The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, millions of women and their allies around the world marched to express opposition to his ideology and support for women’s rights. With around 1 percent of the entire population of the United States participating, the event was probably the largest single-day protest in the country’s history.
Almost two years later, one of the organizations that grew out of the march, Women’s March Inc., is embroiled in controversy, its leaders accused of anti-Semitism and mismanagement.
Several people involved in planning the march say that at a November 2016 meeting, Women’s March co-chairs Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez “asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people,” Leah McSweeney and Jacob Siegel reported at Tablet last week. One organizer also told Tablet that she heard Mallory “berating” a march co-founder, Vanessa Wruble, over her Jewish identity at a January 2017 meeting. Wruble confirmed this account to Vox.
But Cassady Fendlay, the communications director of Women’s March, says that she was present at both meetings and that both allegations are false. “I am concerned” about the Tablet article, she told Vox, “because I want Jewish women to feel welcome, like we are fighting for them, because we are.”
The allegations come after Mallory faced criticism earlier this year when she attended a February event with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan where he espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In March, Women’s March issued a statement disavowing Farrakhan’s rhetoric, but critics have called on the leaders of the group to denounce and cut ties with Farrakhan himself. One co-founder of the march, who is no longer with Women’s March, called for the co-chairs to resign in November over their links to Farrakhan.
The Women’s March has always been controversial. The very first march was criticized for focusing on the concerns of white women and for excluding anti-abortion groups from its list of partners. Later, a group of activists split from the Women’s March organization, to focus more attention on recruiting women in red states.
But the allegations in the Tablet profile are the most serious criticisms yet of the Women’s March leadership. With the next march scheduled for January 19, 2019, some are asking whether the organization that held the world’s attention in the wake of Trump’s inauguration is now breaking apart.
Media coverage of the Women’s March has never just been about the group. Frequently, it’s become a referendum on whether it’s even possible to unite a group as diverse as women in America in a single movement. Some activists are worried that negative stories about the group now will prove critics right, leading people to conclude that women simply can’t work together.
Amid the controversy, though, the impact of the Women’s March on America is undeniable. The march established women as leaders of the opposition to Trump, and helped set the stage for the wave of female candidates who ran and won in 2018. It also introduced the concept of intersectional feminism — the idea that women’s equality is interconnected with justice for other marginalized groups — to a wider audience and helped make it a part of mainstream left-wing politics.
And it helped strengthen a movement of women agitating for the civil rights of all people that, the Women’s March and its critics agree, will continue no matter what happens with the latest scandal. “The women’s movement will not be slowed down by this,” Mercy Morganfield, a former Women’s March organizer, told Vox.
The Women’s March is no stranger to conflict
The idea for the Women’s March was born just hours after Trump’s victory on November 8, 2016, as Amanda Hess reports at the New York Times. Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, made a post in Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group for supporters of Hillary Clinton, suggesting a march. Soon tens of thousands of women around the country were posting on Facebook, eager to participate in marches around the country.
The event, however, sparked criticism from the beginning. The organizers, many of whom were white, called the planned event the “Million Women March” — which, as many women of color pointed out on social media, recalled the 1997 Million Woman March, a demonstration by black women that was in part a response to their lack of representation in white-dominated women’s movements of the time. Nyasha Junior, a writer and religion professor at Temple University, put the criticism succinctly:
“I thought it was important that people acknowledge that there had been a Million Woman March in the past and acknowledge the work that black women had done,” Junior told Vox.
A march co-founder, Vanessa Wruble, soon changed the name to the Women’s March on Washington. Wruble, who is white, wanted to make sure that the movement effectively represented women of color. “I knew it would be a disaster if it was only white women marching on Washington,” Wruble said. “We had to correct wrongs in the past and ensure that there was leadership of color.”
A few days after the election, Wruble reached out to Mallory and Perez, New York City-based activists with the Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit that fights mass incarceration. Mallory, who is black, is a longtime advocate against gun violence and police brutality. Perez, who is Latina, has a history of working with incarcerated youth.
Linda Sarsour, who is Palestinian-American and Muslim and the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, came on board around the same time. In addition to making the leadership of the Women’s March more representative of the country as a whole, the three women brought experience with organizing and activism that some of the women who had joined the effort on Facebook lacked.
Many women of color remained skeptical that the march really represented their concerns. Writer and speaker Jamilah Lemieux wrote at ColorLines that while she admired Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour, “I’m really tired of Black and Brown women routinely being tasked with fixing White folks’ messes.”
“Many of the White women who will attend the march are committed activists, sure,” she added. “But for those new-to-it White women who just decided that they care about social issues? I’m not invested in sharing space with them at this point in history.”
Meanwhile, some white women complained that calls on social media for them to examine their own privilege or follow the lead of women of color made them feel unwelcome at the marches. “This is a women’s march,” Jennifer Willis, a white woman who canceled her trip to the DC march, told the New York Times. “We’re supposed to be allies in equal pay, marriage, adoption. Why is it now about, ‘White women don’t understand black women’?”
In January 2017, a few days before the march, the organizers released an official political platform, called the Unity Principles. It was developed by a diverse group of activists including Sarsour, Perez, National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill, and transgender rights advocate and author Janet Mock. This platform, too, began to spark controversy.
In drafting the Unity Principles, the activists embraced the concept of intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the combined effects of racism and sexism on black women. Today, the term most often describes a particular approach to feminism, one that focuses on “the ways the gender-based discrimination and oppression a woman may experience can be compounded by her race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and more,” as Jenée Desmond-Harris explained at Vox in 2017.
“Recognizing that women have intersecting identities and are therefore impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues,” the march organizers wrote in the overview of the Unity Principles, “we have outlined a representative vision for a government that is based on the principles of liberty and justice for all.”
That vision included equal pay and the right to access abortion and birth control, as well as labor protections for domestic and farm workers, criminal justice and immigration reform, environmental protections, and more. It quickly attracted controversy both for what it included and what it left out.
Sex workers’ rights advocates were concerned when a line proclaiming solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements was apparently removed from the Unity Principles — the line was later reinstated. And anti-abortion advocates criticized the march for excluding women with pro-life views after an anti-abortion group was dropped from the march’s list of official partners. Despite the March’s message of diversity, Ashley Pratte wrote at US News and World Report, the organizers failed “to include women of diverse opinions.”
The march’s intersectional approach also sparked mockery from the right. “In the world of intersectionality, victimhood is sorted by category, tallied, and ultimately ranked,” Heather Wilhelm wrote at National Review. “Apparently, at this point, the way forward involves a cavalcade of left-wing causes — abortion, as usual, is taking top billing — buckets of vague platitudes, lots of hectoring, and endless, obsessive, identity-based infighting. Sounds like a prescription for victory!”
But even the criticisms were a sign of the march’s influence. “Though ‘intersectionality’ peeked its head above the parapets of the ivory tower occasionally, its first major appearance in general press was around the 2017 Women’s March on Washington,” Kory Stamper wrote at New York magazine’s the Cut earlier this year. “Nearly overnight, major news outlets published explainers on intersectionality and intersectional feminism.”
Of course, intersectional feminism was already well known to many people — especially female activists of color — long before the Women’s March. Mercy Morganfield, the former president of the Washington, DC, chapter, cut ties with the national organization in March over Mallory’s association with Farrakhan and other disagreements with the co-chairs. She argues that the march was part of a larger movement that started well before 2016, especially among women of color.
“Women of color have voted right every time in every election,” she said. “They have voted for women’s rights every time.”
But the runup to the Women’s March introduced many white women, newly interested in activism after Trump’s election, to the concept of intersectionality. Before marchers even converged on Washington, the organizers had brought that concept to the forefront of American discourse. As many liberals reeled in the wake of the election, the Women’s March organizers provided them with a framework for a response — one driven by feminism but broad enough to encompass the many other civil rights issues that would come to the fore in the months ahead.
The marches in 2017 were huge — and the energy continued
Despite the controversy, the first march was, in many ways, a resounding success. Between 3 million and 5 million people marched in the United States, and around 300,000 more demonstrated around the world, according to estimates by Erica Chenoweth, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver, and Jeremy Pressman, a professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. They estimate that around 1 percent of all Americans marched on January 20.
The crowd in Washington, DC — at least 470,000, according to one estimate — dwarfed the one that had assembled for Trump’s inauguration the day before. Trump was incensed, according to the Washington Post, and then-press secretary Sean Spicer delivered a rage-filled statement in response that became emblematic of his short tenure.
What’s more, the organizers were able to keep at least some of the energy of the original march going in the weeks and months that followed. On March 8, 2017, they organized a nationwide women’s strike called “A Day Without a Woman.” In October 2017, they put on the Women’s Convention in Detroit, which drew about 4,000 people. This October, the Women’s March joined with other groups to organize protests against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, during which at least 1,000 people demonstrated on one day in DC.
Taking to heart concerns about representation of women of color and other marginalized women at the January march, the organizers of the convention emphasized the ways in which racial, disability, and LGBTQ issues were also women’s issues, and one of the most popular events at the convention was a panel titled “Confronting White Womanhood,” which discussed the roles white women can play in racism. The Women’s Convention also hosted candidate training by the group Emily’s List, which had hosted an event for would-be candidates the day after the January march as well.
By the time of the second annual Women’s March in 2018 — which drew between 1.6 million and 2.5 million people nationwide, according to Chenoweth and Pressman — the marches had become cornerstones of a larger movement, one that had the potential to unite large numbers of women and their allies behind progressive causes.
The controversy continued, too
The disagreements between march organizers, however, were far from over. Mallory, Perez, Sarsour, and co-chair Bob Bland had trademarked the name “Women’s March” and formed the group Women’s March Inc. Another group of organizers, including Vanessa Wruble, split off and formed another group, called March On, which aimed to focus on winning elections in red states.
March On’s platform includes many of the same tenets as the Women’s March Unity Principles, including criminal justice reform, economic justice, and reproductive freedom. But it includes more goals related to making elections more fair and representative, including an end to gerrymandering and corporate money in politics. The platform also includes the statement “that reasonable compromise is necessary for the functioning of our government and our society.”
Both groups organized marches in January 2018, and though they generally avoided criticizing each other publicly, as Farah Stockman noted at the New York Times, there were some disputes over branding. Bland told Stockman it was “important for new groups coming into this movement, like March On, to make sure they have distinct branding and messaging that is specific to them and their group that doesn’t appear as if it is directly Women’s March related.”
Then in February 2018, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s Saviours’ Day event, where Louis Farrakhan said in a speech that “powerful Jews are my enemy,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Farrakhan endorsed a number of anti-Semitic and homophobic conspiracy theories, saying that Jewish people controlled Hollywood and the government and had engineered marijuana to make black men gay.
Mallory posted a video of the event on Instagram, and according to the ADL, Farrakhan mentioned Mallory in his speech.
In response to criticism, the Women’s March said in a statement that “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity principles. The world Women’s March seeks to build is one free from anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and all forms of social violence.”
But Mallory resisted calls from some quarters to cut ties with Farrakhan entirely. “Where my people are is where I must also be,” she wrote in a column at NewsOne. “I go into difficult spaces.”
Mallory’s unwillingness to disavow Farrakhan makes more sense in the context of the history of the Nation of Islam, some have argued. The group has a history of providing services in black communities, running child care centers and bakeries, Amy Alexander, a journalist and the editor of a book on Farrakhan, told Vox. Many black people in America “kind of respect what they accomplished in neighborhoods that have been underserved for years,” she said. “Even though I can condemn Farrakhan for the crazy nonsense and the racist stuff and the bizarre stuff he says, I can also acknowledge that the Nation did great things when they were really needed.”
However, Alexander said the Women’s March could have handled the criticisms differently. Their statement could have said something like, “Farrakhan doesn’t plan our strategy, he doesn’t tell us what to do, but we appreciate what the Nation has stood for historically as a community institution of value for black people,” she said. “If they can’t figure that out, that’s on them.”
In the wake of the Saviours’ Day event, criticism continued. In October, actress Alyssa Milano, who helped launch the most recent iteration of the #MeToo movement last year, told the Advocate that she would not speak at the 2019 march if Sarsour and Mallory remained co-chairs, because of their affiliation with Farrakhan.
“Any time that there is any bigotry or anti-Semitism in that respect, it needs to be called out and addressed,” she said. “I’m disappointed in the leadership of the Women’s March that they haven’t done it adequately.”
In November, Shook, whose 2016 post kicked off the marches, called for the Women’s March co-chairs to step down. “Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez of Women’s March, Inc. have steered the Movement away from its true course,” she wrote on Facebook in November. “In opposition to our Unity Principles, they have allowed anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.”
Shook’s and Milano’s announcements were followed by a raft of media coverage that was critical of the Women’s March. “The 2018 midterm elections saw [...] women elected into office in historic margins,” wrote Jackie Kucinich at the Daily Beast in late November. “But instead of a moment of celebration for the Women’s March, the group now finds itself in turmoil.” The headline: “A Record Number of Women Were Just Elected, but the Women’s March Is Imploding.”
Then in December, McSweeney and Siegel published their investigation at Tablet. The reporters investigated the co-chairs’ ties to the Nation of Islam, finding evidence that Nation members acted as security guards and drivers for the co-chairs. The investigation also looked into the group’s finances, raising questions about whether donations were used properly. But by far the most damning charge was that co-chairs were not merely affiliated with an anti-Semitic leader — they had made anti-Semitic remarks themselves.
In November 2016, when Bland, Mallory, Sarsour, Perez, Vanessa Wruble, and others met for the first time to plan the march, “Perez and Mallory allegedly first asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people — and even, according to a close secondhand source, claimed that Jews were proven to have been leaders of the American slave trade,” McSweeney and Siegel report.
Then at a January meeting to debrief after the first march, Mallory and Perez began “berating” Wruble, organizer Evvie Harmon told Tablet. “It was about her being Jewish. ‘Your people this, your people that,’” Harmon said. “They even said to her ‘your people hold all the wealth.’”
Wruble told Vox that the way Tablet characterized the two meetings was accurate. “I personally witnessed statements that were inaccurate about the role that Jews have played in the slave trade and in the prison industrial complex,” she said. “I was pretty devastated.” She left the Women’s March soon after the January meeting to form March On, where she is now executive director.
Mallory, however, told Tablet she never made such statements. Cassady Fendlay, the Women’s March communications director, said in a statement to Vox, “I was present for the conversations in question and the allegations being made are patently false. Those conversations did not happen.”
“The Women’s March organization disagrees with these allegations,” Women’s March Inc. said in its own statement to Vox. “The organization and its leaders have dedicated themselves to liberating women from all forms of oppression, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, white supremacy, xenophobia and Islamophobia.”
In the wake of the Tablet story, Women’s March came in for more criticism when one of its spokespeople sent an email to journalists who had tweeted about the Tablet piece, appearing to offer them off-the-record information about inaccuracies in the story in exchange for a promise to delete the tweets.
The emails made the Women’s March look clumsy and defensive at a time when the organization was already receiving widespread opprobrium.
In the wake of recent controversies, the Washington state chapter of the Women’s March announced its decision to disband earlier this month and affiliate instead with the progressive group Smart Politics, according to the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington, newspaper. Leaders of the Washington chapter cited concerns about the national organizers’ finances and ties to Farrakhan in explaining their decision. Local organizers in Spokane still plan to march on January 19.
Meanwhile, Women’s March is pushing back against the notion that the organization is in chaos. While the group doesn’t yet have an estimate of how many people will march in January 2019, Fendlay said that at least 130 marches around the country are planned. The group has also distilled its unity principles into 10 issue areas, including reproductive justice, disability rights, and ending state violence, and formed policy committees to identify specific goals in each area.
Fendlay also takes issue with the idea that groups splitting off from Women’s March Inc. means “the Women’s March is about to implode.”
“If people want to organize under a different name, that’s fine,” she said. “There’s so much that needs to be done, there is room for all of us in this movement.”
No matter what happens next, the impact of the Women’s March is undeniable
It’s not clear what the future holds for Women’s March or whether the marches in 2019 will inspire the same enthusiasm as in years past. But whatever the case, the marches so far, and the movement surrounding them, have had a major impact on the country in the Trump era.
By mobilizing millions of women around the world on the first full day of Trump’s presidency, the first march established women at the forefront of the opposition to his policies. As Wruble put it, “the Women’s March movement really was the birthplace of a resistance movement.”
That movement, in turn, helped lead to the groundswell of women running for office — and winning — in 2018. From the Emily’s List trainings in 2017 to the sense of community the marches and related events provided, the Women’s March helped mobilize women to run for office, and others to vote for them. “We’ve clearly changed the makeup of our representation,” Wruble said.
Meanwhile, the Women’s March helped establish intersectionality as a core tenet not just of mainstream feminism but of Democratic politics. The victory of newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over longtime incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York has often been cast as a triumph for intersectionality in the Democratic Party. “Her life story and political actions have a flexible, intersectional quality that is taking shape before our eyes, helping to create a new force in American politics,” wrote Ed Morales in the Washington Post.
Intersectionality means different things to different people, but, tellingly, it’s embraced by both Women’s March and many of its critics.
“We think about intersectionality in a broader way than it’s normally spoken about,” Wruble said of her work with March On. “It’s expansive in terms of gender identification and sexuality, it’s expansive in terms of ability and the disabled community,” she explained, “and it’s expansive in terms of understanding the schism in our country between blue states and red states, and what women in red states of all races endure.”
Fendlay worries that allegations of anti-Semitism within the Women’s March are causing some to doubt whether an intersectional women’s movement can succeed. The claims play into “a lot of mythology that I’ve seen going around that we can’t organize together,” she said, “that this whole intersectional movement-building thing is just a farce.”
It’s true that the effort to organize a group of people as diverse as women in the United States around a broad set of issues was always going to run into controversy. But at this point, the idea that women’s rights are just part of an interconnected set of civil and human rights, and that advocates can push for those rights together, has become deeply entrenched in American left-wing politics.
In a way, it’s a particularly fitting response to the rhetoric of Trump, who has never confined his broadsides to a single group. The marchers in 2017 wore pink “pussy hats” to protest Trump’s comments about grabbing women “by the pussy,” but many also carried signs calling out his denigrations of immigrants or Muslims. Early in his presidency especially, many were concerned that the sheer number of Trump’s attacks on marginalized groups and individuals would lead to distraction or paralysis — an intersectional approach enables activists and politicians, to some degree, to tackle them together.
What began with Teresa Shook’s Facebook post in 2016 has, at this point, evolved into a movement that’s bigger than Women’s March, March On, or any of its other offshoots. That movement is chaotic, decentralized, and full of controversy and disagreement. And all of its various factions agree on one thing: No matter what happens to individual organizations within it, the larger women-led opposition to Trump, and push for a more just society, will endure. “The women’s march movement is unstoppable,” Wruble said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Women’s March, Inc., in one instance. The group is one of several that grew out of the 2017 Women’s March.