Two years ago, galvanized by outrage over Donald Trump’s election as president, women across the United States marched by the millions in a historic, daylong protest.
They chose the day after Trump’s election, January 21, 2017, to stage a massive show of force under the banner “the Women’s March” in opposition to the president’s policies and their impact on women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.
The processions and rallies — including a huge protest in Washington said to be one of the largest in U.S. history — represented a watershed political event. They also marked a pivotal moment for American feminism, not only because they were so large, but because they were far more diverse than most past protests.
Protesters again donned pink knit hats and wielded handmade signs at slightly smaller, but still impressive Women’s March events across the country last year. And the organizers — sensitive to criticism that that original protests were still not diverse enough — added a broad coalition of women from a range of ethnic, racial, and religious groups.
But this year, internal divisions have fractured the group’s leadership and could jeopardize the future of the Women’s March movement. The rifts stem from allegations of anti-Semitism against current leaders of the national organizing group, who have been accused of making statements suggesting that Jews were partly to blame for oppressing people of color throughout history.
Allegations of anti-Semitism were lodged by Vanessa Wruble, one of the original leaders of the Women’s March movement. Last November, Teresa Shook, a retired attorney credited as the founder of the Women’s March, called on the four leaders of the national organization — Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour — to step down.
The controversy has dominated headlines about this year’s march and discouraged many people from taking part. It remains uncertain whether rallies planned Saturday in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and several other cities will muster the number of participants or enthusiasm as in past years.
Those accused of anti-Semitism are not only in the movement’s leadership, but some of its most central and identifiable figures. Brooklyn-born Sarsour, a co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, is a Palestinian-American activist in the BDS movement, which calls for ratcheting up pressure on Israel over its human rights record through a combination of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.
Mallory, co-president of this year’s march, has been criticized for expressing admiration for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a hugely controversial figure and avowed anti-Semite who also has embraced homophobic rhetoric.
In video posted on her Facebook page last month, Mallory — flanked by Sarsour and Perez — staunchly rejected the charges.
“There have been accusations against us. Things that have been very troubling. Things that do not represent who we truly are,” Mallory says in the video. She adds that Wruble and other accusers “have lied on us.”
“We want to have these conversations in public, not behind closed doors,” she says, issuing a “challenge” to her accusers to hold a “public conversation” during which both sides would air their grievances.
The controversy over anti-Semitism broke wide open in May 2017, when Mallory posted a photo of herself with Farrakhan on Instagram captioned, “Thank God this man is still alive and doing well. He is definitely the GOAT,” the acronym for Greatest of All Time.
She defended her position in a television appearance last week intended as damage control, but that only fanned the flames.
“I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory said. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.”
Amid the controversy, many participants and sponsors who might have joined this year’s protests are staying away. Groups that have pulled out include the Southern Poverty Law Center, EMILY’s List, the Human Rights Campaign, and NARAL. The Daily Beast wrote that of nearly 550 partners signing on to sponsor last year’s march, fewer than half have returned this year.
A number of Jewish civic and religious leaders have urged members of their communities not to attend. In New York City, the rupture is so deep and so apparently irreconcilable that two protests have been planned for Saturday instead of one.
In addition to New York, satellite protests have been planned in a number of cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, and it is also unclear whether attendance will be affected in those locations.
But the main Women’s March event, as in past years, will be held in Washington, D.C., including a rally planned on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that will be attended by thousands, including some Jewish protesters who insist on showing up despite the divisions.
In November, the national Women’s March organizing group, issued a statement on Facebook disavowing racism, and expressing support for Mallory and Sarsour.
“The Women’s March exists to fight bigotry and discrimination in all their forms — including homophobia and anti-Semitism,” the statement said in part.
“Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members. We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused, but we see you, we love you, and we are fighting with you.”
The statement added: “We are trying to build an intersectional women’s movement. That is a monumental task that is hard, it is messy.”
A group of liberal rabbis endorsed the march Friday after meeting with Sarsour and Mallory, but their support may come too late to sway many who have opted not to march this year.
Pearl Raz, a marcher coming to Washington from Philadelphia, said she plans to carry a placard that embraces both her Jewishness and her disdain for Trump.
“I’m thinking of a sign that says ‘Another anti-occupation Zionist against Trump,’ even though I don’t think of myself as a Zionist per se, but I don’t know how else…to protest the anti Zionist sentiment” that some of the organizers have been accused of, said Raz.
“I don’t feel that the women’s march particularly has a platform or an ideology. I think it’s just women showing up,” she said. “I think there are ideological differences among the women. And that is fine. I think that we’re united against Trump and that’s the important thing,” she said.
Lara Schwartz has seen such deep divisions — and the efforts by activists with shared goals to unite in spite of them — many times before.
Schwartz is the director of the Project on Civil Discourse, an education project at American University in Washington, D.C. that helps participants create a framework for dialogue when they share common goals but disagree over policy and values.
“It’s a hard question trying to figure out where do you draw the line in navigating differences that are difficult and that can’t be ignored, but that don’t preclude cooperation,” she told ThinkProgress.
“I think there is a lot of commonality of purpose writ large between the two groups of people,” she said. “It’s an important thing whether there’s such a thing as feminism that’s not intersectional, or a movement for women that ignores the human rights of some.”
She says that even when participants disagree, they might find it possible to cooperate on national marches in the future, if they are committed enough to their greater, common goals.
“What see in people is they’re willing to do some degree of working together, even without full understanding,” Schwartz said. “I think the question of whether this is the line — the human rights issue or the anti-Semitism issue — is personal, it’s heavily related to identity, and I think it’s not something anyone should be able to scold anybody else about.”
And while the debate has been contentious, Schwartz said she does not find the divisions to be discouraging.
“I haven’t seen calls to exclude individuals. I see it as healthy, because it’s people having a healthy discussion,” she said. “I can’t get too upset when people are forced to think and reckon. I kind of think that’s a good thing.”
“The march is a tool,” she continued. “If it’s that fraught and that controversial and that painful, then it’s a conversation that has to happen at some point.”