After a year laden with controversy — including accusations of financial mismanagement, anti-Semitism and calls for the co-chairs of the national Women’s March organization to step down — the D.C. rally offered a respite.
The number and political makeup of new participants also revealed how the public had received news of the Women’s March controversies, researchers said.
“I was hypothesizing that because of all the bad press, we might see people there who were more radical or more strongly tied to the Women’s March organization,” said Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who studies protests and social movements. “But most of the people came without any organizational ties, and the people who never participated before were more likely to be political moderates. So what that means is, this whole discussion about all the controversies doesn’t really matter so much to your average person participating.”
Organizers initially had hoped to see hundreds of thousands of marchers — the kind of numbers that turned the Women’s March into a household name after its huge 2017 demonstration. But as Saturday’s event drew closer, their expectations grew more modest.
Saturday’s protest in the District appeared to draw thousands.
Linda Sarsour, a co-chair of the Women’s March, said she was not surprised by diminished turnout at the most recent march. She added that the third annual Women’s March was largely “ceremonial.”
“There has never been a march in America that’s been consistently able to bring out a million people three years in a row,” Sarsour said, referring to the crowds that marched in the District in 2017. “This was about us continuing to express dissent.”
The event also served another purpose: the unveiling of the “Women’s Agenda,” a detailed and lengthy political platform meant to serve as a call to action for lawmakers.
The document includes directives such as passing the Equal Rights Amendment, eliminating student debt and passing a “Sexual Assault survivors Bill of Rights” in every state. It also includes more ambitious goals, such as “ending war.”
To some critics, the group’s choice to issue a legislative agenda speaks to the conflict at the center of the women’s movement: What began as a grass-roots collaboration by hundreds of distinct organizations and activists is increasingly defined by one group and its leadership team of four women — Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Sarsour.
“There were over 600 marches, and they were all organized separately. We did the Women’s March on Washington. That’s it,” Vanessa Wruble, who helped organize the 2017 march in Washington and has since started her own organization, March On, said earlier this month. “It was always meant to be a movement, and I believe — and March On believes — that the best movements are run bottom-up, not top-down.”
Sarsour said the agenda was never meant to be a top-down directive to members of the women’s movement. Think of it more as a basket from which people can take what they like and leave what they don’t, she said.
“We’re not trying to speak for all women in America because that’s never what the Women’s March has been about,” Sarsour said. “Not everybody who is part of our agenda agrees with the whole agenda. That’s okay. The question is: What speaks to you, and what do you want to work on?”
According to Fisher’s research, conducted by surveying a random sample of every fifth participant at Saturday’s rally, political beliefs and reasons for marching among participants varied widely.
While 80 percent reported they had turned out for “women’s rights,” nearly as many — 76 percent — said they came to the demonstration to oppose President Trump and his policies.
“Every time we go out in the crowd and ask people what motivated them to come out, and the only thing that went up this time was the number of people who were motivated to protest by President Trump,” Fisher said. “Two years into his presidency, that’s pretty remarkable.”
Asked whom they would support for president if the 2020 election were held tomorrow, a majority of participants picked former vice president Joe Biden, Fisher said. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) was the second most popular choice, while more progressive candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) received less enthusiastic support.
Fisher pointed to the march’s newcomers as a driving force. Among first-time marchers — which included about a quarter of the crowd — nearly all self-identified as moderates, she said.
“It’s getting to the point that even folks in the center have had enough and feel the need to take to the streets and express themselves through activism,” Fisher said. “That’s really an expansion of the tent, in some ways, of the kind of people who have decided it’s time for them to join the resistance. It brings out a very different vibe, and it will be interesting to see what that means for the movement going forward.”