Respect Equality

After low attendance, is the Women’s March still relevant?

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Story at a glance

  • The first Women’s March in 2017 is considered the largest single-day protest in the country’s history.
  • The inaugural march was organized in protest of the election of President Trump and is credited by experts as partially responsible for the ensuing Blue Wave.
  • This year’s march drew considerably smaller crowds, sparking questions about the continued relevance of the event.
  • Some have mixed feelings when it comes to the organizers’ desired, tangible results of this year’s march.

Were photos of pink “pussy” hats and passionately penned protest signs noticeably absent from your social media feeds this weekend? Perhaps you didn’t notice their absence at all. Either way, you wouldn’t be the only one. 

The attendance at this year’s march was a far cry from its record-breaking first demonstration in 2017. The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of women and their allies marched to express opposition to his election and to rally support for key issues surrounding women’s rights — such as access to legal abortion and pay equity. A staggering 1 percent of the entire population of the United States participated, making the event the largest single-day protest in the country’s history.

Just in Washington, D.C., alone the Crowd Counting Consortium gauged turnout between 500,000 and 1 million, an overwhelming figure considering the city’s population size of around 710,000. 

Flash forward to this past weekend and the numbers look a little different. The 2020 Women’s March, which took place Jan. 18, expected about 10,000 people to attend Saturday’s march to the White House according to a permit application filed with the National Park Service. Rachel O’Leary Carmona, the chief operating officer of Women’s March Inc., reported a different figure of 25,000 people who had supposedly pledged online to attend the march in the capital.

Some say that it’s not just a numbers game anymore, and that the goals for the Women’s March continue to evolve with a smaller but equally charged base, ready as ever to make change happen with the theme of this weekend’s march having been “Women Rising.” But as we continue through this landmark year, both an election year and the start of a new decade, a question begs to be asked: how will people-driven movements like the Women’s March continue to unite like-minded individuals and inspire real change? Has it even done that in the first place?

The Pink Wave

“You have to run for office. You! Yes you!” Director Michael Moore shouted from the stage at the first Women’s March. “I can see your face is, ‘No, no Mike, not me, I’m shy. This is not the time for shy people! Shy people, you have two hours to get over it.”

Moore wasn’t the only speaker there with a political call to action. Laurie Pohutsky recently told Vox about her experience at that critical first march — hearing speaker after speaker say that America needed more women to run for office. “I remember getting this pit in my stomach,” she said. “That’s it. That’s what I need to do.”

Even as the march itself continues to shrink, it’s impossible to ignore the groundswell of women’s organizing that took place that same year as those ignited by a newfound passion and awareness of women’s political power began to run for office and make their voices heard. 

A new generation of novice women politicians (including several women’s march local organizers) ran for office in 2018, such as Pohutsky who ran for state legislature, winning a seat in Michigan’s House of Representatives that had been held by Republicans for the past 40 years. Swift and decisive movements such as #MeToo swept the country and exposed men accused of sexual misconduct, knocking many from power. Now multiple analyses say women could be the deciding voters in this year’s election.

But experts who follow protest movements have said the group’s own successes, including putting more women on the front line of American politics and inspiring a new wave of progressive groups, have unwittingly rendered the Women’s March irrelevant.

“Right after the election it made sense for them to have this big march on Washington, but right now, nobody really wants another march on Washington,” Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland professor who studies protest movements, told The Washington Post. “Nobody needs another pink hat.”

Organizer controversy

Attendance at the marches has declined drastically over the years for a number of reasons that still warrant debate, but none have been as heavily covered as the allegations that some of the organizers may have been anti-Semitic, beginning with comments that became public in 2018. 

Several people involved in planning the march stated that 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,” at a November 2016 meeting. One organizer also told Tablet, who first broke the news in an incredibly detailed report, that she heard Mallory “berating” a march co-founder over her Jewish identity at a January 2017 meeting — information which was later confirmed in an interview with Vox. To make matters worse, Mallory had already been facing criticism earlier that year after attending an event with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan where he espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 

In response the Women’s March issued a statement disavowing Farrakhan’s rhetoric. Then, that September, the organization announced it had added several Jewish women to its expanded 16-member board of directors as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community. One new appointee was asked to resign after it was discovered that she compared Israel to the Islamic State on Twitter. 

“This new board comes from such a diverse set of backgrounds, but we all truly believe in the idea that none of us are free until all of us are free,” said Women’s March co-president Isa Noyola. “For our own communities to actually experience freedom and liberation and have basic human rights . . . we know it’s not just about the march, it’s about what happens afterward and how we can continue to support grassroots organizing along the way — and not just our own.”

The Women’s March has faced questions and criticism since its founding, with some wondering if an event initially proposed by white women would actually be inclusive of the concerns of women of color. The full national team now includes several women of color, but some might say the changes have been made too little too late.  

What does the future hold?

Ahead of its march last year, the organization unveiled a 10-pronged political platform intended to steer its focus and give lawmakers a list of progressive policy priorities. This year, though, the group has narrowed its focus to climate change, immigration and reproductive rights — issues the organizers say are most important to participants. Interestingly, an interview by The Atlantic with one of the march’s original co-chairs reveals that they will not be releasing slates of candidates or endorsing specific legislation or policies for the 2020 election cycle. 

“This year, we aren’t just marching. We’re putting our bodies on the line hand in hand with other mass movements,’’ the group’s website says.

Organizers of the march maintained that this year’s focus was on those three main issues of climate change, reproductive rights and immigration, but some people have other ideas of what this year’s march really focused on — with the New York Times reporting that the main topic of discussion was the impeachment of Donald Trump. 

Regardless of what the future may hold for the official Women’s March, what has become clear is that the original base of the march has become less central, replaced by more localized efforts to elect female and LGBT candidates and push forward progressive ideas. In Los Angeles the local march embraced technology to organize and inspire. In Erie, Pa., more women have been stepping forward to run for office since the first march. In these smaller but passionate communities, it seems, is where change will now continue to see real results.