Moving Forward With the Women’s March

Graphic courtesy of Jenna Benchetrit

When the Women’s March movement materialized in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016, a wave of immediate support was accompanied by wary observers. Some were concerned about the kind of movement it would be and, more specifically, for whom it would be; some did not see the value of a symbolic gesture, no matter how many people turned out for it; and others were disillusioned thanks to the emergence of the “pussy hat” iconography, which effectively excluded many trans and non-binary folk from what was being touted as an inclusive march.

In the two-plus years since that first Women’s March, the organization has only just had its most contentious year as its co-chairs — Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez — face continuous charges of anti-Semitism. The following is an abbreviated timeline of the allegations:

  • February 2018: Mallory and Sarsour attend events at which Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, is a speaker (Farrakhan is notorious for making homophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic statements).
  • March – November 2018: Mallory and Sarsour state on multiple occasions that they disagree with Farrakhan’s comments, but some push for stronger condemnations, or for them to cut ties with Farrakhan completely.
  • December 10, 2018: A few people present at early Women’s March meetings claim that Mallory and Perez “asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people”. Others deny that this kind of exchange ever happened.
  • December 23, 2018: An article published in the New York Times quotes an organizer who claims that she heard Mallory “berating” co-founder Vanessa Wruble over her Jewish identity, which Wruble confirmed. Mallory denied the claims.

Whatever one makes of these allegations, which are undoubtedly deserving of more nuance and contextualization than one article can hold, it’s important to consider how the organization can move forward as a united front. The 2019 March indicated a pattern of decreased enthusiasm, much of which can be traced back to these controversies. It saw significantly lower turnout, and a lot of sponsors dropping out last-minute; in New York City, a second march unaffiliated with the Women’s March organization occurred, effectively splitting marchers into two competing groups, while across the U.S., some marches were canceled altogether in direct response to the charges.

The only way to acknowledge the presence of so many identities is to have an open, honest dialogue.

So what are potential next steps for the Women’s March after such a tumultuous infancy? There is no easy answer, but it starts with a willingness to engage in difficult conversations. The Women’s March was a massive endeavour, perhaps the first time since the Million Woman March in 1997 (organized entirely by black women) that feminists banded together in such huge numbers. Disagreements are bound to happen; women are obviously not a heterogeneous group. The only way to acknowledge the presence of so many identities is to have an open, honest dialogue.

Choosing to abandon the movement in protest of its leadership prompts the question: If we aren’t willing to have these discussions now, when will they occur? The organization is young, and it needs fine-tuning. No one will ever be completely satisfied by those in charge, but the Women’s March should nevertheless be bigger than the women who organized it. The greatest accomplishment of the movement is that it prompted historic changes during a crucial moment, by motivating women to run for office at all levels of government at the height of the Trump era.

Some want the co-chairs to step down, but Bland, Sarsour, Perez, and Mallory have indicated that this won’t happen unless they choose to do so. Starting from scratch, as other activists have tried to do, is simply not viable in an era where so many women are at risk. It’s a tricky task, but another potential solution is to establish representative branches within the Women’s March organization. These branches can account for the needs of specific marginalized groups who don’t necessarily feel represented by the co-chairs or co-founders.

Choosing to abandon the movement in protest of its leadership prompts the question: If we aren’t willing to have these discussions now, when will they occur?

In a perfect world, the Women’s March would be completely decentralized, and it would function best as a framework for mass organizing. However, asking women with a history of progressive activism to repeatedly account for the actions of men is not a healthy way forward — the focus should be on how they can do better in the future. The co-chairs have made several tangible changes to the organization since those first few missteps, showing that they want to navigate these choppy waters with sensitivity and real action.

It should go without saying that when a movement like this has so much inner turmoil, those on the outside who want to destroy it will do anything they can to take advantage of its weaknesses.

The Women’s March controversies are merely the growing pains of a huge movement, one that is difficult to manage and will surely never be able to fully satisfy everyone’s needs, no matter the effort made to do so. Yet, with open dialogue and a willingness to listen and educate instead of walk away, the Women’s March can survive its turbulent year and continue to thrive.

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