Almost two years ago to the day, nearly five million people turned out for the inaugural Women’s March. Massive crowds gathered in Washington, DC and at local marches around the country in what would ultimately become the largest single-day demonstration in the history of the United States.
I was there in DC, having driven down from New York City the day before with three friends, traffic at a crawl on I-95 as hundreds of thousands of people made our way to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to take part in what I had anticipated would be a mass expression of mourning. I didn’t know what would come next—no one did, really—but on that day, surrounded by so many people that at times we could barely move, I didn’t feel grief, but a sort of cautious hope. Whatever the next four years would bring, it was a balm to know that I would not be alone in feeling the need to protest because millions of other people felt it, too.
The turnout, the energy, the sense that emerged—improbably, fleetingly—that it might be possible to unify large numbers of women under an expansive reconceptualization of women’s rights defied the predictions of many who had said that the March had failed before it had even started. The skepticism was often warranted, informed by history. For many women, it was difficult to shake the suspicion that the Women’s March would only represent the concerns of a small segment of women—white, economically secure, citizens of a country in which they had never personally felt themselves to be under attack until 2016—and that many of those women would go home and see their participation in the march as both the start and end of their protest.
But that wasn’t the end for millions of women who took from the March a sense that while a day of mass protest had been cathartic, the work ahead—the day to day of sustaining grassroots movements in our communities—would be something else entirely. Still, the movement that grew from that day continues to be trailed by conflict, and appears increasingly fractured. The leaders of Women’s March Incorporated, the main national organization that emerged out of the march in DC, and in particular Tamika Mallory, its co-president, have been roiled by charges of anti-Semitism. Several local anniversary marches originally being planned for Saturday have been canceled; in New York City, two rival marches have been planned. Local Women’s March groups which formed in the wake of the first march have released statements condemning anti-Semitism and stress their independence from Women’s March Incorporated, with some even going so far as to dissolve in protest. Others aligned themselves with March On, an organization formed in October 2017 by a former member of the Women’s March national team, the creation of which was pointed to as a further sign of division within the movement. Even as the Women’s March served as a catalyst for other activism, in-fighting over who owns the Women’s March brand have played out in public, as have continued debates over racial representation in local Women’s March chapters, a proxy for questions over the goals of the movement.
If it has been difficult to see these debates play out endlessly and very publicly, it is also a natural—and necessary—part of the work at hand. Organizing is, after all, a complicated, relationship- and consensus-building endeavor. It’s messy by its very nature. But it also points to some of the built-in tensions of the work of building a “women’s movement.” The Women’s March was premised on the notion that a sort of imperfect unity among women was not only desirable, but possible; what has become clear is that “women” as a category for political organizing has always felt both too broad and not broad enough—too unwieldy in how the label tends to paper over real differences in lived experience and material conditions.
All of this has served to dampen the broad enthusiasm that once existed for the idea of the Women’s March. As of this week, less than 7,000 people have indicated they plan to attend the DC march being planned by Women’s March Incorporated. Sister marches planned by local groups will be similarly smaller in size, a fact that critics are sure to seize upon as proof that the propulsive energy stemming from the Women’s March has faded, and by extension, so has women’s activism. These marches, as they grapple in real time with what and who they’re for, have lost sponsors, high-profile attendees, and left many people wondering about the future of the Women’s March.
Two years ago, something important felt possible. Today, that feeling still remains for some. But all of the conflicts and scrutiny—many of which are the very same that have caused feminist infighting for decades—have turned what was an inspiring moment and movement into something decidedly less so for many others, illustrating both the need for the Women’s March as well as the almost impossible task of building it.
Trump’s election may have provided the fuel, but the Women’s March was the vehicle that propelled countless women into some kind of activism beginning in 2016. Two years later, the collective energy of the marches has spiraled out in many directions.
While many of the local groups who had come together that first year to plan sister marches have since disbanded, others have continued to meet, with varying degrees of activity. Some only come together to plan anniversary events, which in 2018 again drew millions to turn out in continued protest. Others have been more engaged throughout the year, holding activism fairs and town halls and engaging in electoral work. When I spoke recently with local organizers of Women’s March groups in cities around the country, several told me that they had never done much more than vote before 2017. “I had never been an activist or anything,” Angie Beem, until recently the board president of Women’s March Washington state, told me. Diagnosed with agoraphobia, she recalled that one of the first times she had left her house in recent memory was to go to a planning meeting for her local march. “You know, the Women’s March changed a lot of lives,” Beem said. In 2018, she had (unsuccessfully) run for a city council seat in Spokane Valley. “It changed my life.”
As what would become local chapters, loosely united under the umbrella and brand of the Women’s March, found their post-inauguration footing, the lead organizers behind the DC event created and formalized what is now called Women’s March Incorporated. The group has become known for its ability to lead rapid response actions and protests—helping turn people out at airports around the country in opposition of Trump’s Muslim ban, organizing nationwide actions against the separation of children from their families at the border, and coordinating a series of protests during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings—but also functions as a narrative shorthand, and in some cases a barometer, for the status of women’s activism as a whole.
In 2017, the organization held its first-ever Women’s Convention, which drew 4,000 to Detroit; in 2018, it marked the first anniversary of the D.C. march in Las Vegas with a rally meant to inspire women to vote as part of an effort it called Power to the Polls. On Friday, Women’s March Incorporated unveiled its Women’s Agenda, a legislative platform that board member Linda Sarsour described to me both as a concrete, achievable work plan and “the most intersectional, boldest platform that’s ever been seen.”
Yet much like the 2017 March itself came under intense scrutiny, little of the work of Women’s March Incorporated has been done without controversy. There have been so many critiques of the organization that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish what stems from the outsized scrutiny that a broad-based movement led by women of color will inevitably draw, and what is a valid disagreement over tactics and ideology.
The most serious critique of the organization has been in the charges that leaders of Women’s March Incorporated, in particular, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, are anti-Semitic due to past associations with the Nation of Islam’s notoriously anti-Semitic, not to mention patriarchal and homophobic, leader Louis Farrakhan—accusations which have led to some demanding for them to step down. While these calls often stem from people acting in bad faith (conflating, for example, Sarsour’s support of Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism) or from journalists and pundits who are eager to treat any left movement with disdain, they have been resurfacing regularly, and stem in no small part from a (sometimes befuddling) refusal by Mallory to denounce Farrakhan—even while maintaining continued support for the work that members of the Nation of Islam have long performed in Black neighborhoods around the country. (A delicate threading of the needle, to be sure, and one that would likely not placate the most committed critics, but a move I suspect would go some way towards tamping down the furor.)
The national narrative about the organization’s co-chairs has also spilled into local chapters. In Washington state, the statewide Women’s March group recently dissolved in protest over national leadership’s refusal to denounce Farrakhan. When I spoke with Beem, who stressed to me that the group had not had a formal relationship with Women’s March Incorporated for months, she told me that she now feels the Women’s March name is “perverted, tainted.”
Women’s March Incorporated, along with its national leadership, has become in many ways the figurehead of the wave of women’s activism following Trump’s election. The conflation of one organization and a few women with the sum total of women’s activism has given much of the criticism its power—any of their failures are given outsized weight—and has led to some of the conflicts and divides within the constellation of groups that organize under the Women’s March umbrella. When Women’s March Incorporated moved to trademark the name “Women’s March,” 14 unaffiliated groups, including March On and Women’s March Los Angeles, filed opposition, and last September, four of them sued Women’s March Incorporated in an effort to prevent the organization from obtaining the trademark. “I’ve built this brand along with them. They aren’t the only group who should own it,” Emiliana Guereca, the co-executive director of Women’s March Los Angeles and the president of Women’s March California, told Refinery29. Guereca went on to criticize the leaders of Women’s March Incorporated: “They’re not running it like a real organization. They spent a year and a half building their personal brands instead of building this movement.”
Sarsour, when I asked her about Guereca’s criticism, detailed some of the death threats that she has received. “This celebrity status that people claim we have has come with risks to our lives, literally,” Sarsour told me. She admitted that it has been challenging to build out the organization, which she described as a “start-up. “Our network is so large that we really haven’t been able to build with individual chapter leaders in the way that I know how as an organizer,” she said.
Some of this unrest is the natural tension of any work that attempts to unite under the broad umbrella of women’s issues—women, after all, hold wildly varying ideas about what should get included under that big tent—as well as the logistical headaches of organizing. And I suspect that even if the leaders of Women’s March Incorporated had stepped down, as some wished, or even if the debate over anti-Semitism and the Women’s March had never occurred, much of what has fractured the movement would remain—specifically the question that has always lingered over both the march and its aftermath: would its participants, namely white women, begin to expand their political concerns to include the needs of those whose lives had long been threatened?
This is not a new question. Movements led by women have always been riven by division along lines of race and class and political aims. It’s as true today as it was during the decades-long push to win women the right to vote, in which white suffragists at times literally relegated black women to the back of the line, justifying their doing so in the name of political expediency. (During the march calling for women’s right to vote held in DC on March 3, 1913, white suffragists, fearing backlash from white southerners, requested that black women march at the back, a visual representation of the racism that characterized the white suffragist movement. Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who had founded a Black women’s suffrage organization, famously refused.)
When I spoke with Sarsour, she acknowledged the challenges the Women’s March faces. “When we went, to be very clear, women of color and in particular black women were like, don’t go. This is not going to work. We’ve tried this before,” Sarsour recalled of the decision to join the planning committee. “This intersectional movement has been tried and failed many, many times in the past.” But without the participation of women of color, who fought to center a range of concerns into the march that would not have been otherwise reflected, Sarsour said, “We would have gotten the women’s resistance and a women’s agenda set by white women,” likely with a “limited lens of pay equity and reproductive rights.”
For all those who brought a poster championing immigrant rights, or asserting that Black Lives Matter when they marched in 2017, the work of translating those slogans into action back home has been fraught. For better or worse, the marches themselves have become the primary space where questions of racism and of representation in the movement have played out. In New Jersey, after local organizers in Trenton moved to distance themselves from Women’s March Incorporated at the end of December, several grassroots groups pulled out of the planned anniversary march in protest, charging the organizers of the march with “rejecting the leadership of a number of minority women and women of color.” In response, another organizer defended the march, saying, “What’s wrong with someone of privilege advocating for people of color?”
Similar tensions have emerged elsewhere. When local organizers in Humboldt County, California canceled their planned march due to the lack of participation of women of color in its planning, it generated yet another news cycle of stories trumpeting the Women’s March’s demise. “There’s been a huge movement in Humboldt County,” Kelsey Reedy, one of the organizers, told me, pointing to the successful campaign to designate the county as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. “It’s actually come a long way in the last year.” Canceling the march was a way to acknowledge the concerns they had heard that, as she put it, the march would be just one day for people to show up and feel good, without also feeling the need to come out in support of work led by immigrants, Natives, and black residents and organizations.
As Robyn Moreno, a local Eureka resident, told the Los Angeles Times, “I am angered when I see thousands coming together to protect their rights but don’t make any effort to listen to people of color when they are telling them that the march is exclusive and not representative of people of color or the LGBTQ community. Nor do they show up any other day of the year to fight for the rampant racism within our community.” Reedy expected local residents, especially white people, to be upset (an expectation that has been borne out in the aftermath of the march’s cancellation); when some began fundraising for and planning a separate march, Reedy and other local organizers announced they are boycotting the new efforts. She told me she was surprised at the national attention they received, especially as, she noted wryly, “the march here locally didn’t receive any attention the last two years we’ve put it on.”
Others have maintained their commitment to the March despite the challenges. “I think that’s what Women’s March does, bring people together in a way that’s never happened before,” Rhiannon Childs, the executive director of Women’s March Ohio, told me. “It took women of color to be part of that process to be where we are today,” she added.
Kathy Wray Coleman, who is helping to organize the Women’s March in Cleveland this year, told me that there’s been greater interest this year from Black women to participate in the Women’s March, even as she expects overall attendance to decline. “There’s a lot of controversy over the march, but this is the most diversity I’ve seen since they started,” Coleman told me. What’s been the difference, I asked her. “They know that black women are leading it,” she responded. “We’re at the helm.”
For all of the fracturing and charges of bad faith that have plagued the Women’s March movement and led some to wonder if it is imploding, I’m struck instead by how much, two years into the Trump presidency, women’s activism is thriving outside of this narrative. The signs are everywhere if one only looks. As I write this, tens of thousands of public school teachers—a profession in which three out of four jobs are occupied by women—are on strike in Los Angeles, demanding not only higher wages and increased funding for essential programs for their students, but also framing the strike around more existential threats to public education through accelerating privatization.
In the immediate months after Trump took office, women overwhelmingly were the ones to call the offices of their elected officials and register their outrage and their demands. During the midterms, it was the volunteer labor of women that powered campaigns in races around the country; it is women that make up the majority of the leadership as well as membership of the thousands of Indivisible chapters around the country. And it is the unabashedly leftist women of color who are newly elected to Congress that are generating the most excitement among progressives for their embrace of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and their take-no-prisoners posture.
Women are leading work that is not conceptualized as a “women’s movement” but that has everything to do with the fundamental rights of women, from protecting the Affordable Care Act (one writer described the campaign waged to save the ACA as a “massive grassroots protest movement… that was organized mostly by and for women”), fighting for Medicare for All, securing strong labor protections for all workers, and protesting to save a dying planet. And yes, all of this work also includes offshoot organizations that were catalyzed by the initial Women’s March, many of whom, even if they are changing their names or otherwise distancing themselves from Women’s March Incorporated and its leaders, are continuing the spirit of the march, if not the name.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Coleman told me when we spoke. Was she thinking of the black women whom she had been organizing to attend this year’s march in Cleveland, the Women’s March organization in her city, or, more broadly, of the millions of women who had been moved to action in past two years? It was unclear, but she repeated her words. “We’re not going anywhere.”