POLITICS

The Core Issue Plaguing The Women's March Is Woven Into Its Very Fabric

Bringing together all the women in the world was never going to be easy.

This Saturday for the third year in a row, women across the country and around the globe will take to the streets and march for equality. And once again, the Women’s March is facing controversy in the background.

When the march started up, born out of the ashes of Donald Trump’s election, it was plagued by accusations that it was dominated by white women. There were also tensions between pro-choice and anti-abortion factions. This year, there are reports of anti-Semitic remarks made by two of the march’s original organizers, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory.  

The dustup took off after Tablet magazine published a story in December, detailing anti-Semitic remarks made by Mallory and Perez, both women of color, during the movement’s earliest days. The New York Times followed with more details. The reports added fuel to the fire surrounding the Women’s March over yet another of the group’s leaders, Linda Sarsour, who has attracted criticism for her Palestinian activism.

Just this week Mallory, now the group’s co-president, went on “The View” and declined to denounce her controversial association with Louis Farrakhan, an African-American activist who is a preferred bogeyman for right-wing critics of progressives because of his track record of anti-Semitic remarks.

“Women’s March disagrees with the version of events outlined in both the Tablet and New York Times articles,” the group said in a statement. “Women’s March exists to fight all forms of oppression and bigotry, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, white supremacy, ableism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, and ageism.” The work continues with the marches this weekend, the group said.

The controversy has led to a fracturing among activists and progressives. Some groups aren’t partnering with the march this year; a couple of progressive celebrities also distanced themselves. Prominent 2020 female candidates are split on this: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) won’t be attending, her representative told HuffPost. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is scheduled to speak at the Iowa march.

At least one female politician told HuffPost she’s having misgivings.

I’m probably going to go, but I’m sure as hell not going to talk about it on social media, and I’ll probably wear sunglasses,” said this politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of being associated with anti-Semitism. She had been looking forward to attending this year too, she said, since the march has been a reliable way to find volunteers, network and campaign. 

Participants in a women's march last year in Texas.
Participants in a women's march last year in Texas.

Other female politicians said there was no question that they would attend. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), perhaps the best-known of the record number of women elected to Congress this year, said she had followed the controversy and was “concerned” but told HuffPost she would be marching in New York. One of her colleagues, newly elected Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes, plans to march in her home state of Connecticut.

“No one person owns the women’s march or the women’s movement,” she told a HuffPost reporter in Washington on Thursday. “It’s about people figuring out where they fit in. That’s my real life. That’s everything I’m about.”

Despite the controversy at the top, the women on the ground are mobilizing. There are 300 marches planned around the U.S. on Saturday. And a separate organization, Women’s March Global, has events planned in 30 countries.

Goals are varied and include everything from ending violence against women to ensuring reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights to seeking environmental justice.

Bringing together all the women in the world was never going to be easy. And why would it be? To be sure, women of all stripes face discrimination. However, the way they experience that oppression has everything to do with other factors — income level, ethnicity and, of course, race.

Demonstrators on the National Mall in Washington for the 2017 Women's March.
Demonstrators on the National Mall in Washington for the 2017 Women's March.

“When you’re literally bringing together millions of women, it makes sense tensions emerge, but I think people are struck by them because we still think about women in politics as though they’re cohesive,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia who studies gender.

Feminist movements have long been plagued by fracturing, particularly in the United States, where activists must contend with the ways race intersects with gender and history is fraught with serious missteps, typically made by white women in the name of feminism.

“We’re seeing happening now in terms of divisions and disagreements is not unusual,” said Jo Reger, a sociology professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. “If we know our history, we can see how these patterns have been here before.”

White suffragists sold out black women, noted Reger, the author of the recently published anthology Nevertheless They Persisted: Feminisms and Continued Resistance in the U.S. Women’s Movement. In the 1960s, white feminists didn’t make room again for black women.

Many of the activists who spoke to HuffPost said that although they were troubled by the reluctance of the Women’s March to renounce its affiliation with Farrakhan and more recently Mallory’s refusal to specifically renounce him, they weren’t going to let that get in the way of what’s shaping up to be essentially a revolution.

The reach, power and the excitement around the women’s movement more generally was made clear just this month, when a record 102 women began terms in the House of Representatives, certainly in part because of the wave of activism that began the day after Trump was inaugurated in January 2017 — the biggest single-day demonstration in U.S. history.

The Women’s March group also played a role in organizing women to run for office and in protests of Trump’s family separation immigration policy, among other things. Of course, many other groups were involved as well.

Many women everywhere still feel the urgent need to stand up to the president.

Still, some organizers can’t help feeling disappointed. One of them, who declined to be named for privacy concerns, told HuffPost she did not like how the Women’s March handled accusations of anti-Semitism, though that wasn’t going to keep her home this weekend.

“Even though I take issue with how the organization chose to handle this, there are actual white supremacist Nazis marching in the street,” she said, alluding to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. “For us to turn our wrath on three women of color is troubling.”

Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.

CONVERSATIONS