Tens of thousands marched to the White House during the first Women's March on Washington in January 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist living outside Washington, D.C.

It’s a cold time to march on Washington. But for the past two years, that has not stopped the throngs of women who have flocked to the nation’s capital in search of camaraderie and a space for dissent and frustration.

Across party lines, many were displeased with the result of the 2016 election, whose victor had bragged about groping women without their permission. The first Women’s March, following the inauguration of President Trump in 2017, promised to be more than a day of protest: It was an opportunity to express solidarity and fury, to call for something better in our politics and culture. It was a chance for women to collectively consider feminism as a central national concern: How should we support each other and strive for something different as a country? How could we foster a better, more equitable society for our daughters and granddaughters?

But that didn’t happen. Instead, politics trumped bipartisanship, and controversy erupted in the days before the march. After The Atlantic’s Emma Green reported on a antiabortion group called the New Wave Feminists that was attending the Women’s March, the Women’s March Alliance removed the group from its partners page and announced in a statement that its platform was “pro-choice … from day one.” From that point forward, the march seemed clearly defined not as a women’s march, but as a march for abortion advocates. Many felt disappointed and alienated by the sharp partisanship of that choice, myself included.

This year, the event has become even more contentious, with leaders Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour confronting allegations of anti-Semitism because of their association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The march’s leadership has taken steps to counteract these claims and become more inclusive of the Jewish community, but the shadow of these controversies remains. In New York, the local Women’s March chapter has divided from the main Women’s March Alliance, and the city had two separate events as a result. A march that was meant to be broad and unifying has become exclusive and divisive.

It is saddening that we were not able to find more common ground than this — that a cause so identifiable could so quickly fracture. As a mother of two daughters and frequent critic of President Trump, I want to stand in solidarity with other women. The march offers a chance to meet and converse with a diverse and passionate group of women — and thus to cultivate empathy and friendship with those who have differing perspectives and experiences. We need such opportunities at this fractious and fractured time. Compassion and kindness can bridge a multitude of divides — virtues that we can foster only if we are out in the public sphere, purposefully encountering and brushing up against one another. Such associations can be uncomfortable at times. But virtue comes only through practice, through intentional testing in spaces that make us uncomfortable and force us to become better versions of ourselves. For conservative and progressive, antiabortion and abortion advocates, the Women’s March could provide such an opening.

Alas, the Women’s March seems to have fallen prey to the celebrity and controversy of those at its head, organizers whose own opinions have overshadowed larger opportunities for connection and camaraderie. In this sense, the march’s history of controversy fits within our political moment. We’ve had moments of unity and hope following the 2016 presidential election, in which party politics have taken second place to the crises that confront us — like when Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement in June 2017 and U.S. cities responded by committing to make their own changes for the sake of sustainability. But for the most part, our political discourse tends to be a shouting match between the charismatic personalities who dominate our headlines. In November, the founder of the Women’s March actually asked its current leadership to step down, arguing that they had “steered the Movement away from its true course.”

Because of this, fragmentation — a lessened emphasis on national leadership and more investment in the march’s local chapters — could be a good thing. If Women’s Marches in various parts of the country focus on their own cities and regions, it could be that the cause becomes more accessible for women in specific communities. Those who attend a Women’s March in Philadelphia or Los Angeles or Akron, Ohio, could band together over a set of issues that affect them all on a visceral, personal level — and to connect with one another throughout the year, building community and rapport outside of an annual protest. Marches could center less on specific, divisive personalities and their opinions and more on the local women who attend.

Groups throughout the United States are already achieving this. Phoenix Women’s March members have encouraged others to donate to a food bank to support those in need during the government shutdown. Leaders of the Women’s March in Roanoke are encouraging women to run for public office and get involved in surrounding civic organizations, emphasizing the nonpartisan nature of their gathering and encouraging women from all walks of life and political views to attend. In these ways and more, local chapters are facilitating the sorts of civic engagement and virtue-building that our society needs. I hope that, in coming days, we see more of this happening throughout the country — among women who gather in Washington, in Houston or in Anchorage.

It is telling that November resulted in a record number of women being elected to Congress. The Women’s March fomented a flame that is still burning strong for many throughout the United States. It built a common cause that should grow, not wane, in future years. Decisions by the Women’s March Alliance have detracted from the unifying, grass-roots message that could drive this movement forward. Hopefully we can change that — one march and one woman at a time.