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Thursday, May 20, 2004 07:55 pm

The march for women's lives: A front-line view

At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24, approximately 50 people gathered at Planned Parenthood in Springfield. We were indeed a mishmash: The youngest was 6 and wasn't really sure what we were about. The oldest was in her eighties and had witnessed many changes for women in her lifetime.

Some of us had marched in the '60s, worked for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the '70s, and been aware of women's-rights issues for most of our lives. The passengers on our bus were a microcosm of what we would find when we arrived at the actual march, a diverse group of people gathering for one reason: Each of us strongly believes in a woman's right to make her own choices for her own body. For some of us, this was a new experience. For others, this was the continuation of a years-long fight. All of us formed a bond of sisterhood and personhood that would last long after the march was over.

When we arrived at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium after driving all night, the excitement was palpable. More than 1 million people, crossing all demographic lines, had gathered in our nation's capital for the march. Most media downplayed our numbers, but we were there, with one voice and one heart.

There were many men, such as the big burly man accompanying his wife, his daughter, and his mother. He wore a shirt emblazoned with the words "Get a good look at a Montana feminist." The men were boyfriends, husbands, brothers, and fathers who knew that this was an important issue for them because it was such an important issue for the women they loved.

There were many children: newborns strapped to their mothers' and fathers' backs, toddlers in strollers, older girls and boys walking with their parents. There were people of color; people in wheelchairs and leaning on canes; people holding banners reading "Catholics for Choice," "Methodists for Choice," "Law Students for Choice," "Doctors for Choice," "Raging Grannies for Choice," "Gays and Lesbians for Choice." The diversity of the turnout underscored the breadth of support for choice.

Speakers such as Gloria Steinem and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton shared their experiences. Whoopi Goldberg and author Richard North Patterson, respectively, spoke of why this issue was of importance to people of color and to men. The head of the Independent Living Centers in North Carolina spoke for women with disabilities.

We marched, we listened, and, perhaps most important, we met people from all over -- all with their own stories to tell. I shared apple slices with three ladies from New York who marched for women's rights in 1992 and who were adamant about how important this issue is for their daughters and granddaughters. I shared a park bench with a family from California that was there as three generations of feminists.

Protesters were there, too, people who are convinced that to choose choice is to choose death when in reality those of us who choose choice do so because we so believe in life. The protesters were very few, and they reinforced what the marchers believe en masse: We are such a great country because we are entitled to hold on to our beliefs and march for those beliefs, regardless of what they are, and so are people who are not in agreement with us.

Three things made the march the success it was. First, it was diversified, bringing together factions with different beliefs and ideas but willing to put them aside for those few hours. Second, this issue affects everyone. It's not about abortion, but about choice, which is a privacy matter and nothing more. Last, this march made us realize that we are much more alike than we are different, and we need to capitalize on this sameness to make this a better society for all women and, by extension, a better society for all people.

When the march was over, we once again boarded the buses and made the long trip back to Illinois and every other part of the nation, tired but exhilarated at having been a part of a historical movement and moment.

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