Meanwhile, local groups across the country — largely unaffiliated with the national organization — have been unable to separate themselves from the fallout. They say it has hurt their ability to organize, to attract participants and to be heard.
Even the name, Women’s March, has become a flash point.
Four organizations have sued the national Women’s March group — led by activists Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour — over efforts to trademark the name, arguing that no entity can own the march or the activism it has inspired. Some groups have sought to rebrand to shed the “Women’s March” name and the tumult that comes with it.
As they prepare for the third annual Women’s March on Saturday, leaders are grappling with the question: What is in a name, and is the name “Women’s March” worth fighting for?
“There’s power in the name because of what we’ve all done and the movement we’ve all created,” said Katherine Siemionko, who founded Women’s March Alliance, a New York organization that will lead a Manhattan march Saturday, and who organized the first Women’s March there in 2017. “But then having the name also ties us to a group we have nothing to do with. And that’s been a problem for us this year.”
The story of the Women’s March began in 2016 with a single Facebook post calling for women to rally in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
While the group that would become Women’s March Inc. organized a massive rally in Washington, more than 600 cities and towns across the country hosted sister events. The groups that grew out of those marches have, in many states, continued to organize. Most registered as nonprofits, and many gave themselves names that included the words “Women’s March,” a nod to the event that started it all.
“We just didn’t see down the pipeline what would happen,” said Emiliana Guereca, the executive director of Women’s March Los Angeles Foundation, which is independent from the national organization. “There was never a discussion of trademarking or what would happen if we continued to work under this brand. We have all built this brand together. All of us. But there’s one organization taking ownership.”
According to the national organization, there are fewer than 40 recognized chapters in the national Women’s March network. In recent months, even those chapters have begun to distance themselves from the national group.
The website for Women’s March San Diego asserts that the local organization “has never had a formal relationship with the Women’s March, Inc. chapter (also known as Women’s March National).”
In a statement affirming its commitment to “support of our Jewish brothers and sisters and our zero tolerance” toward anti-Semitism, Women’s March Florida wrote, “We are not affiliated with the national Women’s March, Inc. which is a separate legal entity.”
In March 2018, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced that it was considering granting the trademark to the national group, a move that would allow the organization to control the use of the Women’s March brand, including on merchandise and possibly in future events.
During a 30-day public-comment period, 14 organizations filed notices of opposition with the trademark office. They hoped the national group would withdraw its application.
Instead, the process has continued. In September, four groups — Women’s March Chicago, Women’s March Los Angeles, March On and the Women’s March Alliance — filed suit to stop Women’s March Inc. from getting the trademark.
“There’s nothing that we are doing that other organizations that have decentralized networks haven’t done,” said Sarsour, a co-chair of the national Women’s March. “It’s a larger conversation about how does an organization continue to operate with decentralized leadership and autonomous chapters across the country? How do you maintain a unified message and unified platform?”
The fear among local groups — particularly those that have relied on the use of the words “Women’s March” or branding made available as open-source material in 2017 — is that they could be forced to pay fees or adhere to rules set by the national group.
Women’s March leaders have repeatedly said they do not intend to exclude or regulate local groups. Still, organizers remain skeptical.
“The real impact on some of these local grass-roots organizations would be them not being allowed, or us not being allowed, to host an event called the Boston Women’s March because the phrase ‘Women’s March’ is owned by another organization,” said Karen Clawson Cosmas, executive director of March Forward Massachusetts, which has put on the Boston Women’s March since 2017.
Efforts to require organizations to pay a fee or enter into a contractual agreement for use of the name would be “totally contrary to the spirit of how this movement was born,” Cosmas said.
The value of the name “Women’s March” lies in the brand recognition and media attention that come with it, leaders said. But after a tumultuous year when national organizers were accused of anti-Semitism and all four co-chairs were asked to step down by founders and former supporters, some activists see the name as a blessing and a curse.
Local leaders said they spent much of 2018 putting out fires associated with the national group because of the perception that they are connected.
Protesters convened outside the Women’s March Los Angeles chapter recently, demanding that its leaders denounce anti-Semitism and the Nation of Islam. Guereca said the backlash was so intense that she hired a public relations firm to manage it.
“It was tough, and as a Latina Jew it was hard for me to talk to people who my own kids go to school with about what was going on,” she said. “My kids had to hear people come up to me and say, ‘You’re part of an anti-Semitic organization.’ It gave me chills to think about.”
In New York, Siemionko said, the group has been answering questions daily about its relationship with the national group and whether the Women’s March’s national leaders should step down. After months of discussion, the New York organization decided to further distance itself from Women’s March Inc. in a rebranding effort this year.
“I think there’s been a lot of disinformation out there,” said Vanessa Wruble, an organizer of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington who founded the organization March On, which focuses on supporting grass-roots legislative action.
“There were over 600 marches, and they were all organized separately. So everyone uses that term. Everyone called themselves a women’s march,” she said. “It was never meant to belong to one group. It was a movement. And it should remain a movement.”
Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report.