This year’s Women’s March, set to happen on Saturday in cities across the country, has become extraordinarily messy. In 2017, the marches that took place in Washington and nationwide — the largest protests in American history — were radiant symbols of hope and resistance at a bleak, terrifying historical juncture. Two years later, the Women’s March organization has become a depressing study in how left-wing movements so often implode in the digital age.
Serious allegations of anti-Semitism have dogged some of the Women’s March’s leaders for over a year, but they’ve lately reached a crisis point. In December, Tablet Magazine published a 10,000-word article about anti-Jewish bigotry (as well as alleged financial mismanagement) among the Women’s March’s leadership. Many Jewish women have publicly agonized about joining this year’s demonstration.
Leaders of Women’s March Inc. — as the nonprofit organization is officially called — tried to make amends. It added three Jewish women to its steering committee. Two of the four national co-chairwomen of the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, met with a group of 13 rabbis, after which nine of them encouraged Jews to join this year’s demonstration. A third co-chairwoman, Carmen Perez, wrote a repentant column for the Jewish publication The Forward titled, “Jewish Women Should Join Us at the Women’s March, Despite Our Mistakes.”
But on Monday, this apology tour hit a snag when Mallory appeared on the daytime talk show “The View” and refused, as she’s refused in the past, to denounce the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whom she once called “the GOAT,” or Greatest of All Time. Last February, Mallory attended a Farrakhan rally where he railed against “satanic” Jews who control the F.B.I. and various foreign countries, and who use their subversive power to promote homosexuality. During his speech, he gave a shout-out to Mallory and the Women’s March, and afterward, she posted positively about the event on social media. On “The View,” rather than disavowing Farrakhan, Mallory said only, “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements.”
Following that interview, the Democratic National Committee, which had been listed as a partner of the 2019 march, appeared to pull out, the latest sign that the Women’s March has made itself toxic in center-left circles. Several groups that have sponsored the march in the past, including Naral and the Southern Poverty Law Center, are also gone from its public list of backers. Local marches around the country have emphasized their independence from the national Women’s March organization. New York City will have two competing rallies, a tangible symbol of feminist divisions.
Writers I admire have argued that there are good reasons that some black activists hesitate to disavow Farrakhan. Last March, the journalist Adam Serwer, no fan of Farrakhan, wrote in The Atlantic of the successful violence-prevention work that the Nation of Islam has done in impoverished black communities. Mallory told him how Nation of Islam women supported her when her son’s father was murdered in 2001. Serwer described a sense in some black communities that “despite the Nation’s many flaws, it is present for black people in America’s most deprived and segregated enclaves when the state itself is not present, to say nothing of those who demand its condemnation.”
Yet even if you’re willing to accept rationalizations for associating with an anti-Semite, the point of organizing is to build political power, and in that respect the leaders of the Women’s March have pretty clearly fallen short. They were put at the helm of a popular mass movement, and under their leadership it has alienated many supporters and become significantly more marginal. In certain ways, their failure recapitulates an old, sad story: Though African-Americans and Jews worked in solidarity during the civil rights era, there were always tensions, and they got worse as the civil rights movement fractured. Part of what went wrong with the Women’s March, however, seems specific to our time, when the internet has transformed activism.
The idea for a women’s march on Washington was born in viral Facebook posts that Bob Bland, one of the current co-chairwomen, and Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer in Hawaii, put up after the 2016 election. On social media, tens of thousands of women committed to travel to Washington before any logistical arrangements had been made. Some of the women making initial preparations realized it would be a disaster if the march seemed to be entirely by and for white women. So, at the suggestion of a celebrity-connected activist named Michael Skolnik, Mallory and Perez, both affiliated with Skolnik’s nonprofit, the Gathering for Justice, were recruited to help lead it. They, in turn, brought in Sarsour.
Mallory, Bland, Sarsour and Perez were part of a group that labored heroically to put the first Women’s March together in just 10 weeks. But there’s no reason to think that the millions of people who took to the streets that day saw any of them as their representatives, or bought into some of the radical positions they’d go on to take. (In 2017, for example, Sarsour, going beyond a defense of anti-Zionism, claimed that Zionism and feminism are irreconcilable.) Because the Women’s March was never a membership organization, there was no obvious way for those who felt aligned with it to help decide who should carry its banner forward.
The Women’s March ultimately faced a problem endemic to protest movements that organize spontaneously on the internet, going back to Occupy Wall Street. As Zeynep Tufekci argued in her 2017 book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest,” mass protest once required deep, sustained organizing, with all the compromise and human connection that entailed. The process of putting a major demonstration together would itself allow strong leaders to come to the fore. Digital organizing makes much of that work obsolete. As a result, people are often left trying to create a movement after a high-profile action, rather than before it, without clear common goals or leaders who have broadly accepted legitimacy.
Jan. 17, 2019
Aug. 1, 2017
Lissy Romanow, the executive director of Momentum, which trains progressive organizers, said movements can now hit their peaks just as they’re beginning — as the Women’s March did — and “then have to figure out what to do next.” She added, “I don’t think we’ve figured out yet what it looks like to be a leader in a mass organization of this kind.”
So while the Women’s March leaders failed in very particular ways, it’s not clear that anyone could have succeeded in their place. Two years ago they helped create something magnificent. The exhilarating energy of the 2017 march went on to fuel countless local Resistance groups that worked because they were organized face-to-face and had definable, practical aims. It’s painful to see the Women’s March fall apart now, but maybe it was always destined to be a moment instead of a movement.