Slightly stooped at the waist but with strong, vigorous steps, 78-year-old Nora Rushforth marched through the heart of Montclair on Saturday, the glue for her daughter and granddaughter on either side of her and called herself a “warrior” in the fight for reproductive rights. A small woman, she lugged on her shoulder a protest sign nearly as large as her.
“This is a struggle for all,” she said.
Surrounding her were mothers and fathers pushing strollers, and other grandmothers with their families, part of a cross-generational show of force in a “March to ROEvember” rally in Montclair. It matched more than 400 similar protests that took shape in towns and cities across the country Saturday as part of Women’s Wave.
Four months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and with the next election exactly a month away, a current of urgency ran through a crowd of roughly 400 who congregated at the steps of the Municipal Building on Claremont Avenue. They listened to elected officials, including Sen. Cory Booker, who cast their shared anger and angst as part of a centuries-long civil rights battle, and U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr.
Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller implored the crowd to direct their outrage toward Nov. 8, the date of the midterm elections.
“We’ve got to talk to our friends, our family members, our neighbors, our colleagues, every single person we know and share with them how important this election is,” Spiller said.
Mostly, the marchers from Montclair and nearby towns gathered, it seemed, to be with one another and find a common voice. With the event also dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights, many said they feared that reverberations from the Supreme Court’s ruling could ultimately affect a range of freedoms.
Forging a path on North Fullerton Avenue, demonstrators cheered as they passed the Planned Parenthood-Montclair Health Center. They turned onto Bloomfield Avenue before heading back on Park Street and were bolstered by drivers honking in solidarity. The marchers bore dozens of placards with unequivocal messages. One read, “Keep Your Laws Off My Body.” Another posed the question, “Why Women Get Abortions?” The answer, represented in a pie chart split in half — “None Of Your Business. None Of Your Business.”
As the rally confronted an altered political reality, many, too, said they felt a deep personal hurt and threat against themselves and loved ones. Their outrage was tinged with sorrow, they said. After years of burgeoning freedoms, the country was reneging on a fundamental promise.
“This is supposed to be a first world country where everyone comes for the dream, but they want to take those dreams away from us,” said Vanessa Chavez, who came to the event with both her year-old daughter and mother. Chavez called herself fortunate that she lives in a state that guarantees abortion rights, but said that she and her husband are now weighing leaving for his home country of Colombia — “the exact opposite of what we expected.”
“We’re in a country where they want to force you to have a baby, but they will give you absolutely zero support to have that baby,” she said. “Across the country, there’s no family leave, no health care protections, no child care.”
Nadia Hussein, a first-generation American with roots in Bangladesh, gave birth to a girl a month ago. She said she was baffled that in places like India abortion rights are protected, but not in the United States.
“In America it’s been politicized by men to control women,” Hussein said. “My family came here for a better life, for better opportunities for their children. That was the whole point.”
Fredda Lieb, 76, suffered from an ectopic pregnancy as a young woman. She said she shudders to think what will happen to women in that situation in states that now have stringent abortion laws and if a nationwide abortion ban ever goes into effect.
“I have a 10-year-old granddaughter,” said Lieb, from Montclair. “Who knows what’s going to happen to her in seven or eight years.”
Each marcher seemed to have a strong personal motivation to join the rally. Joel Barron, from Bloomfield, said it was vital that he and his wife, Dana, bring their two young sons. “Men should not be able to dictate what women do with their bodies,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Talking about the Supreme Court’s decision in June evoked where-were-you-then memories. Sam Leinberge said she was at work at the Turtleback Zoo when she heard the news and cried on her drive home to Montclair. She is 27 and is worried, she said, for an 18-year-old cousin who lives in Texas.
“We’re not asking for too much,” she said. “We’re just asking for equality. And I don’t think it should be that hard.”
In remarks to the gathering, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill cautioned that while New Jersey has liberal abortion laws, new measures across the country limit the rights of women to accept jobs and promotions in many states. “You can’t be pro-choice if you’re okay with any state in this nation banning abortion,” she said. “You can’t be pro-choice if one woman in this nation isn’t protected.”
In an interview later with Montclair Local, she reflected on the issues her 17-year-old daughter will have to confront that she, as a young woman, did not have to worry about.
“She plans to go out into the world,” Sherrill said. “It makes me nervous thinking about her in certain states not having access to reproductive health care.”
Nora Rushforth, the 78-year-old who marched elbow to elbow with her daughter, Mary Ann, and granddaughter, Melissa, understood that she as the matriarch, having emigrated from Colombia, had blazed a trail for following generations. She nodded toward her granddaughter and said, “She’s with us.”
About the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe, she said, “It was a punch to the gut.”
Rushforth carried an overlarge sign that read, “How Many Male Justices Have …“ There was no last word to the message, but instead a drawing of a uterus.