Almost four years ago, millions of people gathered in Washington, DC, and around the world for the first-ever Women’s March, a historic demonstration against the rhetoric and positions of President Donald Trump that was, at that time, probably the largest single-day protest in American history.
And on Saturday, Americans gathered again in the nation’s capital and in cities around the country to protest the possibility of a Trump second term and call for progressive change. You could still spot pink “pussy” hats in the crowd in Washington, a sometimes-criticized homage to Trump’s boast on the Access Hollywood tape that he could grab women “by the pussy.”
But marchers also carried signs with messages like “Scare ’em on Halloween, bury ’em on Election Day,” “We will remember on the 3rd of November,” and “See you at the polls.”
The emphasis on the election — a major focus for the organizers of the event, held as early voting has already begun in many states — is a long time coming for the Women’s March. The group, founded by some of the organizers of the original march, has been through change and controversy since January 2017, including allegations that some of its founders made anti-Semitic statements (the group has denied the allegations). But especially leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, it began to focus its energies more squarely on electoral politics. And Saturday found the group settling into an identity that could carry it through 2020 and beyond: a vehicle for women’s power at the ballot box.
That power hasn’t always been a force for progressive change. As many have pointed out — including some at the first Women’s March in 2017 — 53 percent of white women who voted in the 2016 election cast their ballots for Donald Trump. And while the Women’s March grew out of opposition to Trump’s election, it now has a more difficult job than protesting any one president: It has to bring women together as a multiracial voting bloc for progressive candidates.
To that end, the group’s activities on Saturday included a mass textathon, with attendees gathering in a socially distanced grid on the National Mall to text voters in swing states. The day also included a golf cart parade in The Villages retirement community in Florida, and more than 400 marches in all 50 states. These events clearly showed the Women’s March can still bring people together in the streets. Now the question is whether it can bring women together to vote.
“Women are going to be the driving force in American politics,” the group’s executive director, Rachel O’Leary Carmona, told Vox. “We cannot be divided and we cannot be distracted.”
The Women’s March has faced controversy over the years
The first Women’s March took place on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Trump. The events in Washington and across the country drew between 3 million and 5 million people, or about 1 percent of the entire population of the US, according to one estimate. The crowds in Washington appeared much larger than those at Trump’s inauguration, reportedly sending the new president into a rage.
But that march, initially planned by white women before a group that included organizers Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, and Carmen Perez took the helm, also faced criticism. In particular, some wondered whether the many white women in attendance were prepared to do the hard work necessary to stay involved in activism — and to convince friends and family members not to vote for more politicians like Trump.
A viral photo from the event captured many of the criticisms: in it, political strategist Angela Peoples holds a sign reading, “Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump.”
In the months and years that followed, the Women’s March worked to counter the idea that it was focused on white women and their concerns. At a convention hosted by the group in October 2017, for example, one of the most popular events was a panel titled “Confronting White Womanhood,” which discussed the roles white women can play in racism.
But the group also faced new controversy, including allegations that Mallory and Perez made anti-Semitic comments at a 2016 planning meeting for the original march. Representatives for the group have said those comments didn’t happen, but Mallory and two other members of its leadership stepped down in 2019, and the group added a large slate of new board members, including Rabbi Tamara Cohen, who works with a group focused on teens and Jewish identity, and Lucy Flores, a former Democratic state assembly member from Nevada who has said that Joe Biden planted an inappropriate kiss on her head at a campaign event in 2014.
The fourth annual marches in January 2020 were the group’s smallest yet, leading some to wonder whether it still had a role to play in the political landscape.
But Carmona, who became executive director in August, says the group still has a lot of work to do, whether that’s supporting women essential workers during the pandemic or spearheading a program to counter online misinformation around the election. “We’ve been trying to respond to the political moment,” she said. “Where women are and where the issues are, that’s where we need to be.”
But organizers say it’s going strong — and focused on 2020
After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, the group found another role to play. The Women’s March began organizing vigils for the justice around the country, but thousands of people on social media were calling for marches, Carmona said. So the group helped to organize the Washington event and hundreds of sister events around the country.
“We kind of see ourselves as the air traffic controllers directing support, expertise, tools, resources, across the ecosystem of organizations and groups that share a commitment to building the power of women,” Carmona said.
The events on Saturday are in part a protest against Republicans’ drive to replace Ginsburg before the election — with Amy Coney Barrett, who many fear will oppose abortion access, LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections, and voting rights. Many in attendance held signs opposing Barrett’s nomination, including one depicting Ginsburg and other female justices with the words, “Dear Amy, you can’t sit with us.”
But Saturday is also squarely about the election. “The through-line for us for the last year has really been how we get from the energy of the march from 2017, and the momentum from the wins of the 2018 midterms, to 2020,” Carmona said.
After a midday rally, protesters marched to the National Mall, where some would spend several hours texting voters in swing states. “We looked at the iconic photos of the first Women’s March in January 2017 — everyone marching had their sign in one hand and their phone in the other,” Carmona wrote in a memo in advance of the event. “We are capitalizing on that with a mass, Jerry Lewis style text-a-thon into the swing states that matter most.”
The group has also created a volunteer hub where protesters can sign up for more events, including vote-tripling drives where volunteers get the word out to three women in their networks.
And though Carmona is clear that “our goal is to build a multiracial mass movement,” a significant portion of that work is bringing white women into the fold. “While Women’s March has always been an organization run by women of color, we have always also had a significantly white base of about 70 percent white women,” Carmona said.
A lot of those white women are new to activism. Part of the work of the Women’s March, now and in the future, is “to provide a really strong political education and orient people to this moment in time,” she said. “Across the board, because of Trump and because of his congressional enablers, women are sicker, women are poorer, women are terrified, and we’re without a safety net or a helping hand.”
Such messages might be resonating with women voters this year. Historically, women have not voted as a bloc, with Republican women choosing to vote with their party and white women often siding with white men rather than women of color. But that could be changing, with huge gender gaps in polling going into the 2018 election, and Biden up an eye-popping 23 percent among women in a recent nationwide poll (he and Trump were tied among men).
It’s too soon to tell whether the white women who cast their votes for Trump in 2016 will make a different choice this year. But the Women’s March is betting that they will, and that it can be part of driving that change, this year and beyond.
“We have never been more united, both across the movement and inside of our organization, towards a common goal,” Carmona said.