The Women’s March Wants To Change The World: Will We Let It?

By any measure, the Women’s Convention should have been a disaster. The planning began in late July of last year, just three months before the October event date. Many local progressive leaders in Detroit, who were asked for help and participation, thought the timeline was insane. “At first, everyone thought they were talking about October 2018,” one person familiar with the planning says.

Local organizers on the host committee were also angry about ticket prices being so high, $295 for three days of... what exactly? The theme “Reclaiming Our Time” — in honor of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who would be the keynote speaker — wasn’t announced until the last week of September, just a month before doors would open. The full lineup of events was largely a mystery until people arrived. There were also power struggles over whether the female Gubernatorial candidate from Michigan, a member of the Democratic establishment, should get priority over the anti-establishment male Muslim candidate. “When you come into areas with a national agenda and try to make that mesh with local politics, it is going to be a struggle,” a person on the planning committee says.

The Women’s March organization, an activist group admittedly still growing into itself as a national voice, had trouble getting invitations to high-profile speakers answered because they lacked information. Most damning: When it was announced that Sen. Bernie Sanders — the white man from Vermont whose insurgent candidacy helped derail the first female candidate for president — would be a key speaker on opening night, the backlash wasn’t just intense, it was ugly.

Petitions were started. Attendees threatened a boycott. Emily’s List, one of the event’s sponsors, issued a pointed public statement. The Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory took to writing a Twitter thread: She blamed the media for the controversy, but that only made people angrier. (“Maybe folks should ask why mainstream media didn't give a black woman the same attention when she was announced as a headliner & speaker?” one tweet read.) Just two days later, the Women’s March official account issued a thoughtful apology.

The outrage threatened to undermine the event. It was hard to imagine how attendees would get along at the convention, if they couldn’t even agree on speakers.

And yet, by the time Linda Sarsour stepped up to the podium around 10 a.m. on that first morning, the dust had settled. More than 4,000 women and a few good men sat in the audience in Detroit’s Cobo Center for the first major convening of feminist activists in 40 years. The Women’s March had broadcast a 20-minute “daring discussion” on Facebook live (watched by 48k people, though uncovered in the media) between Sarsour and one of the petition starters, an effort to make peace that seemed to have worked. Scholarship money was raised to make sure many low-income attendees could make it.

In the audience’s hands were programs — featuring the slick iconography of the Women’s March — with a schedule of 147 different workshops about everything from “Confronting White Womanhood” to an in-depth training on running for office to a “rest and recharge” yoga room. Sen. Sanders ultimately bowed out of his original role to head to Puerto Rico. Emily’s List had stepped in to ensure big names would be there to speak opening night: Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Debbie Stabenow, and Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence. “They’re a start-up,” Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock says of the Women’s March organization. “But we will be with them and help every step. We really want to work together, because it's going to take everybody and then some to change the trajectory that we’re on right now.”

It would turn out to be a successful weekend. Before the work could begin though, Linda Sarsour, whose comments have caused backlash over the past year, delivered her own opening remarks: “This is a very diverse movement,” she said looking out at what was a multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational crowd. “We come from different political ideologies. We come from different experiences. We are all kinds of people. We will never be a movement where we all agree.”

She paused. The audience was rapt. “I want you to take this with you: Unity is not uniformity,” she said, repeating the phrase to enormous applause. The women in the audience — from the Black women in hijab to the white women with pink pussy hats to women in wheelchairs and everyone in between — raised their fists, united in a pledge to get to work. Eyes watered. Strangers hugged.

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell

The idea that “unity is not uniformity” is an important one for the Women’s March organization as it seeks to turn what was a spontaneous, grassroots, singular day of protest into a sustained movement of a vastly diverse coalition. To do that, the organizers of the Women's March on Washington (of which there were 74 total) believed that feminism as we know it would need a makeover. It could no longer have the appearance of white women taking control. This movement would have to be what a new generation of feminists calls intersectional, meaning an effort to consider all the competing injustices — not just sexism, but also racism and classism — women experience to different degrees, and start showing up for each other. The four co-chairs of this nascent organization would reflect that view — a Muslim woman in hijab, a Black woman, a Latinx woman, and a white woman. They would become photo-ready figureheads of a new, inclusive movement for all women.

In the months following the march, the co-chairs were feted: Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland, were named on Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list, and Glamour’s editor-in-chief, Cindi Leive, reached out to the team and suggested they write a book commemorating the day. They appeared on red carpets and in videos for Vogue. After promoting and even sending a busload of employees to the D.C. march, Refinery29 invited the organization to collaborate on 29Rooms.

The organization also dug into the glory of protest, using their newfound celebrity and social media feeds to make noise about the issues that they felt needed to be at the forefront of the new movement: They planned A Day Without A Woman, a strike on International Women’s Day, aligning with the leftist International Women’s Strike anti-establishment platform, hit the streets on May Day with the Black Lives Matter coalition, Beyond The Moment, and in July, after the National Rifle Association released a scaremongering, racially charged ad, they organized an 18-mile walk from NRA headquarters to the Department of Justice to protest police brutality and gun violence and demand action on gun control. They continually reminded us the way to join “the movement” was to “put your body on the line” and “stand up for communities that are not your own.”

In February of last year, a few members of the original team became paid staff members thanks to donations that flooded in after the march. Mallory, Perez, Bland, and Sarsour became members of the board, after the group filed to become an official, tax-exempt political engagement organization. As the most visible mouthpieces for the movement, they’ve spent the past year raising awareness about the particular plights of women of color through social media and protest.

But it is unclear if the rest of the women who marched agree on this agenda. The fact is, women are wide-ranging and have often conflicting viewpoints. In this movement alone there are the Bernie Sanders voters and the Hillary Clinton voters; the leftists versus the liberals and neoliberals. There are the women of color who are not ready to trust white feminists, and white feminists with deeply entrenched racial biases they hadn’t even considered before. There are the trans feminists and women of color who felt that a pink pussy hat as symbol amounted to their erasure. There are the Zionists and the anti-Zionists. There are even self-described pro-life feminists. And those are only some of the fissures.

The struggle ahead of all of them now is whether the shared solidarity of that first march can translate into actions that could actually change the world. For this story, I spoke to more than 50 people with varying attachments to the movement. I heard a range of opinions about the leadership, the goals, and even the motivations for doing this work. What this reveals is the inherent struggle of a group predicated on inclusivity to find common ground on specifics.

“The path forward is going to have to be priorities and specifics. We can barely achieve singular causes, so good luck trying to achieve intersectionality,” says Jessica A. Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and an expert on governance and campaigns. “It’s not that it’s not worthwhile, it’s that most people don’t even understand what it means. It doesn’t mean you don't push or you don’t try, but it’s super hard.”

But the emphasis on intersectionality has certainly attracted some women to the cause.

“I gravitated towards the Women’s March because of Tamika, because she’s an African American woman — I knew I only wanted to be involved if it was intersectional,” recalls Rhiannon Childs, who mobilized 5,000 women from Ohio to D.C. and later became the leader of Women’s March Ohio, a group formed when she got home. She helped raise money to make sure Black women and poor women would be able to attend the march and now she’s focused on fighting voter suppression, and building a progressive coalition in her hometown of Columbus to turn out in 2018. “One of the first weeks we had a conference call, and Bernice King joined. She told us about how the women and the women of color mostly didn't get a lot of recognition in the Civil Rights Movement and how instrumental they were. That was a really, really powerful moment.”

“It’s really hard for me, as a white woman, to come into this and hear why white feminism doesn't work,” says Phoebe Hopps, who sent more than 100 buses from Michigan to D.C. for the march, and is now president of Women’s March Michigan. Hopps also spoke during the opening ceremony of the convention in Detroit. “But you start to get it. How many times has feminism not included people? Trans women, African-Americans, all these different groups. Maybe this is why we have failed so far.”

“What’s so important about Women’s March is that we’re expanding the idea of what is a woman’s issue; what is a feminist issue,” says Sophie Ellman-Golan, the deputy head of communications and one half of the Women’s March social media team. “Equal pay is totally up there but so are issues of deportation and police violence and healthcare.”

There’s nothing wrong with the media attaching to the D.C. team. But it even says on their web site, listen, this belongs to the women who showed up. We are the face of this.
Katherine Siemionko, Women's March Alliance

To many on the the outside, though, the wide-ranging and seemingly disparate issues the organization threw their weight behind created a sense that it lacked the coordinated strategy or focus of other upstart activist groups like Indivisible, which drove the successful organizing against the health care bill.

“They have motivated and inspired millions. But over the last year in some ways they have lost focus and perhaps have been detoured by the prestige of their positions,” says one Women’s March organizer in California, who asked not to be named. “They need to create clear definitions of their goals and their stances on certain issues. It seems as if some organizers have different opinions,” says another.

“The movement in and of itself is an amazing accomplishment, but, I mean, I’m not impressed with the Women’s March D.C. leaders,” says Kim Slavan, an organizing lead in Fresno, California. “When I was introduced to them, neither had the courtesy to make eye contact, and as I was trying to talk about what I am trying to accomplish, one of them looked away and walked off without a word. I’m not like San Francisco. I’m in an [area] that is very red and it’s very hard to make change here."

Frustrated with what looked like muddled leadership, some of Women’s March’s other organizers splintered off. In February 2017, Vanessa Wruble, who helped get the original leadership team together, saw opportunity in connecting the women who organized marches outside of D.C.. In the aftermath of the march, many of those groups were still decentralized, but there were a few, one in Boston, as well as contingents in Colorado, Illinois, and California, that were already coordinating on Facebook. Wruble offered her help, and all together they created an entirely new organization called March On that would be focused on organizing the local grassroots for political action. March On’s first project was funneling money to the NAACP in Alabama to back get-out-the-vote efforts in support of Doug Jones.

“After the Chicago march, it was clear to us this was an opportunity to build a movement. We intentionally made sure to include women of color, and women in red states, who have different concerns,” says Jaquie Algee, a labor organizer, who helped organize the Chicago Women’s March and is now board chair for March On. “Quite frankly, I just don’t know a lot about what the [Women’s March national team] is doing. But what I can say to you is that we support them. We don’t have time to spend on competition with them.”

The sister march organizers decided to focus in on specific policy goals, to move beyond the Unity Principles. Women’s March national “was very focused on social and racial justice. And that's incredibly important work to do,” Wruble says. “But that's just one piece of the work that needs to be done. They’re working on expanding the idea of what the issues are, and we’re focused on electing the leaders that will take us in that direction.”

Women’s March national is equally diplomatic. “We all have the same goals. We’re all on the same team trying to achieve the same objective,” says Women’s March head of communications, Cassady Fendlay. But it’s clear from social media that it doesn’t come without some anger or at least, snark. In December, Winnie Wong, a key volunteer from the Women’s March "family," posted on her verified public Facebook: “I don’t want to cast aspersions but We Are March On seems like an ill-conceived attempt at organized co option.” She even tagged the official March On Facebook page. Mallory commented back from her verified page: “Somebody got to tell the truth!” (Fendlay did not return a request for comment from Refinery29 about this specific post. Wruble declined to comment as well.)

To be sure, Women’s March national also has its own grassroots organization with groups in about 30 states, Red and Blue, Fendlay says. They do regular conference calls that are open to all state organizers, and share messaging and some resources.

Nevertheless, most of this work is happening outside the scrutiny of the mainstream media, which continues to focus its attention on its stars. In October, the Women’s March on Washington organizers were named Women of the Year by middle-America’s women’s bible, Glamour. “There’s nothing wrong with the media attaching to the D.C. team. You have to have a face on a movement. And we all stand in solidarity,” says Katherine Siemionko, who organized the Women’s March on New York City, and is now the director of the Women’s March Alliance, a March On affiliate. “But I would actually caution against calling them the face. Even on their website it says, listen, this belongs to the women who showed up. We are the face of this.”

Louisa Cannell

The squabbles underscore two different ideologies between the two groups: Whereas March On sees the heart and soul of their mission happening through the political process, the national group is seeking a more radical cultural reset.

“If you read our Unity Principles, the vision of the world that it put forth is not something that I think is anything like a mainstream vision. We’re talking about sex workers’ rights in there, we’re talking about a world without war and where military violence isn't necessary. We’re talking about a very different world. A world I think we’re trying to imagine and trying to build. It is a world that cannot be created by just tweaking what we have,” Ellman-Golan says. “I think that the responsibility that comes from having a wide reach is to keep pushing. I don't think we want to push so far that we push people away, but I think that we exist to push.”

To that end, their way to change is by leading the debate, and drawing attention to important issues through protest and events. This also requires putting forth bold ideas that might be new, and even controversial or uncomfortable, to some of their hundreds of thousands of followers. Which probably explains a number of controversies that erupted over the past year.

After an op-ed in the New York Times questioned whether there was room in the new feminist movement for Zionists, a story appeared in the liberal The Nation declaring “Can you be a Zionist and A Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No.” Although the interview offered a more nuanced version of Sarsour’s views, the article was widely shared and left a number of pro-Israel feminists feeling alienated. A spate of related controversies — the inclusion of a Palestinian woman who has been accused and convicted in Israel for terrorism as a signatory to the Day Without A Woman protests, the co-chairs’ associations with the anti-Semitic (and homophobic) Louis Farrakhan have offered little solace for people concerned about rising anti-Semitism on the left.

“In regards to Minister Farrakhan, I think that is a distraction,” Perez says. “People need to understand the significant contributions that these individuals have made to Black and Brown people.” We need to leave room for complexity and nuance, she says. “There are no perfect leaders. We follow the legacy of Dr. King, which is Kingian non-violence. We say we have to attack the forces of evil, not the people doing evil. We never attack people.”

Ellman-Golan, who is Jewish, told me she gets why Farrakhan is alienating. “But these are the gaps in understanding,” she says. “As a white person, I have to unlearn anti-Blackness, and they have to understand where they have biases. I’m here doing that work, and so are they.” When the accusations of anti-Semitism came up, Ellman-Golan says she had multiple conversations with members of the Women’s March team about anti-Semitism and those conversations are ongoing.

Another media flare-up happened when the Women’s March tweeted a Happy Birthday wish to Assata Shakur, the Black Panther Party figure who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1977 and currently living in exile in Cuba. The message was retweeted by popular CNN host Jake Tapper who was outraged: “This, ugly sentiments from @lsarsour & @dykemarchchi ...Any progressives out there condemning this?” Rather than let the comment lie, Sarsour responded: “please share my "ugly" sentiments? Unapologetically Muslim? Unapologetically Palestinian? Pro-immigrant? Pro-justice? Shame.” But it was a second tweet that made people angry, because it just seemed so unneccessary. “.@jaketapper joins the ranks of the alt-right to target me online. Welcome to the party,” Sarsour wrote.

Sarsour didn’t respond to requests for comment on any of the controversies. Ellman-Golan, who was the one who sent the Assata Shakur tweet, allows, “It was definitely a learning experience in [meeting people where they are,]. I thought ‘maybe I should tone it down a little.’ But then there were also people who took it and started educational threads and discussions about Assata Shakur, too. So it’s really hard to find a balance.”

To be sure, much of the criticism was unfair, as was the case when conservatives jumped on a speech given by Sarsour in which she used the word “jihad” in its original religious meaning — the struggle to live a life in service to God and holy principles — but was denounced by conservatives for supposedly supporting ISIS. In an August op-ed in the New York Times, Mallory was accused of inciting violence against police for citing a Jamaican folk proverb she posted on Instagram in November 2016. The proverb was, “When you throw a brick in a pile of hogs, the one that hollers is the one you hit,” which seems to echo the police slur “pig.” In reality the saying means only, “if a mom yells out ‘you kids better not be jumping on the bed’ and one child responds being defensive, she knows which kid is guilty,” Mallory clarified on Instagram.

When I ask about the past year of criticisms and controversies, Perez says they’re still learning. “We hope that people have compassion,” she says. “Many of us are doing this full-time and really are committed to creating entry points to make sure people continue to be involved with our movement. We know there were mistakes we made. We’re trying to learn from every major event that we plan.”

Although the organization is on the hunt for an executive director, the role has gone unfilled since it was posted in July. That brought about its own controversy; some were upset that they were abandoning their activist roots. (It seems they can't please people, no matter what.)

“I think the Women's March and everything that’s happened in the last year is the great example of the tension between the operatives and the activists,” says Jessica Torres, an activist and Democratic communications strategist, who marched in January but is otherwise uninvolved. “It’s really important to not operate in our silos.”

What’s so important about Women’s March is that we’re expanding the idea of what is a woman’s issue; what is a feminist issue.
Sophie Ellman-Golan, Women's March deputy head of communications

Earlier this month, Women’s March invited New York influencers to a special celebration to launch Together, We Rise, “the definitive chronicle of the Women's March as told by the march's organizers in partnership with Conde Nast.” The event was held at The Wing, the exclusive millennial pinked out women-only networking club in Manhattan. Cecile Richards and Alencia Johnson from Planned Parenthood were there, plus Amber Tamblyn and Jamia Wilson (who wrote the book’s oral history) along with about a hundred other professionals and creatives from Harper Collins to Refinery29, all milling about sipping margaritas — featuring tequila from a women-owned distillery, of course.

The four co-chairs were not in attendance, but many from that original team were there. “What we set out to do was make a historical document we could all have to memorialize this important day,” Sara Sophie-Flicker, a national organizer and volunteer for Women’s March, who helped spearhead the book project, said when she took the mic to start the speeches. “And what ended up happening really was much bigger than that, a real blueprint on intersectionally organizing in really intentional ways that I think generations to come can build on.”

In her speech, Fendlay spoke about the past year, giving Women’s March credit for a lot of the progress made by the broader #Resistance: “We managed to get Bill O'Reilly fired, to save healthcare from a repeal. Since then the tax bill happened, but we had an active summer of people getting dragged out of congressional offices” she said. “So many people were inspired to become organizers because of all this, and so there are hundreds and hundreds of marches happening again all over the country this coming January 20th and 21st.” (A nod to the grassroots events, be they Women’s March or March On.)

In the meantime, 2018 looms. For their part, Women’s March national has decided to descend on Las Vegas, Nevada, to do a stadium rally in the swing state. Speakers include establishment types like Planned Parenthood’s Cecille Richards and Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, activists like Black Lives Matter co-founder, Alicia Garza, and Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term “intersectionality.” This will be the first of a series of 10 rallies in swing states this year, but it’s unclear what they have planned. Fendlay says they aren’t ready to share where they will show up next.

As for March On, it will launch its 2018 initiatives in concert with more than 400 local events this weekend. First is Operation Marching Orders, which is an online policy poll designed to create a set of specific goals via crowdsourcing. That will be open for two weeks. Then, they will move on to voter registration efforts, as well as developing a priority list of which races are most important and which candidates they are supporting. “This will all lead to the sort of Grand Finale of our 2018 work, the literal March On The Polls, which will be either marching, having a rally outside the polls, or caravans to bring people to the polls where it matters,” Wruble says.

Both groups have an uphill battle. Turnout is historically low, especially among young people in midterm elections, says Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, PhD, Chair of Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. “But they benefit from some of the key victories — Doug Jones in Alabama, and in Virginia with the first transgender woman being elected,” she says. “Smaller victories give the Women’s March a handle to say No seriously, your voice really makes a difference.

The organizers are confident that they can make change.

“We had no idea if Doug Jones would win,” says Emily Emfinger Johnson, founder of a March On affiliate in Florence, Alabama. “There is a very progressive movement here, even in rural Alabama. I think the Women’s March has given people more confidence to speak out, especially in Red states.”

“Our goal is to have a million new women voters by 2018,” adds Gwendolyn Combs, head of March On Arkansas, who is running for Congress herself in 2018. “We’re going to be doing everything we can to educate and engage people.”

“We’re going to have a car on every corner with a sign “Do you need a ride to the polls?” Hopps, from Michigan, says. “ If I can mobilize 35,000 to D.C., I can mobilize 35,000 people to drive their neighbor to the polls. We’re going to win big in 2018. I have no doubt.”

What will become of the Women’s March movement? Only time will tell.

“In any movement, there are people who argue about what’s better electoral strategies or issues focus or both,” says Jamia Wilson, the Executive Director and Publisher of Feminist Press at City University of New York. “We need them all. Even in the civil rights movement, there were similar disagreements about what’s the right approach. But what’s most important, even if we have different approaches, different motivations, is to just be connected to the goal, to a sense of a mission, which is justice for all people.”

Torey Van Oot and Claire Fahey contributed reporting.

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