Laurie Pohutsky says she went to the 2017 Women’s March because “I had just watched a person who had admitted to sexually assaulting women on tape be elected president of the United States.”
As a survivor of sexual assault, she told Vox, “I was outraged, I was angry, I was sad, and I knew that this was an opportunity to make a stand.”
When she got to Washington, DC, on January 21, 2017, she heard speaker after speaker say America needed more women running for office. “I remember getting this pit in my stomach,” she said, thinking, “that’s it. That’s what I need to do.”
The Michigan Democrat, then working as a microbiologist, decided to run for state legislature. She began knocking on doors in May 2017, and after a hard-fought primary and general election the following year, she won a seat in Michigan’s House of Representatives that had been held by Republicans for the past 40 years.
She was one of a wave of female candidates elected in 2018 at both the national and state levels. She was also part of an evolution for the Women’s March, from a one-day event to a movement that, its leaders hope, will have a major influence on elections.
Attendance at the marches has declined over the years, especially after allegations that some organizers made anti-Semitic comments became public in 2018. But during that time, organizers around the country have been working to channel the energy of the marches into action at the polls.
They believe they’ve already seen results — in Nevada, for example, where the Women’s March launched a major voter registration drive in 2018, turnout among Democrats increased and voters elected the state’s first majority-women legislature, Lucy Flores, treasurer for the Women’s March, told Vox. The Women’s March efforts weren’t the only factor, she said, but they were part of a larger push that “not only inspired people to vote but inspired women to run, and ultimately ended up making history.”
The Women’s March has faced questions since before the first marchers came to DC. Some wondered whether the event, initially proposed by white women, would be inclusive of the concerns of women of color. Others asked whether a single protest could really produce lasting change.
Three years later, one thing is clear: The march itself has become less central, replaced in many ways by more decentralized efforts to elect progressive candidates. Whether those efforts will succeed in 2020 remains to be seen. But whatever happens, many say the past three years have seen incredible growth in women’s activism around the country, fueled in part by the marches and the energy they created.
“Women are the majority of voters,” Kira Sanbonmatsu, a political science professor and co-author of the book A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters, told Vox. “Women have a lot of political influence, and I think what we’re seeing is that women are realizing that power.”
The first Women’s Marches were just one day, but the movement wasn’t over
The first Women’s March took place the day after President Trump’s inauguration. While the march was initially conceived as a protest against his presidency, the organizers of the DC event developed an official platform detailing a variety of progressive goals, from reproductive justice to a living wage for all workers.
While not everyone shared all the priorities laid out in the platform, more than 4 million people marched in DC and other cities around the country, making the 2017 march likely the largest single-day protest in US history. Millions more participated in sister marches around the world, from South Africa to Brazil.
As a demonstration, the marches were in many ways a success (Trump, for his part, reportedly was furious). But then the organizers had to set about the work of movement-building.
They didn’t always agree on how to do it. The Women’s March had inspired controversy from the beginning, when early organizers, many of whom were white, called the event the “Million Women March” — a name that reminded many women of color of 1997’s Million Woman March, an event designed to protest, in part, black women’s exclusion from the white-dominated feminist movement. Many people wondered whether it made sense to have a march for all women when 53 percent of white female voters had cast their ballots for Trump. Some white women were offended by the criticisms, with some even canceling their trips to DC.
In the wake of the events, organizers split off into a variety of groups. One, Women’s March Inc., was led by Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland, co-chairs of the original event. Another, March On, started by march co-founder Vanessa Wruble and others, aimed to target red states and adopted a slightly more centrist message.
But both groups set their sights on influencing elections. For Women’s March Inc., that meant holding a training for prospective candidates at its Women’s Convention in October 2017 — representatives from the group Emily’s List talked fundraising and strategy to a packed room of around 175 people, many of whom said they were inspired to run by Trump’s election. And in 2018, it meant launching Power to the Polls, a voter registration drive in 10 swing states, with its kickoff in Las Vegas.
The impact went beyond Nevada, Flores said. Power to the Polls registered tens of thousands of voters nationwide. Meanwhile, Women’s March Inc., worked with other groups like Mijente, Indivisible, and the Justice Democrats to back progressive candidates and policies around the country. All those groups were able to take advantage of a boom in left-wing voter engagement around the country in the wake of Trump’s election, Flores said — whether it was the Women’s March or something else that directly inspired them, more and more people were “just tired of sitting on the sidelines.”
Pohutsky is one of many lawmakers who have cited the Women’s March as an inspiration. Others include Connecticut state Reps. Jane Garibay and Pat Wilson Pheanious, as well as US Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), one of a record number of women elected to Congress in 2018.
Of course, the success of women — and Democrats — in the 2018 elections had many causes, but experts say the Women’s March was likely a factor. In a study of Americans who took any form of political action following the 2016 election by the research firm PerryUndem, many respondents described the march as “the first time they felt hope,” PerryUndem partner Tresa Undem told Vox.
At the march, one Latina woman told the researchers, “I felt a real sense of camaraderie and the fact that so many strangers were in the same place really fighting for what they believed in on women’s issues.”
The march “felt so good and empowering afterward,” an Asian American woman said. She thought, “Okay, but now what? Right, what’s next?”
Had the Women’s March not happened, “I don’t know that people would have felt as empowered,” Undem said, “and that’s what you need to get people out to vote.”
The marches, of course, were not necessarily empowering for everyone. Though many women of color, like the ones interviewed by PerryUndem, did march, many said they felt excluded by white attendees and organizers. Attorney and writer S.T. Holloway, who is black, attended the 2017 march in Los Angeles and later wrote at HuffPost that “the first and last time I heard ‘Black Lives Matter’ chanted was when my two girlfriends and I began the chant.”
The centering of white women and their concerns at the marches was a symptom of a larger problem, she wrote: “a culture where millions protest when white women’s access to health care is threatened, but when black maternal death rates in the United States are on par with women in countries like Mexico and Uzbekistan, there is no national outrage or call for reform or worldwide protest.”
In the months following the first march, the organizers tried to address concerns like these, and worked to make white women who had become politically active through the marches more aware of issues affecting women of color. At the Women’s Convention, for example, a panel titled “Confronting White Womanhood,” which discussed the roles white women can play in racism, was so well-attended that organizers decided to repeat it the following day.
And there’s evidence that the marches and other movements of the past three years have made white women more aware of how intersecting racism and sexism impact women of color. Undem described a series of recent interviews in suburban Missouri, in which a 55-year-old white woman used the term “white privilege,” while another white woman reflected on whether she should be attending Black Lives Matter marches. Both attitudes would have been unusual for women in their demographic just a few years ago.
Overall, “organizing as women is always complicated by differences among women,” Sanbonmatsu, the political scientist, said. But the years since Trump’s election have been characterized by “a vibrancy around women’s activism,” with a record number of women running for office and giving money to political candidates.
The marches were just one part of that activism. But “what the original Women’s March seemed to tap into was discontent with the status of women in the country,” Sanbonmatsu said, “and that discontent continues to reverberate.”
The marches are shrinking, but their impact remains
However, controversy around the marches and their organizers has continued to reverberate as well. In early 2018, co-chair Tamika Mallory was criticized for attending an event with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan where he espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And that December, Tablet magazine reported that according to several others involved in planning the march, Mallory and Perez had made anti-Semitic comments at a planning meeting in November 2016.
Representatives from Women’s March Inc. denied the allegations, but the organization got a raft of negative press, and attendance at the 2019 march was smaller than in 2017 or 2018.
Since then, Women’s March Inc. has changed its leadership, with Mallory, Sarsour, and Bland stepping down. In addition, the group has added more than a dozen new board members, including Flores. This year, “we’re completely focused on the future,” Flores said, which includes “doing a very different kind of march.”
Unlike in years past, there will be no main stage in DC. “We wanted the attention and the focus to be on the marchers,” Flores said.
Once again, the number of those marchers is expected to shrink, with about 10,000 people expected in DC, according to the Washington Post, less than one-tenth the number who attended the original march.
To some degree, that’s to be expected, as those who once marched now channel their energy into other activities — including running for office. “I don’t know that we can judge the state of women’s political activism today just based on numbers at a particular march,” Sanbonmatsu said.
And while the march was initially conceived as a single event, Women’s March Inc. now sees it as a larger movement of which the January demonstrations are only a part.
“The marches have their place to just have people gather, and to feel like they’re part of something bigger, but ultimately a march in and of itself doesn’t accomplish anything,” Flores said. “We have to focus on the continued work.”
In 2020, that work will include grassroots efforts in swing states to defeat Trump and elect progressive candidates, Flores said. But it will also include thinking about what happens if a Democrat does win in November.
“There might not be a march next year, because hopefully we don’t need one,” Flores said. But even if there’s no protest in January 2021, Women’s March Inc. will continue to push for immigrants’ rights, reproductive justice, action on climate change, and other priorities, she said. “There will always be a need for accountability.”
For Pohutsky, 2020 means getting back out on the campaign trail for her reelection bid. In the Michigan legislature, she’s championed bills to strengthen environmental protections and get rid of a loophole in state law that makes it legal to drug and rape a spouse. She hopes to continue that work, but she won by the smallest margin of any flipped seat two years ago, “so we’re going to be campaigning hard this year,” she said.
As for the election more broadly, “I hope that the energy that everybody felt that compelled them to go out to these marches just maintains,” she said, “and people just remember why it’s important that we get out and vote.”