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Opinion One year later, many lessons learned from the worldwide women’s marches

The Earth makes a full journey around the sun, and it feels like nothing has changed because we're standing in the same place – working behind the same cash register, taking the same route to drop the kids off at school – but really, so much has changed.

A year ago, millions of women around the world marched. They marched in tiny towns in Africa and Europe and Canada, in snowstorms and in deserts, in crowds of hundreds of thousands and in little groups that could have fit into a coffee shop.

Why? Everyone wanted to know why. Everyone wanted to know to what end. "Why" was easy to answer, on the surface: A man who traded in poisonous misogyny had been elected to the most powerful office in the world (with the help of 53 per cent of white female voters in America.)

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But the why was also personal for every woman who put on her boots or running shoes or sandals on that morning, knocked on her friend's door and said, "Let's go." Her personal issues might have revolved around racial justice, workplace fairness, pay equity, reproductive freedom, migrants' rights or the whole mess together.

It was a moment of mass clarity, as if Jose Saramago's novel Blindness had come to life, except in reverse, and suddenly we could all see what had been hidden in plain sight. Women had been dealt a crap hand for a long time, and now it was time to ask for new cards.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

I stood in a huge crowd in Washington, the epicentre of the movement and the largest of the marches. It's hard to describe how big, chaotic and oddly jolly it was.

No one had expected that many people to show up (estimates placed the number in Washington at 500,000, far outstripping the size of Donald Trump's inauguration crowd the day before.). There was an older woman carrying a sign that said, "I can't believe I still have to protest this shit." There was a toddler on her dad's shoulders wearing a shirt that said "This is what a feminist looks like." There was righteous fury, but zero violence.

Thousands of buses brought women from around the United States, and from Canada. (In Toronto, 60,000 women marched in solidarity, the largest of dozens of gatherings across the country.) Most of the women I interviewed in Washington had never been to a protest before. I spoke to a transgender army veteran who was worried about the future of LGBTQ rights, and a hijab-wearing teenager, marching with her mom, who wanted Mr. Trump to know she was as American as he was.

The message from the stage was one of urgent inclusivity: Feminism needed to draw in people from the margins, who had been traditionally excluded. The quilt would be restitched, or it would become threadbare and fall apart. People didn't need to agree, but they needed to act. Singer Alicia Keys made the most prophetic statement of the day: "We will not allow our bodies to be owned and controlled by men in government, or men anywhere for that matter."

I think we all know what happened 10 months later, when The New York Times began its incendiary Harvey Weinstein reporting, and the #MeToo movement – originally begun by activist Tarana Burke in 1997 – was rekindled and swept around the world.

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After the march had ended, I watched analysts – in one hilarious case, an all-male panel on CNN – talk about whether the day was all show, and no go.

They seemed to doubt that millions of women gathered in solidarity could possibly bring about any meaningful change. Perhaps they thought we spent the day exchanging recipes. I imagined I could hear their knees knocking under that nice CNN desk.

The past year has answered that question, of course. In the United States, record numbers of women are turning out to run for office. "The momentum – started on Election Day 2016 for some women, and decades in the making for others – is still visible on the streets and at the ballot box," Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics recently wrote in the New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger.

Prof. Dittmar pointed out, the landscape of the 2018 midterm elections has already been dramatically reshaped: There are 79 potential female candidates for governorships (up from 27 in 2014). Some 439 women are poised to run for U.S. Congress, nearly double the number in 2016.

Interestingly, this is where we find the main schism in the women's marches of 2018 (they will take place this weekend across the world, with more than 40 scheduled in Canada.)

In the United States, a group called March On has separated itself from Women's March Inc., which organized last year's protests. The two groups are still allies, but March On, the umbrella group of most of this year's rallies, is concentrating on change through politics. It is crowd-sourcing a political agenda to further women's causes, and helping groups that train and recruit women for public office.

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Much has been made of the division between the two groups, as if feminism can only be engaging if it's a WWE title fight. In truth, though, the movement has always featured discordant voices trying to find agreement and ways to find common purpose.

It's also a movement that has historical roots that were often explicitly racist, and is only now reckoning with the consequences of those tainted beginnings.

There's bound to be some friction, but that doesn't mean it's Thunderdome.

In answer to the second question, then: To what end? To no end, really, because there is no end in sight. There is only a path. There is only a never-ending quest for justice and equality, which is why thousands of women will put on their shoes and boots and sandals again this weekend, and knock on their friends' doors, and say, "Let's go."

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