Has the Women's March Served Its Purpose?
Some women say they won't be attending the 2019 Women's March because the first one delivered on its promise: It inspired them to get involved in activism that has made the march itself redundant.
On January 21, 2017, Senti Sojwal had woken up feeling hopeful. She got dressed, grabbed a sign she’d made, reading “Gender Justice Is Racial Justice Is Economic Justice,” and hopped on a train from her apartment in Bushwick to midtown Manhattan, where local activists had organized a sister march to the Women’s March in Washington DC.
When she arrived, she linked up with a group of her coworkers from Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy group for immigrant survivors of domestic violence. They’d had some misgivings about the march, worrying that it wasn’t inclusive enough, and, with its overt “pussy” imagery, that it would be particularly unfriendly to transgender people. Still, Sojwal said the demonstration, which went down as the largest single-day protest in history, felt urgent and necessary in the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. “The visual of all these women and allies together was stunning, even to me, someone who had approached the whole idea with some wariness,” Sojwal told Broadly. And it had been “really special to be there with a group of women of color that I shared a very purposeful and close community with.”
Sojwal feels differently this year. In 2018, she co-founded the Asian American Feminist Collective, an intersectional feminist group to which she now devotes much of her time; it’s her primary forum for solidarity, community, and political organizing. She’ll be skipping the 2019 Women’s March.
“In so many ways, my life feels full of meaningful political action already,” Sojwal tells Broadly. “I think the march means different things to different people, and if it provides a space for you that you may not have elsewhere, it can be really impactful. It’s not that for me.”
With the approach of the third-annual Women’s March, which will take place in dozens of cities across the country on Saturday, many of the same women who enthusiastically attended 2017’s inaugural march and even the one that followed, in 2018, are weighing whether they want to attend this year’s, or have already decided not to. Some say their growing disenchantment owes in part to internal conflicts that have roiled the organization over the past year, which include accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against multiple founding co-chairs, as well as tensions between Women’s March Inc.—the national group led by co-chairs Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, Bob Bland, and Tamika Mallory—and the local marches it’s inspired. (New York City, for example, will host two competing 2019 women’s marches: one with Women’s March Inc., and another with Women’s March NYC.) For others, it may be a confluence of these discontents, along with the simple fact of, like Sojwal, now having an activist life that has made the march a second thought.
Monica Klein and Elana Leopold, two New York-based political consultants who attended the first and second marches , wondered if they had time to go.
The duo said their organization The Broad Room, a "training camp" for young women entering politics and activism for the first time, began as a dozen women traveling to DC to participate in the first Women's March. Klein and Leopold are currently preparing for a training at the end of the month called “Find Your Voice” to help women hone their public speaking skills, in addition to running their all-women political consultancy firm Seneca Strategies, which they co-founded last year.
“It’s almost like we’re too busy because of the Women’s March to march anymore.”
“We’re so busy planning for the training we haven’t even had a second to think about where we’re going to meet up,” Klein said on Monday. “It’s almost like we’re too busy because of the Women’s March to march anymore.”
Thousands of women are still expected to attend this year’s women’s marches—Klein and Leopold included, despite their hectic schedules—but anecdotes like these raise questions about the staying power of the organization. Women’s marches in New York City, Los Angeles, and DC, which had drawn the largest crowds in 2017, saw diminishing returns last year, as did the national march in Las Vegas, which only attracted about 20,000 demonstrators. In 2017, the national march in DC boasted numbers upwards of 470,000—three times that of Trump's inauguration crowd.
The mission of the 2019 Women’s March seems a bit fuzzier as well: 2017’s march was a clear response to Trump’s presidency and its perceived threat to women’s rights; 2018’s, whose slogan was “power to the polls,” was about electing women to office and getting voters to the ballot box that year. Saturday’s march will be part celebration, part call to action—a victory lap in honor of the record number of women recently sworn into Congress, as well as a reminder of the policy platforms the Women’s March would like to see them further as elected officials.
The Women’s March outlines these platforms in its “Women’s Agenda,” a page on its website that includes bullet points for ending state violence and violence against women and promoting reproductive justice, racial justice, immigrant rights, and more. The Women’s March has also assembled a team of 50 all-women “issue-area experts,” responsible for fine-tuning the agenda and, as a Women’s March spokesperson told Broadly in an email, creating a “roadmap for our movements and a work-plan for our electeds.” Supplementary to the "Women's Agenda" is the march's "Unity Principles," which affirm its dedication to women's rights.
When asked about the long-term goals of the organization—for example, will there be a fourth, fifth, sixth march?—the spokesperson responded: "The Women's Agenda is our plan for the next two years. What happens after the 2020 presidential election will change the political landscape, but no matter who the president is, we'll still need to keep building the world our Unity Principles envision."
This is not exactly the rallying cry many people were hoping for. And many remain uninspired by what they believe is the organization’s failure to address some of the inclusivity problems that have plagued the march since its inception, though eradicating them may be on the organization’s “agenda.”
Bleu Grano, a young woman based in New York City, said she volunteered as a remote translator for the Lilith Fund Hotline, a line women can call to get help accessing abortions, after she left the first Women’s March feeling disillusioned by the “lack of representation at an event meant to be intersectional [but] instead focused on white cisgender heterosexual women.” She attended the second march in hopes of seeing improvements, but in her view, nothing had changed.
“I'm not interested in attending the Women's March a third time,” she told Broadly in an email. “I went the second year because I was hoping that there would be some attempt to resolve the issues brought up the first year but I did not find this to be the case. I am hoping to find a meet-up for people of color to attend or spend the day volunteering with an immigrant-focused organization in the city.”
Marisa Kabas, a New York writer, was among the first to charge the Women’s March organizers with anti-Semitism, penning a March 2017 op-ed in Harpers Bazaar where she talked about attending a Women’s March event she felt hadn’t merely been anti-Zionist but anti-Jewish. In the co-chairs’ refusal to explicitly denounce Louis Farrakhan, who has made virulent anti-Semitic comments in his speeches as a religious leader, Kabas sees many of the issues she pointed to in 2017 as having only grown worse.
"The piece I wrote was very controversial at the time because there was more of a group-think mentality around the leaders of the Women's March—we were all so desperate for leadership," Kabas said. "I don't think I expressed myself as well as I could have in the piece I wrote, but looking back on it now...I feel like I picked up on a sensation that wasn't just in my imagination."
The Women's March told Broadly that organizers are trying to address these criticisms the best they can, announcing a 33-member steering committee that will help co-chairs Sarsour, Mallory, Perez, and Bland lead the 2019 march. The committee notably includes three Jewish women, who wrote in a Medium post on Wednesday they they're marching this year because they "take anti-Semitism very seriously."
"We're working to build a big-tent intersectional movement—something that's never been done before," the march's spokesperson continued. "We're making a concerted effort to reach out to communities that have felt left out or unseen ... We want all people to feel welcome, and all women to see themselves in this movement, because it is for all of us. "
Not everyone is waiting around for the Women's March to get it right. There's plenty else to do: Women like Klein and Leopold have organizations to run; Sojwal has a collective to lead; Kabas is looking ahead to 2020 after launching a 2018 platform called "Crush the Midterms."
“It became clear to me even in those few weeks after the first march that people were going to take it and run with it their own way,” Kabas said. “People were inspired to take initiative—not just to look up to this one organization and wait for it to tell them where to go or what to do.”
“People were inspired to take initiative—not just to look up to this one organization and wait for it to tell them where to go or what to do.”
In these respects, the Women's March has long since delivered on its own promise. Many women will remember it as their first brush with political protest, the impetus for a new life they built afterward dedicated to activism. There are some ways to measure the march's influence: Many of the record number of women who ran for office in 2018 credited the Women's March with inspiring them to do so, a phenomenon which led to a historic number of them getting elected to office in November. Their bids for office were funded largely by women, who made up over 50 percent of campaign donors, a sharp rise from 2016. More of their campaigns were run by women as well, making up 40 percent of campaign managers for Democratic congressional candidates in 2018. But it's hard to track what may be some of the march's biggest accomplishments, like the number of new activist groups that cropped up across the country because of it, or voters who learned the names of their government representatives, or people who knocked on doors or phone banked for the first time.
As many people reflect on the influence of the women's march two years out, its power seems now to rest in the hands of the people it inspired.
"Here is the irony, but also the success of the Women’s March: In inviting so many people to participate, agitate, raise their voices in their own ways, and listen to the raised voices of women differently, the event(s) they planned gave birth to a movement and to a host of figures who have become as symbolically powerful, and in many cases more powerful, than the four co-chairs," The Cut's Rebecca Traister wrote on Thursday in a piece titled "Don't Give Up on the Women's March."
Even the march's harshest critics agree with Traister to an extent. Kabas said though she can't see the annual march stretching past year five, the Women's March still serves as a useful way to mark time—to consider what's changed, what hasn't, and the work left to be done.
Still, it will always be what happens the other 364 days of the year that matters most to organizers like Sojwal.
“The most important question to me about the Women’s March is what you’re doing the day after, when the news crews are gone, Trump is still president, migrant children continue to die at the border, Black people are still murdered by the police, women still cannot access lifesaving health care, and queer communities continue to experience horrific violence,” Sojwal said. “Where are you then?”