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Progress was slow on the Women’s March, but that’s a pretty useful metaphor

You inch and shuffle along. You start to feel you might get crushed. But you know you’re going in the right direction.

On the morning of the London Women’s March, I realise I am underdressed. I don’t have a slogan T-shirt, or badges, or a banner. I do, however, have sandwiches. “My body is my banner,” I say facetiously to someone on Twitter, and later on, it feels quite true. The sight of all these women’s bodies gathered together in one place does look like a statement, as powerful as any of the words on the placards.

The placards, many and various, are all great. They say “Nasty Woman” and “Fight like a girl”. A group in full suffragette costume hold up the words “Same Shit Different Century”. There is passion, but humour, too, giving the lie to the notion that this is a bunch of sanctimonious prigs out for a day of virtue-signalling. “Grab ’em by the patriarchy”. “Feminazis against actual Nazis”. “I know signs, I’ve got the best signs”. Ambivalence shows itself, too, an awareness that some of us are outside our comfort zone, like with the guy holding a placard that says, “Not usually my thing, marching – but honestly,” and my favourite of the day, which sums up the generalised exasperation many feel, a simple and heartfelt “FOR F***’S SAKE”.

As we march, there’s not much chanting, perhaps because there isn’t one single slogan that sums up our purpose. No “Maggie Maggie Maggie, out out out”, or “The National Front is a Nazi front, Smash the National Front”. Someone starts up a refrain of “Dump Trump, dump Trump” and everyone joins in for a minute, but it sounds like a mob of supporters chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” so it soon fizzles out.

On Park Lane cars whoosh past in the opposite direction, hooting in support, and a Mexican wave of cheering rolls through the crowd. Then suddenly we catch up with a slowly moving sound system on a bike, loudly playing Althea and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking”, and for a few blocks the crowd is dancing and singing “Love is all I bring”, until we move on and the music fades behind us.

By the time we get to Trafalgar Square we are a hundred thousand strong. My little gang and I climb up on to a raised grassed area in front of the National Gallery, and from there we watch the rest of the marchers stream into the square. The crowd gets tighter and tighter and still they come, more people than I thought possible, and even though we’re too far back to hear a word of any speeches, I look up at the David Shrigley sculpture on the Fourth Plinth that towers over us and see that it’s giving a big thumbs-up to the day.

The spirit has been buoyant, motivated, positive. For those who ask what the march was for, I would answer it was a morale boost, a shout of “You’re not alone, you’re not mad!” in the face of crowing and gaslighting. It was for the promotion of defiantly keeping your pecker up. I get home and I see the images from around the world, the great flowing crowds, rivers into oceans, and of course I also see the comments that dismiss what we’ve done, deriding the futility of it, but I’m too cheered up to give a single shit. My only riposte on Twitter is: “DON’T bring along a CLOUD to rain on my PARADE!”

For we’re not fools. We know a march won’t change the world. A crowd can be inspiring and uplifting. Surrounded by like minds, you feel empowered, and yes, it’s easy to get carried away. But an event of this kind also operates as a pretty useful metaphor. Because the truth is, on a march of this size you don’t do much real marching. You inch and shuffle along, you stumble and stop, your progress is incremental at the best of times. You hit a bottleneck and the entire crowd grinds to a complete standstill; the line gets backed up, and as people press in around you on all sides you start to fear that you might get crushed.

It’s understandable at that point to want to get out, maybe try to stand to one side. But then, slowly, slowly, something up ahead clears and the crowd starts to move again, plodding forward, step by step, and you’re happy just to be going in the right direction, craning your neck to try and see the endpoint, just there up ahead in the distance, always around the next corner. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.