Protesters hold up signs at the Women's March. Tanvi Misra/CityLab

To achieve its goals, any mass movement needs to recognize the disparate ways in which different people are treated in the same public space.

In 1913, a day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as the 28th president of the U.S., 5,000 people participated in a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of women’s suffrage. The parade was led by white women suffragists, and included working women, immigrant women, men, and women of color.

Once the march was underway, it hit a familiar impediment: men. A Library of Congress blog post draws from various news reports to recreate the scene:

Soon, however, the crowds, mostly men in town for the following day's inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, surged into the street making it almost impossible for the marchers to pass. Occasionally only a single file could move forward. Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, shoved, and many heard “indecent epithets” and “barnyard conversation.” Instead of protecting the parade, the police “seemed to enjoy all the ribald jokes and laughter and part participated in them.” One policeman explained that they should stay at home where they belonged. The men in the procession heard shouts of “Henpecko” and “Where are your skirts?” As one witness explained, “There was a sort of spirit of levity connected with the crowd. They did not regard the affair very seriously.”
Marching suffragists (in top images) are blocked by crowds of men (bottom image). (Library of Congress)

On Saturday, D.C. hosted a different, much larger gathering. The turnout for the Women’s March on Washington was estimated at around half a million, three times that of the presidential inauguration a day before.

In other cities around the country and in the world, too, millions marched in what’s now being deemed the largest protest in history. Unlike 1913, relations between marchers and law enforcement were notably less confrontational: Police working the route wore pink paraphernalia and took selfies with protestors.

But the power of the space in which they marched has not diminished. With its walkable downtown and wide thoroughfares sprinkled with symbols of history and power, D.C. has the perfect stage for demonstrations. For women and people of color, who have long been been denied equal access to public space through norm and law, and who are still punished for existing in this realm, the significance of reclaiming the streets of the capital is particularly acute. But historically, this temporary move to subvert power in public space—to exercise the right to peacefully assemble and freely express—has been particularly limited for people of color, and still is.

The first barrier is access. Back in 1913, for example, the leader of the suffragist parade in D.C., activist Alice Paul, wanted black women to walk behind the men—at the back of the bus, so to speak. A segregated march would put Southern white suffragists at ease, she argued. (Racism is a familiar strain in the suffragist movement, with big names like Susan B. Anthony pitting voting rights of black men against those of white women.) Eventually, she and the other organizers relented, and activist Ida B. Wells was among the black women who marched, despite the added risks.

Overall, the 1913 parade was deemed a success—a much-needed injection of morale into the women’s suffrage movement, which achieved its goal seven years later. (Black women, of course, weren’t allowed to vote in many states until the 1960s.) Likewise, this weekend’s Women’s March will be judged by how well this vast body of protest manages to channel its energies into civic engagement, and ultimately political change.

Other parallels go beyond the space, timing, and theme. Before Saturday’s march, there was a great debate about whether the women of color would “hijack” the march or make it more potent. The diversity of the crowd and the speakers, at least in D.C, suggests the latter. But uncomfortable questions persist. The New Yorker’s writes:

Beneath the thrill of the broad-minded demonstration, there was a nagging thought that I couldn’t shake, and that some protesters made a point of noting: if a majority of white women had not voted for Trump in November, he would not currently be President—and millions of people would not be protesting. There’s a corollary to this that also tugged at me: if Trump weren’t President—if we had, on Friday, inaugurated President Hillary Clinton—how many of the white women who protested on Saturday would feel as if there weren’t much about America that needed protesting at all?

The lack of arrests raises another point. The assumption among authorities that the Women’s March—comprising thousands of white women—would be peaceful is not incidental. Gatherings to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline or support Black Lives Matter have not been given the same benefit of doubt, if the difference in police presence and demeanor is any indication. Nor, for that matter, did the 1963 march for Civil Rights in Washington, which was anticipated with great anxiety by the District’s authorities.

Seeing such a large number of bodies peacefully commit to joint action is powerful. But it’s important to recognize the disparate ways in which different groups of people have been treated in the same public space. To march together without really seeing all the people there is to take half-steps toward progress. “I stand here today because of the work of my forebears, from Sojourner to Sylvia, from Ella to Audre, from Harriet to Marsha,” the transgender writer and activist Janet Mock said to the crowd on Saturday. “Today, by being here, it is my commitment to getting us free that keeps me marching. Our approach to freedom need not be identical, but it must be intersectional and inclusive.”

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