For thousands of women across the country, the first Women’s March on Washington was transformational.
Many who had never participated in a protest were suddenly thrust into the heart of the “resistance” — pussyhats and all. Those who attended the 2017 rally called the crush of people who filled city streets inspiring, the energy electric. It pushed them to keep protesting, to write letters, make phone calls and register voters.
On Saturday during the third annual march, thousands of women again are expected in Washington. But while organizers wrote in a permit application weeks ago that they expect a similar turnout — hundreds of thousands — experts say they expect a fraction of that number.
It’s not unusual for social movements to have peaks and valleys. Off-years — like third anniversaries in non-election years — make it challenging to energize a base that has protested since President Trump’s inauguration, said Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who studies protests and social movements.
But the Women’s March is up against more than just an off year.
Allegations of anti-Semitism, secretive financial dealings, infighting and disputes over who gets to own and define the Women’s March have dogged organizers for months and led to calls for national co-chairs to resign. The organization earlier this week appeared to upset the National Park Service, which handles permitting for protests on federal land.
Several high-profile supporters and progressive organizations declined to participate in the rally this year. Women who previously went out of their way to attend are opting to stay home and support independent groups. Jewish women remain torn about attending at all. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against the event.
In cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, where some groups wanted to deliver a clear rebuke to the national organization, there will be competing marches with their own speakers and rallies. Organizers in some cities have opted out altogether.
The D.C. event, which begins at 10 a.m. at Freedom Plaza, will include speakers and performers, followed by a half-mile march past the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The rally, which originally was planned for the Mall, is scheduled to end at 4 p.m. Streets in the area will be closed to traffic from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
Women’s March organizers on Wednesday tweeted that the Park Service “wanted us to cancel the march altogether. We told them we were marching with or without their permission, and we secured a permit to march on Pennsylvania Ave, past the Trump Hotel.” The relocation, the group said, was “due to snow.”
Hours later, the Park Service issued its own statement: “Any assertion that the National Park Service has encouraged any organizer to cancel their First Amendment demonstration is patently false,” spokesman Mike Litterst wrote. “The National Park Service has been clear that our process would protect those fundamental rights by processing applications for First Amendment events that had been submitted prior to” the shutdown.
Women’s March leaders on Friday unveiled a 10-prong political platform the organization has said will steer the group’s focus and give legislators a list of progressive priorities.
The agenda pinpoints “realistically achievable” priorities, such as raising the federal minimum wage, addressing reproductive rights and violence against women, and passing the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment, officials said.
To some, the plan to issue a legislative agenda crafted by the group speaks to the rift 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 Linda Sarsour.
“There were over 600 marches, and they were all organized separately. We did the Women’s March on Washington. That’s it,” said Vanessa Wruble, who helped organize the 2017 march in Washington and has since started her own organization, March On. “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.”
A permit issued Thursday indicates about 10,000 attendees are expected, while D.C. police are preparing for 20,000. As of Friday, about 15,000 people on Facebook indicated they would attend or expressed interest in doing so.
Several unions representing furloughed federal employees and out-of-work contractors have encouraged members to attend. The Women’s March recently adjusted its programming to feature female federal workers effected by the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22.
Rally, a bus company that crowdsources bus routes to protests and large events, is coordinating rides for about 1,500 protesters from as far away as Iowa.
Washington-area moms who provided free lodging for hundreds of children and their parents who came to last year’s anti-gun-violence March for Our Lives rally restarted their efforts to help protesters going to the Women’s March and Friday’s inaugural Indigenous Peoples Movement rally.
“If you have an issue that you believe is important, and you want to use this march as an opportunity to come and yell at the White House or just stand up and be counted, we want to make sure if you need help to get here, we’ll do that,” said Elizabeth Andrews, who started the housing effort. “On the flip side, we have definitely had some of our hosts ask us why we’re supporting the Women’s March.”
The Indigenous Peoples Movement, which will include a march from the Department of Interior to the Lincoln Memorial and anhours-long program, planned its first event to coincide with the Women’s March in hopes of picking up momentum. The March for Life also will descend on Washington on Friday.
On Saturday morning, a competing march calling itself the March for All Women was announced this week as an alternative to the Women’s March. That march begins at 9:30 a.m. at Pershing Park. Another march, which organizers are calling the Inclusive Women 4 Equality For All Rally, begins at 12:45 p.m. near Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
“The March For All Women represents the rising tide of women who stand against the divisiveness of the so-called Women’s March movement,” Carrie Lukas, president of Independent Women’s Forum, said in a statement. “We’re here to speak up, because women should not be hijacked for a political agenda.”
The accusation that the Women’s March has not been inclusive enough has dogged the organization, particularly after Mallory posted images on social media documenting her participation in a Nation of Islam event — including a photo featuring her posing next to Louis Farrakhan with a caption calling the Nation of Islam leader “the GOAT,” or “greatest of all time.”
Though she has since condemned anti-Semitism in written statements, Mallory and her co-chairs have stopped short of disavowing Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam itself.
Several organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, have severed ties with the D.C. event. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, are notably absent from the Women’s March’s list of partners this year after previously supporting the event.
The Democratic National Committee, whose chairman spoke at the Women’s March last year, also isn’t involved in this year’s march.
Presidential hopefuls aren’t attending the D.C. event, although Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who called the 2017 march “truly the most inspiring moment of my entire life,” will be at a Women’s March event in Iowa. Fewer than half of the nearly 550 partners the Women’s March had last year have returned for 2019, according to the Daily Beast.
Still, many women who have participated in previous Women’s March events said the controversies have barely registered. Several said they hadn’t heard about those issues — or if they had, it didn’t affect their decision on whether to attend.
“I am very saddened by the split,” said Laura Brevitz, 56, of Tamworth, N.H., who attended the 2017 march. “There is growth to be done by everybody, but I am not going to turn my back on the Women’s March.”
Women’s March leaders, for their part, said they’re taking the past year and recent fallout in stride. Bland said it’s part of the growing pains of building an intersectional movement.
“We unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and we don’t want anyone to be confused about that,” Bland said. “We’ve been fighting against the exact type of hate that we have been accused of, and we understand that there is a lot more work to be done before the march, during the march and after the march.”