Just two years after leading the largest recorded protest in US history, the third annual Women’s March on Saturday is set to proceed under a cloud of controversy.
This year’s march is shaping up to be smaller and more splintered than before, after several major sponsors withdrew and local chapters disaffiliated from the central organization which leads it, following allegations of antisemitism.
Leaders were slow to deny and condemn allegations they had made antisemitic comments, and recent reporting has revealed deep ties between top officials and the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, is a notorious antisemite.
Major progressive groups which sponsored the first march in 2017 have quietly withdrawn, including leading unions, environmental groups and women’s organizations. Of the many Jewish groups listed as partners in previous years, only a few remain. The Democratic National Committee, which had previously appeared on a list of 2019 Women’s March sponsors, recently disappeared too.It’s a major blow for the movement that marked the beginning of the “resistance” in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential upset, when hundreds of thousands descended on the National Mall in Washington DC, a mass demonstration roughly three times the size of Trump’s own inauguration.
Experts called the 2017 Women’s March the largest single-day protest in recorded US history, with turnout around the country estimated in the millions, and top celebrities and politicians lending their star power to the event. It also presaged the coming of the powerful #MeToo movement which would reshape the culture around the treatment of women at work.
This year, however, the showing is expected to be fractured.
Following a protracted fight over the organization’s leadership, Vanessa Wruble, a Brooklyn-based activist who was pushed out of the organization in 2017, went on to help found another organization called March On, which emphasizes supporting local activists and denouncing antisemitism.
The result is that there will be two major women’s marches taking place on the streets of New York and many other cities around the country on Saturday – the original one, which emphasizes leadership by women of color, and another – March On – formed in opposition to antisemitism.
“Founded by the leaders of many of the marches across the country, March On is women-led, but open to all, and will employ a sophisticated political strategy to coordinate concrete actions at the federal, state, and local level through the joint efforts of millions of marchers,” the March On website states.
Lee Weal, an activist based in New York City, told the Guardian that while she went to the second Women’s March and had been planning to go to the third this year, the group’s ties to Farrakhan put her off.
“If we insist that Trump disavow people like David Duke, you can’t have a different rule for those on the left,” she said, adding she thought leaders were “hurting the movement” by aligning with him.
Even without the infighting, turnout for the main Women’s March – which kicks off on Saturday on the National Mall in Washington DC – was expected to be lower than in previous years.
Crowds in 2017 came in part as a response to Trump’s presidential inauguration. But this year’s rally takes place on the heels of a successful midterm election for Democrats, and at a time when options for civic involvement extend well beyond donning a pussy hat.
Washington DC has turned into a veritable ghost town amid the longest government shutdown in US history, with shuttered museums and tourist attractions. Earlier this month the National Park Service clarified that the Women’s March would take place despite the setbacks.
Many of the biggest stars of the Democratic party, including those who are running for president and were prominently featured at the march in 2017 will not be making appearances this year. They include Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, who once called the women’s march the “most inspiring and transformational moment I’ve ever witnessed in politics”.
The developments come following claims, described at length in stories in the New York Times and Tablet magazine, that at a private meeting members of leadership said Jews bore some special collective responsibility for the oppression of people of color, according to multiple sources in attendance, allegations those leaders have denied.
The stories also highlight the leadership’s ties to the teachings of Farrakhan. While the Women’s March has issued multiple statements claiming it does not support Farrakhan’s comments and rejects antisemitism, the Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory has continued to defend her connection to him.This week, in an interview on The View, she failed to explicitly denounce his defamatory statements about Jews.
Another member of leadership, Bob Bland, told ABC News the Women’s March “unequivocally condemns antisemitism” as well as “any statements of hate”.
The Tablet story also outlined other internal disputes, such as concerns around the organization’s financial transparency and a lack of LGBT representation on its board.
Top organizers, including Women’s March founder Teresa Shook, have calledfor Women’s March leadership to step down, arguing that the small cadre of women in charge have “steered the movement away from its true course” and become an unwelcome distraction.
Such calls have gone unheeded. In a November conference call, top Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour sought to dismiss the tensions as idle scuttlebutt.
“It just happens often with women, unfortunate gossip and rumors and it’s very hurtful to us as our families are watching these conversation online,” she said, according to Tablet’s report.
Sarsour’s comment appears to cater to damaging stereotypes about women being catty. But there is a long history of destructive fragmentation within the women’s movement and social and progressive movements more generally.
Women’s suffrage leaders infamously excluded black women. And the Equal Rights Amendment introduced in 1923 went down to defeat, after the middle-class women who championed it were pitted against working-class women who feared the erosion of labor protections. When it re-emerged later in the 1970s, it was brought down by a group of staunchly conservative housewives led by Phyllis Schlafly.
From its earliest days the Women’s March has been fraught with racial tensions, with minority women concerned that white participants had ignored their needs. Some women feel the current fracas around antisemitism is just one more way for women to be divided from one another.
That’s why sponsors such as Planned Parenthood are sticking with the march, even as they “unequivocally reaffirm that there is no place for antisemitism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or any kind of bigotry in our communities”.
Planned Parenthood’s Angela Ferrell-Zabala wrote in a lengthy Medium postdefending the decision: “We know our work fighting for equity and justice for all people cannot happen if we don’t face difficult conversations within our community head on.”
The American Federation of Teachers – one of the largest unions in the country whose president, Randi Weingarten, is Jewish – is also sticking with the Women’s March.
“I come down on the side of of course we must engage,” she wrote on Facebook, “and work together to create a country and a world that deeply believes and honors the inalienable rights of all.”