WASHINGTON — Twenty-five-year-old Ashley Theil wasn't born when her mother, Lynda, first began pushing for reproductive rights for women. But on Sunday, she found herself fighting the same battle, with her mother by her side, as they joined hundreds of thousands of people to march along Pennsylvania Avenue in support of abortion rights.
The March for Women's Lives was organized by seven national women's rights groups to support a woman's access to legal abortion and birth control. It was the first large-scale march of this kind in 12 years. The coalition said that the Bush administration and Congress, by creating the so-called partial-birth abortion ban, have threatened the right to an abortion first established in the landmark Roe vs. Wade case in 1973. The organizers pointed out that President Bush "is the first U.S. president in history to sign a law that bans abortions as early as 12-15 weeks in pregnancy, abortions that doctors say are safe and medically appropriate."
"It's a unique thing for someone my age to fight so hard for a right, and watch it erode," said Lynda Theil, 57. She looked at her daughter. "To see it come in my generation and to see it lost in their generation — what a tragedy."
There were thousands of mother-daughter duos like the Theils at the march, as well as women representing three or even four generations of a family. Many of the youngest attendees were in strollers, while the oldest negotiated the National Mall in wheelchairs.
Although the Washington, D.C., Police Department no longer issues official crowd-size estimates, many compared this event with the 1995 Million Man March, which independent researchers put at 870,000 people. A small contingent of anti-abortion protestors turned out, gathered together on several street corners.
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said one of her board members came with 30 family members from across the country, ranging in age from 8 to 90. Feldt said she could see the cross-generational mix "everywhere."
"I think that it means that my generation is telling its stories," Feldt said. "How can they know what it was like to not have these rights if we don't tell them? We have to share our stories."
Sarah Flanagan, 22, has heard those stories from her family. To represent her mother, who couldn't make the trip, she wore a T-shirt with the slogan, "My Mom is Pro-Choice and So Am I." This is the first march to which she's been old enough to travel, and she marched for three: herself, her mother and her grandmother, Flanagan said.
"If I were to lose my reproductive freedoms I think that would be the worst reflection of our society," Flanagan said. "It would be a sad day and a scary day."
Flanagan said she was happy to see so many young people at the rally, but still wished there had been more. Feldt disagreed, saying that the youth turnout was "huge."
"That's in part because we really tried to reach out to youth," Feldt said, "and in part because youth reached out to this march."
After addressing the crowd, Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat from Illinois, said one of the most important things about the march was the number of young people there.
"When I was here marching in the anti-war movement in the late 1960s, we felt very much against older generations," Schakowsky said. "There was that divide." She said it was important that Sunday's march was not only intergenerational, but more culturally and racially diverse than others she's attended.
"Now we have to get all the people at this march out to vote in November," Schakowsky said.
Camryn Manheim, co-star of ABC's "The Practice," also spoke at the event. "For me, it's all about the youth," she told MTV News. "They're the vote that we have yet to count."
The primary march organizers were the American Civil Liberties Union, the Black Women's Health Imperative, Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, National
Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
After the march was announced, 1,400 additional civil-rights, women's-rights and health-care organizations joined in organizing the event.