The Women’s March Tries to Repair the Damage. Is It Too Late?
After a year of shrinking crowds, power struggles and allegations of anti-Semitism, a new board is hoping to get the movement back on track.
After a bruising 2019, marked by shrinking crowds, dueling marches, and allegations of anti-Semitism, the Women’s March is attempting a rebrand. This year, the march is back for a fourth time with a new board, a new format—and a new tagline.
The theme is Women Rising, but it may as well be “focus on the marchers.” The phrase pops up repeatedly in conversation with march leaders—a plea to focus on the people participating in the protest and not the ones organizing it. It’s a smart move for an organization looking to distance itself from its co-founders, but the question is: Will anyone listen?
In late 2018, a piece in Tablet magazine laid out shocking accusations of anti-Semitism against march co-chairs Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez. At the same time, media outlets homed in on the leaders’ relationship with Louis Farrakhan, the controversial National of Islam leader known for making sexist and anti-Semitic comments.
The march co-chairs denied the allegations of anti-Semitism and condemned some of Farrakhan’s more outrageous statements, but refused to denounce the man himself. The backlash was swift. The activists, who had been darlings of the anti-Trump “Resistance” since January 2017, became persona non grata in many progressive circles. The march, previously a kind of Switzerland for a fractured left, became fraught with tension.
Most estimates put the number of people at the first Women’s March at around 4 million; in 2018, it was closer to 2 million. Last year, the most generous estimates put the crowd size at around 730,000. Nearly half of all local marches called off their 2019 event, and others put out statements declaring their independence from the national group. Celebrities including Alyssa Milano vowed not to speak at the demonstrations, and sponsors including NARAL, Emily’s List, and the Human Rights Campaign pulled their support. It was clear that something needed to change.
This year, the march announced that three of the original co-chairs would step down from the board. (Some headlines said the march “cut ties” with the three, but chief operating officer Rachel O’Leary Carmona declined to go that far, saying they may still be involved in some way in the future.) Perez, who was on personal leave most of last year, would stay in a rotating seat saved for the founders.
The group embarked on a nationwide hunt for new board members, eventually settling on 17 leaders from a spectrum of races, religions, regions. The group includes a trans woman, a Muslim woman, several black and Native American women and a disability rights activist, all of whom work as volunteers. (In previous years, tax records show, some board co-chairs were paid up to $105,115 a year, and each received a $10,000 “consulting fee” on top.)
Isa Noyola, a trans Latina activist, said she encountered some skepticism from friends when she decided to join the board. But she said it was important for her to have a voice at such an influential organization, and to advocate for LGBTQ and immigration issues from the inside.
“I didn't shy away from the critiques, I knew walking in what they were,” she told the Daily Beast. “I’ve jumped into many situations where things were on fire and you just continue to show up and add your grain of salt and hope that that continues to transform the situation.”
The organization maintains that the board switch-up was planned from the beginning, with the seats always set for two-year terms. In an interview, Carmona said the founding members had simply “termed out.” But it was clear that the Women’s March knew it needed a change. By the end of 2019, it had dropped its PR company, cycled out staff, and rolled out a new policy platform called the “Women’s Agenda.”
Perez told The Daily Beast that she had also engaged in some personal evolution. Over the last year and a half, she said, she met with rabbis, attended anti-Semitism trainings, and reached out personally to the people she’d hurt. (She also retained a personal publicist, who reached out to The Daily Beast proactively to discuss “how she and the March have evolved over the past year.”) “First you have to start internally,” Perez said. “Recognizing the harm that’s been done is necessary.”
For some, the changes proved meaningful. Teresa Shook, the Hawaii lawyer credited with founding the march, called for the co-chairs to step down last year, saying they had “steered the Movement away from its true course.” This year, she plans to speak at the Women’s March in Maui. She said she hasn’t followed the board transition closely but is hopeful that it’s “moving forward in a positive way.” Tee Marie Hanible—the march’s former military coordinator, who also criticized the original co-chairs—said she is also hopeful but not sure if she’ll participate again this year.
Vanessa Wruble, an early march leader who accused Perez and Mallory of making anti-Semitic comments, founded her own women’s political group after being pushed out of the organization. She said her group, March On, will be focused less on marching and more on mobilizing turnout for the election. But, she added: “Drama is so 2019. In 2020 everyone needs to focus on everything they can do toward the elections. And that is a giant tent.”
But Mercy Morganfield, a former D.C. organizer who has been critical of the co-chairs, said she felt the latest changes didn’t go far enough. She criticized the Women’s March for appointing new board members rather than electing them, and for keeping in a rotating seat for the original co-chairs. She also said many of the new members had been in “lockstep” with the co-chairs from the beginning.
“I don’t have too much confidence in the Women’s March and I have a lot of resentment for them because I think they took a powerful moment... and they squandered it for foolishness,” she said
Indeed, it quickly became apparent that it would be hard for the Women’s March to please everyone. Just days after the new board was announced, social media sleuths dragged up old social media posts from incoming member Zahra Billoo that many deemed anti-Semitic. The board voted swiftly to remove her, in a move praised by Jewish groups. But Billoo, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in San Francisco, accused them of caving to an Islamophobic smear campaign.
“The Women's March, Inc. has drawn a line in the sand, one that will exclude many with my lived experiences and critiques,” she tweeted. “It has effectively said, we will work on some women’s rights at the expense of others.”
Asked about the situation, Carmona returned to the familiar line about focusing on the marchers: "The conversation around Women’s March has been kind of inside baseball,” she said. “The focus of this board moving forward is to really be focusing on what’s happening with the people.”
The friction in the Women’s March was not limited to religion. In the year following the first march, the founders attempted to exert control over their brand, filing for a trademark on the name “Women’s March” and reportedly asking unaffiliated marches not to use the term. Many local groups, who had organized their marches largely independent of the national organization, bristled at the power grab. The conflict ended with some cities having two marches on the same day—one organized by the local leaders, and one organized by national affiliates.
In April, Women’s March dropped its trademark case without explanation. Carmona said the group is now approaching the sister marches from a “decentralized” model, providing support when necessary and otherwise leaving them be. In Philadelphia, a city that hosted two marches last year, Women’s March leaders sat down with local organizers to negotiate a ceasefire. Salima Suswell, a Philadelphia organizer, said national march officials told her they are not planning to host a competing event in 2020.
“It was more of a, ‘Hey, in years past there has been some confusion and some discord between our organizations and we wanted to eliminate that,’” she said. “They wanted to work toward us having a mutual understanding and work toward more synergy in our causes.”
In New York, organizers were so burned out from the discord last year that they considered not marching at all. The local Women’s March Alliance had long clashed with the national group over ownership of the city’s rally, with both sides trading barbs in the press. When Women’s March Alliance member Sulma Arzu-Brown decided to hold a march this year after all, affiliates of the national group called her in for a meeting.
“We decided to work together at this particular point. 2020 is too much of an important year,” Arzu-Brown told The Daily Beast. “We understand that they handled the PR situation last year not too great, and we want to move on from that together.”
Arzu-Brown said both groups will host their own events—one uptown and one downtown—but will share resources, speakers and press junkets. By way of sign-off, she warned about the power the press has to shape the narrative, and how important it is not to get “distracted” by divisions. “Are you excited to unify the voice of women in New York?” she asked this reporter, forcefully.
For some chapters, however, the unity push came too late. In Los Angeles, where crowd sizes regularly swamp those in D.C., local leader Emiliana Guereca said organizers have “more of an open line of communication than we’ve ever had” with the national group, but don’t plan to join forces anytime soon. The group has always organized its own events in conversation with Women’s March, but cut ties after last year’s controversies. Now, with its own board of directors and nonprofit company, Guereca said it feels too late to go back.
“I think that we waited too long for some sort of structure and where we fit in that structure, and then we weren’t aligned with some of the statements that were put forth,” she told The Daily Beast. “We moved on. We were like, ‘We want no part of the negative rhetoric.’ As a Jewish Latina organizer, what was going on was not acceptable.”
Perhaps because of the intense scrutiny, the Women’s March surveyed its members not once, but twice this year to determine the focus of the 2020 march. They landed on three issues that were consistently important to their base: climate, immigration, and reproductive health, rights, and justice. The topics will inform the three days of events leading up to the march on Saturday, and the basis for a “Day of Action” on the Thursday before. Friday will be a strategy summit on feminist leadership in 2020, reserved for leaders of partner organizations.
The events have attracted major partners including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood—and NARAL, which pulled out of the 2018 march. Carmona said the weeklong series of events will allow more people to “plug in” even if they can’t make it on march day. It could also be a sign of a larger trend away from marches and toward direct action. In Tennessee this year, demonstrators will take voter registration classes and door-knock their neighbors before rallying in Murfreesboro. In Denver, activists are forgoing a post-march rally in favor of a “community exhibition” of local non-profits.
Just 4,300 people have marked themselves as “going” to the March on Washington on Facebook, compared to 6,600 last year and a whopping 12,000 in 2017. (The number of people marked “interested” vary year to year, and Carmona said they expect higher turnout this time around than last.) Regardless, a little over a thousand have marked themselves as attending the combined events in New York—far fewer than in years past. Some internet trolls even appear to have created fake Women’s March events on Facebook, to trick people into showing up on the wrong day.
Even if the march itself is smaller this year—as it has been every year since its inception—it will be hard to ignore the groundswell of women’s organizing that took place since pussy hat-sporting crowds first descended on Washington in 2017. That same year, nearly 4,000 people attended a Women’s March convention to address healthcare, sexual harassment, climate change and more. Groups like March On and Women’s March Global—while no longer affiliated with the D.C. march—have organized thousands of women across the globe on causes from voter registration to genital mutilation.
In Georgia, a local activist frustrated with divisions in the Women’s March last year went on to relaunch her local chapter of the Georgia Democratic Women, which had been dormant for nearly a decade. The group has protested on the steps of the state capitol and hosted a forum for progressive women political candidates. In a mostly Republican suburb of St. Louis, march participant Megan McCarthy organized a local “huddle” for mainly female political progressives.
Across the country, a historic number of women—including several women’s march local organizers—ran for office and won in 2018. The #MeToo movement swept the country and knocked hundreds of men accused of sexual misconduct from power. A record-breaking six women ran for the Democratic nomination this year. Multiple analyses say women could be the deciding voters in this year’s election.
Some of these events are tied directly to the Women’s March; others are more tangential. But maybe this is the best way to assess the impact of the movement, four years on: not by its crowd sizes, its controversies, or its success in resisting Trump, but by innumerable moments of protest that came after it.
At least, that’s the way Noyola sees it.
“For me, [the march] is not the one moment to make it all happen and to have all of the solutions and all of the answers that our communities are seeking,” she said.
She added, "I'm working under the idea that I don't know if I'll ever see the full articulation or vision of liberation in my lifetime, but I'm working toward that for future generations.”