The first Women’s March, in 2017, was a reaction to the election and inauguration of President Trump. The following year, it was a push for the polls for the 2018 midterm election. This year, with no upcoming national election, the movement has had to rethink its purpose — amid ongoing controversy over connections between some of its leaders and the anti-Semitic, anti-gay Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Some women who have marched before are sitting it out or attending separate rallies unaffiliated with the national organization. Thousands of others, though, will be in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
This year, according to the COO of Women’s March Inc., Rachel Carmona, the organization is releasing a “Women’s Agenda,” a policy platform that she says will “set the roadmap for our expectations for the elected officials who were either just elected or would like to be reelected in 2020. We view it as a work plan for all of our elected officials, and we are going to translate that into a 50-state strategy.”
The Women’s Agenda includes 10 policy issues, including racial and immigrant rights, and economic and environmental justice. Board member Linda Sarsour said that the policies, compiled by a committee of women from various national and grassroots organizations, establishes a precedent for “not only the new Congress to work on, but sets a narrative for 2020. If you want to be my president and you don’t have a position on the issues that are part of this woman’s agenda, then don’t knock on my door until you have an answer for these policies.”
Still, the biggest motivation for marchers has remained women’s rights. “At the Women’s March 2017, only 61 percent of the people in the crowd said women’s rights was the main reason they were out in the crowd,” said Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland College Park, who has collected data on past marchers. “At Women’s March 2018, 92 percent said they were out in the crowd for women’s rights.
“In 2017, the march did a really good job of turning out people that say women’s rights matter and women are people too,” Fisher continued. “You can’t just go around grabbing people by their genitals, and you certainly shouldn’t be able to get elected president if you do that.”
“For the first march in 2017, the shock of Trump’s election and the fear that that carried was great enough to hold that coalition together, but it would be kind of miraculous if that had held over time,” said Nancy Whittier, a sociology professor at Smith College. “The Women’s March has to figure out: Is it a broad anti-Trump mobilization? Is it around intersectional feminism and not necessarily Trump? Is it around specific issues like sexual violence? The march has kind of been all of those things so far.”
The Women’s March agenda isn’t controversial among progressive women, but the issue of inclusiveness, or “intersectionality,” is. Sarsour is an activist for Palestine whose strong opposition to Israel makes some Jewish participants uncomfortable. In February, Tamika Mallory, a co-president of Women’s March, Inc., attended the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day event and was singled out in the audience by Farrakhan, whose speech also included the anti-Semitic and homophobic tropes he often deploys. When reports of the event surfaced, there were calls for Mallory to step down from her leadership role.
Mallory, who had been attending the Saviour’s Day event for 30 years, responded to the criticism by reiterating her commitment to “vulnerable communities” including her “LGBTQAI siblings, Jewish friends and Black women,” and the Women’s March released statements in the same vein.
However, the backlash continued in response to pressure both from within and from outside the organization.
Less than a month after the Women’s March Inc. announced plans for the 2019 event, a white supremacist attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 worshipers. The rise in hate crimes against Jews — which the FBI says accounted for more than half of all hate crimes in 2017 — and the resurgence of neo-Nazism meant that the issue would continue to plague Women’s March leaders, despite their statements of support for Jewish victims, op-eds denouncing anti-Semitism and participation in rallies against hate crime.
Former organizers and current chapters separated themselves from the national leaders (although the organization is fairly decentralized, and local groups operate with some independence.) Women’s rights celebrities spoke out and #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano announced she would not speak at this year’s march, shortly after Teresa Shook, who is credited with inspiring the first march with a Facebook post, called for the current co-chairs to step down.
But some Jewish participants object to the organizers’ association with Farrakhan. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, will not be joining this year’s March because it is being held on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. “As an organization, because we represent rabbis and Jewish community members with a range of practices, we, as a rule, don’t sponsor any events that happened on Shabbat,” she says. She added that Sabbath observances vary, “so for sure among our 2,000-plus rabbis, there are definitely a number of rabbis who will be marching.”
Sarsour told Yahoo News she regrets that the Women’s March was slow to communicate its renunciation of bigoted comments by Farrakhan, whose activism in black communities the co-chairs have commended. “We’re not a perfect organization,” said Sarsour, “[but] we do not want the story to be again that women of color and white women, in particular, were not able to organize together. We are committed to a movement where white women, where women of color and women of all backgrounds, can agree to disagree.”
Vanessa Wruble, a Jewish activist and one of the initial organizers of the 2017 march, said that she was troubled, when working with the co-chairs, by anti-Semitic comments, some of which echoed Farrakhan. Mallory and Sarsour have publicly denied this.
After the first Women’s March, Wruble went on to found March On, the broad coalition of sister marches outside Washington. Asked if she and the Women’s March Inc. leaders have reconciled, said no, but she told Yahoo News, “Historically, all social movements have had rifts and splits, and I don’t know why we would expect something different from such a large and broad movement as the Women’s March movement. When these points of friction come up, it gives us an opportunity for everyone to learn from them. Ultimately, it makes the movement stronger, and I have absolutely no concern that the Women’s March movement isn’t going anywhere. It is unstoppable.”
Some cities, including Baton Rouge and Chicago, will not be hosting marches this year for a lack of resources, after footing the bills for organizing for the midterms last November. Harlene Ellin, communications lead of Women’s March Chicago, said its chapter’s decision not to march was made irrespective of the controversies surrounding Women’s March Inc., with which it is not affiliated. Women’s March Chicago pushed up its march to October, for a “March to the Polls” event ahead of the midterm election. It has no plans for a march in January.
“It costs $150,000 to put on a march of that size, and countless volunteer hours,” Ellin told Yahoo News. “And we knew we weren’t going to be able to turn around after October and repeat that in January.”
Still, Ellin fielded questions from members about anti-Semitism in the women’s march. “For me to answer the question, “Are you anti-Semitic?” when I’m Jewish, it’s like: Are you kidding? No, we are not anti-Semitic. It was painful.”
Although Chicago won’t be hosting one of over 200 marches taking place on Saturday, Ellin says the chapter will march again in the future. “We will have a big march in 2020,” she said. “Because 2020 is going to be the biggest election of our lifetime.”
For Yavilah McCoy, the founder of Ayecha, a nonprofit organization for Jewish women of color, the march’s commitment to intersectionality is productive for policy change and the reason why she’s organizing 100 Jewish women of color and allies to join marchers in D.C. on Saturday. “We’re doing our best to keep focused on what will mitigate pain,” McCoy told Yahoo News, “and will help us in policies to move freedom and liberation forward. Our eyes are on the prize.”
The march in Washington, D.C., is set to start at the National Mall at 10 a.m., with local and sister marches taking place around the country.
As for future marches, Sarsour said, “Right now, we can’t say that there’s going to be a 2020 march. But there is going to be maybe the most important election year of our lifetime in 2020.”
Sarsour added: “Our motto eventually will be: In 2020, let’s play a competitive primary. And whoever emerges as the candidate who will go up against this administration, that’s going to be the candidate of the movement. I don’t care who you are, where you are. For me, it’s anybody but Trump.”
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