The day after Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, Hadas Alterman found herself surrounded by nearly 60,000 people in downtown Oakland. The 29-year-old attorney from California has attended her fair share of civil rights demonstrations, but said that she had never experienced anything like the 2017 Women’s March.
“It can be scary to protest in Oakland because often there’s a high, very aggressive police presence. But the atmosphere at the Women’s March in Oakland was the opposite from anything I’ve seen in similar circumstances,” she told Refinery29. “It was really warm, felt very safe. It was a big show of support for one and other.”
The high was enough for Alterman to join the Women’s March once again in January 2018. But a lot has changed since then. The image of an inclusive, empowered movement has been shattered by the claims of anti-Semitism that have engulfed the Women’s March national leadership for a nearly a year now, leading to public backlash against its most visible leaders. Alterman has chosen to participate in a drive giving out feminine sanitary products and winter coats to homeless women instead of marching again this year. She said it would be nearly impossible for the leadership to regain her trust.
"I think at this point the leadership, with their duplicitous words that haven’t really aligned with their actions, has made a mockery of the movement that millions of women have supported,” Alterman said. “The most common reason I’ve heard why people are willing to give the Women’s March leadership a free pass despite their alignment with an open bigot is their status as powerful women of colour. Their behaviour — unabashedly praising and keeping company with a known bigot, a malignant anti-Semite who repeatedly attacks the LGBTQ community — wouldn’t fly in another context nor should it. It surprises me that we let them away get with it, that we think we don’t deserve better from our leaders. But I’m not settling for that, that’s not my feminism."
Things came to a boil once again Monday, when Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory refused to condemn Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan once again during an interview on The View. With the 2019 Women’s March taking place worldwide this Saturday, Mallory’s interview alongside co-president Bob Bland was an opportunity to promote the event, and respond to the criticisms swirling the organization. When asked about Farrakhan’s history of anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ+, and misogynistic remarks, Mallory said: "I don't agree with these statements. It’s not my language. It’s not the way that I speak. It’s not how I organize."
But she stopped short of condemning Farrakhan. The interview followed months of controversies, from local organizers distancing themselves from the central organization to a very public rejection from celebrity supporters, calls for the organization’s leaders to step down, and a detailed Tablet investigative report into the anti-Semitism allegations.
Since then former supporters have questioned whether it’s worth marching. To make matters worse, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) dropped out as a partner, though the it has declined to answer if the decision was related to Mallory’s comments. Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, and NARAL also reportedly dropped out.
“The Women’s March is almost tainted right now,” Devin Lauren Perez told Refinery29. The 24-year-old paralegal from New York City had her doubts about the Women’s March after attending the first event, saying she didn’t feel the organization spoke to the issues that matter the most to her as a Latina. But the anti-Semitism controversy has cemented it for her. “It has fractured the local chapters from the national one. It’s concerning that the few women of colour that are on the leadership board of the organization have these accusations against them. The march, on the ground, has often been centering white women, so there are disconnects on multiple levels there.”
She concluded: “There’s so much change that needs to happen [at the Women’s March] for me to support it again. What’s more important for me right now is to support grassroots organizations that don’t have these allegations against them such as Cosecha in Boston, RAICES helping immigrants through legal work at the [U.S.-Mexico] border. That feels more important than this march.”
But the claims of anti-Semitism have not alienated everyone. Nah’Ja Washington is ecstatic about this year’s protest, even though she’s never participated before. “I’m a student [of colour] at a predominantly white institution and I’ve always thought the Women’s March is place where I could experience being around women from different backgrounds sharing their different stories,” she told Refinery29. “I’m aware of the anti-Semitic statements, but overall from what I’ve seen they still strive for diversity. I always watch coverage of the marches and it always appears to be a very diverse group of women, an inclusive event.”
This Saturday, the 21-year-old from Irvington, NJ will be at the main protest in D.C. with a group of other young Black women. For Washington, her presence is about pushing against the ways society mistreats women of colour. “I thought it was important to go this year especially in response to several comments that came out after the Surviving R. Kelly documentary, because many people were forced to admit they don’t believe Black women or that their lives matter,” she said. “I know the Women’s March has been critiqued for their erasure of Black women, so I thought the best place for me to challenge this idea ... is for me to be there.”
And there are plenty of supporters who question whether all the attention on the national leadership actions, or lack thereof, is necessary. Whitney Wanders argues that the work done by the local chapters is more important than the distracting “he said, she said” that’s been going on.
“I find [the allegations] very disheartening. But ultimately is a distraction from what ultimately the purpose of the organization really is. The movement is larger than one organization or a few people at the top making poor decisions,” the 32-year-old consultant from Seattle, WA told Refinery29. “I’m marching for women’s equality, equal pay, transgender rights, so many other issues. Their behaviour is not gonna stop me from marching, because I’m not marching for them.”
The origin story of the Women’s March is well-known by now: Angry and heartbroken after the 2016 presidential election, Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, suggested marching on Washington, D.C. around the time of President Trump’s inauguration. The innocuous Facebook post went viral and on January 21, 2017, millions of women protested around the globe. Fractures were there from the beginning — there were issues over the Women’s March’s original name, the alleged erasure of sex workers’ rights movements from the organization’s Unity Principles, and a debate over the inclusion of anti-abortion groups on the list of partners.
Charges of anti-Semitism came to a head in March 2018, when Mallory, the Women’s March co-chair, attended a Nation of Islam’s annual gathering in Chicago, IL called Saviours' Day. There, Minister Farrakhan gave a speech riddled with anti-Semitic tropes and transphobic remarks. Facing public backlash, Mallory, as well as board members Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour, stood by their relationship with the Nation of Islam, citing the work it has done for Black and Brown communities. But the leaders’ reticence to disavow Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism specifically has haunted the Women’s March since. Then, a Tablet magazine report published last month revealed a dispute over anti-Semitism had been there from the very first meeting among organizers, according to Vanessa Wruble, the executive director of March On, and other witnesses who spoke to the outlet. Women’s March has disputed this version of events repeatedly and forcefully. “Women’s March exists to fight bigotry and discrimination in all their forms — including anti-semitism, homophobia, and transphobia — and to lift up the voices of women who are too often left out. Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members,” the organization told Refinery29 on Friday.
It's been reported that organizations such the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated the Nation of Islam a hate group, and the political action committee Emily's List will not be partners for this year’s event. A spokesperson for Emily’s List told Refinery29 that the group had not sponsored the 2018 Women's March either. “We've partnered with many different groups and are constantly reviewing how best to spend resources in ways that will most directly help us reach our ultimate goal of electing more pro-choice Democratic women,” the spokesperson said. “We decided our resources were best spent hosting a training for women coming into D.C. with the Women's March, rather than a sponsorship of the March itself.”
Other organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, stand by the Women’s March. In the wake of the Tablet magazine report, a spokesperson told Refinery29: “Over the last two years, we’ve seen unprecedented attacks on our health and rights from the Trump-Pence administration. The Women’s March has become a symbol of our collective resistance to these damaging and discriminatory policies and Planned Parenthood is proud to once again, join our progressive partners for the #WomensWave mobilization to protect and advance the progress we've made as a movement dedicated to equity and justice for all people.”
Refinery29 has also reached out to several prominent Democrats, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, to ask whether they’re attending the march this year. None responded by press time.
On Monday, the Women’s March announced the creation of a new steering committee, made up by 31 women from a wide range of backgrounds and tasked with leading the 2019 march. “I’m proud to join the Women’s March steering committee, to stand with my sisters in support of the Unity Principles and the Women’s Agenda, and to move the Women’s March movement forward,” Yavilah McCoy of the Jewish Women of Color Resilience Circle said in a statement provided to Refinery29.
At the heart of the anti-Semitism scandal is the question of to which standards do Women’s March supporters hold a big tent organization that claims to be intersectional and fighting for everyone’s liberation. For some like Alderman, the attorney from California, that means rejecting the Women’s March in its entirety due to what she sees as critical failures on part of the national leadership. For others like Marcie Wells, the Women’s March remains a political asset against oppression in the Trump era, which is why she’s willing to separate the anti-Semitism claims against the public faces of the organization from all the progress she believes the movement has helped achieve.
Wells will be marching on Saturday, regardless of the controversies. She believes the Women’s March movement — the sprawling network of chapters, grassroots organizers, and everyday people — is bigger than the issues the national leadership might have. “Women’s March has helped me understand how to lobby for the issues that are important to me. It’s about action right now,” the 41-year-old casino union worker from Las Vegas, NV told Refinery29. “A lot of people have that intention deep down, but you get busy with life. It’s exciting to have someone organizing and leaving space for everyone to get involved.”
When it comes to the national leadership, Wells said she’s satisfied with the approach Mallory, Perez, Sarsour, and Bland had taken. “I’m trying not to focus on that, because it feels like a distraction. I can’t ascribe meaning to someone else’s actions,” she said. “I think the national leadership has responded and committed to continually build the movement, grow, and learn. Their intentions are pure and they have been more than apologetic. As a person that hasn’t been given the benefit of the doubt, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.”