Hundreds of thousands of people streamed into the nation’s capital Saturday to attend a massive march in support of women’s rights and civil rights, the largest of dozens of marches in the United States and around the world that signaled the rocky road ahead for President Donald Trump a day after his inauguration.
Washington’s public transportation system nearly ground to a halt as heavy crowds massed toward the Women’s March on Washington on the National Mall, easily dwarfing the numbers that had gathered for Trump’s swearing-in on Friday.
Tens of thousands joined marches and rallies in Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver and dozens of other U.S. cities, and women’s rallies also unfolded in global capitals like London, Paris, Sydney, Ottawa and Nairobi. Estimates of the worldwide turnout topped 2.5 million people.
“I was just talking to people from our many sister marches, including the one in Berlin, and they asked me to send a special message: ‘We in Berlin know that walls don’t work,’ ” said the event’s honorary co-chair, Gloria Steinem, a feminist icon.
Before her were a sea of people, many wearing pink knit caps, the symbol of the march. Thousands waved signs and placards, some bearing angry messages, others in a more humorous vein. “Where do I even start?” said one sign.
“It’s an extraordinary day,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, a newly installed Democrat from California. “We are at an inflection point in the history of our country.”
The marches underscored the deep divisions that cleave the country, and brought to the fore groups that repudiate Trump, both domestically and globally, and his vision of the country, which some see as exclusionary. If nothing else, the marches signaled a combative mood among those opposed to Trump. Protest issues ranged far beyond women’s rights to include Trump’s relations with Russia, government surveillance, concern about billionaire leaders and migrant rights.
So many people massed on the National Mall, crowding a planned march route to an area near the White House, that the march was simply replaced with a stationary rally.
One of the first speakers, actress and activist America Ferrera, echoed some of the anger that many of the protesters said they felt at the dawn of the Trump presidency.
“The president is not America. His Cabinet is not America. Congress is not America. We are America, and we are here to stay,” Ferrera said.
Trump attended an interfaith prayer service Saturday at Washington National Cathedral that drew a number of dignitaries from his newly installed administration. That took him far from the National Mall as it filled with protesters.
Neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the service, an inaugural tradition dating to the nation’s first president, and none of the dozen faith leaders who led the gathering mentioned the thousands of protesters marching across the city.
Along the protest route, protesters hung from scaffolding, climbed up lampposts for better views, and took selfies in front of landmarks. Whoops and chants rose sporadically from the crowds.
“It’s frigging amazing,” marveled Sarah Lankford, 17, of Chandler, Arizona, caught in a sea of marchers approaching the National Mall. “I’m in my element!”
Lankford was in town with a school group for the inaugural weekend and said she was delighted that the crowd appeared larger than that for the inauguration.
“The police told me it was already bigger than yesterday, three hours ago,” she said.
“This is history in the making and I just love it,” she said. “It’s not divisive like the election, it’s beautiful.”
Crowds were so large at some regional Metro subway system stations that authorities stopped charging riders and opened turnstiles as a public safety measure. Remote parking lots in Washington’s Virginia and Maryland suburbs filled to capacity early in the day.
Crowds were reported at rail stations as far away as Baltimore, and Maryland’s commuter train system, MARC, announced via Twitter that it had added five times its usual capacity to accommodate what it called “unprecedented crowds.”
The DC Metro system announced that as of 11 a.m., 275,000 had ridden the subway, 82,000 more riders than at the same hour on the day of Trump’s inauguration. Twitter users shared photos and video of one Metro station in Rockville, Maryland, where a large crowd waited to enter the packed station and board the train to downtown D.C.
The largest march this century in Washington occurred on April 25, 2004, with the March for Women’s Rights, which is believed to have drawn at least 800,000 people.
Susan Sherman, 62, of Springfield, Virginia, said she’d felt compelled to attend after hearing that Steinem and Angela Davis would be speaking: “How could a child of the ’70s not come?”
Other participants were equally vocal, holding up provocative protest signs and wearing pink “pussy hats,” a double-entendre intended to reference their resemblance to cat ears and to a profane comment Trump had been recorded making.
“We were going to go to the march in New York, but yesterday we just decided we would always regret not being here,” said Sarah Wilbanks, 26, who works for a children’s nonprofit agency in New York. She and two friends decided to drive to Washington on Friday night, arriving after midnight.
“Suddenly it seemed like all my friends in New York were trying to coordinate rides and cars to come down,” she said. “I think we just care about these issues so deeply that we needed to come to the main march.”
Katie Archbold, 32, from San Francisco, said it seemed her entire flight was women going to the march. She said she was inspired by an older woman who told her about a suffragist march that overshadowed President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to demand that he allow women the right to vote. She said support for women’s rights and Planned Parenthood was the issue of our time.
“Trump is already impacting health care. This is happening. When he sees the march today, I hope he listens,” she said.
The crowd brought together ordinary working women, mothers, daughters and powerful legislators alike.
“It’s really important that we show everyone that America is diverse,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top-ranked woman among Senate Democrats. “There are a lot of us who want this new administration to know that the divisive, hateful language that attacked so many people through the campaign is us, and we are here. It’s our country, too, and we’re fighting.”
Murray, who first ran for the Senate in 1992 as “a mom in tennis shoes,” posted a photo of her shoes on her Facebook page.
As one of the Senate’s top liberals, she said it had been tough to attend Trump’s inauguration on Friday but that it was important to do so.
“You know, it was very difficult to watch this transition when we have fought so hard to move the country forward, and to listen to Trump talk about our country in a very different way than I feel about it,” Murray said in an interview Saturday morning. “But I also recognize that the most important thing about yesterday was that we do have a peaceful transfer of power.”
“What goes around comes around, and when Democrats win again we want to make sure that we are there for everybody, and I felt that it was important that he see that there’s a lot of us there who make up this country,” she added.
Much of the morning’s drama, though, unfolded farther from the Mall as protesters fought to board Metro subway trains.
Ben Banyas, 32, marveled early Saturday morning at Rosslyn station as train after train pulled up to the platform packed with other marchers: “Holy cow, they’re going to fall out if they open the door!”
Banyas said he had arrived in Washington from Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon specifically for the march, though he said protests he’d attended in college could barely rival this one. As each packed train went by, a cheer rose from the rapidly growing crowd on the platform, punctured by bursts of applause. It took four trains passing before Banyas and his two friends squeezed onto a Blue Line train, planning to go to L’Enfant station.
“It’s going to be so big,” he said, adding that he planned to continue the work by organizing letter-writing campaigns after he returned home.
Southwest of the U.S. Capitol, the L’Enfant station was so mobbed in the morning that marchers had to wait 20 minutes or more to exit. A large contingent of California protesters, many wearing pink hats, gathered outside the Department of Education building, a meet-up point that Golden State organizers had designated and spread through the WhatsUp app.
Donna Decker, a resident of Nevada City, California, said she’d felt compelled to come because “I heard so many hateful and terrible things.”
“This is not an anti-Trump march,” she added. “This is a pro-human-rights march. Making America great does not mean taking away the rights of some of its people.”
Tami Abrahamy, a teacher from Los Angeles, helped hold a Golden State flag to designate the meeting point. She said she’d made the journey Friday because she feared that a Trump administration could erode support for public education.
“Americans have always stood up and demonstrated for what we believed in,” she said.
By the time marchers arrived at the mall, many were struck by their initial impression.
“I love all the pink hats. It’s great,” said Heather Brandt, of Columbia, South Carolina.
Brandt spent more than an hour on the subway getting from the city’s outskirts to the mall. She said it had been a crowded ride but an exciting one. Every stop brought more and more committed women onto the train.
“As someone who did not want the new president to be president, I want him to do well,” she said. “If he fails, we all fail. But that doesn’t mean I won’t use my voice.”
An associate professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, Brandt said she’d listened to the new president speak on Friday, and became convinced: “It’s more and more important now to stand on the right side of history. We want to make sure that we retain the advances we’ve made, in pay equity, in reproductive rights.”
Hannah Allam, Elizabeth Koh, Eric Wuestewald, Josh Magness, Rob Hotakainen, Matthew Schofield and Vera Bergengruen contributed to this article.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth