will be the ones who will steer our country back to a better place," Garvin says. "We are inheriting a lot of bad stuff from our parents' generation, but we have the energy and the motivation to turn that around."

Leann Frayley, 33, marched in honor of the freedoms of the next generation. A mother of two, she is four and a half months pregnant with her third child. Holding a sign that read "Pregnant Mom for Choice,"' Frayley traveled from New Jersey to participate in the march. "I want my daughter to be able to make a choice for herself when and if the time ever comes," she says. "I think the Republican Party has moved too far to the right, and that rich white men are making decisions for everyone in the world. That's just wrong."

More by Dee Rivers


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