the body politic

Don’t Give Up on the Women’s March

The Women’s March in Miami in 2018. Photo: Matias J. Ocner/TNS via Getty Images

It’s January during the Trump years, which means it’s time to talk about the fractured Women’s March. This year, controversy surrounds charges of anti-Semitism, most pointedly against Tamika Mallory, one of the four national co-chairs (along with Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland) of the national Women’s March, which this year is organizing a large demonstration on January 19 in Washington, D.C., while other organizations host gatherings around the country.

Over the past year, the press has avidly covered Mallory’s relationship to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan; in February, she attended NOI’s annual Saviours’ Day event, listening to Farrakhan call Jews “the mother and father of Apartheid,” and she once posted a picture of him labeled GOAT (the “greatest of all time”). Called to task for her public affirmations of a virulent anti-Semite (and homophobe, and sexist) of long standing, Mallory has disavowed the anti-Semitism, but refused to renounce Farrakhan himself, or the Nation of Islam, an organization she explained had helped support her and the African-American communities she’s long worked for in the wake of the killing of her child’s father. Then, in December, Tablet published an extensive report in which other early organizers of the 2017 Women’s March alleged that Mallory and Perez made anti-Semitic comments in initial planning meetings, suggesting — in the spirit of the Nation of Islam’s book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews — that Jewish people were significantly responsible for the oppression of people of color and had been leaders of the slave trade; Mallory and other co-chairs have denied this reporting.

On Tuesday, both the NAACP and the DNC pulled out as partners with the D.C. event. In cities around the country, satellite organizations — most of them separate entities from the national Women’s March organization — are planning their own marches, debating whether or not to participate or to boycott the day of protest and gathering. Some state and local leaders have pled with the national co-chairs to step down; organizers in Chicago and Baton Rouge have announced that they will be canceling the events this year, though another group in Northern California that initially announced its cancellation due to the participants being “overwhelmingly white” appears to have rescheduled its march. In New York, there will be competing marches, a scenario that is as boneheaded as it is self-defeating.

If it sounds like a hot mess, it is not at odds with the history of the Women’s Marches, the first of which took place on the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, and the second — not organized by the national co-chairs — in cities around the nation last year. In the weeks before the 2017 event, the New York Times published a story about internal debates and fury marking the organizing process, the feelings of exclusion felt by some white women alienated by the demands for an intersectional approach to protest, which prioritized awareness of racial and economic inequality, and the fear that this call for difficult self-reckoning would drive potential participants away. But the march wound up being the biggest single day of political protest in this country’s history.  The following year — despite more stories about splits and divisiveness within the movement (“One Year After Women’s March, More Activism but Less Unity” was the Times headline) — the marches again drew hundreds of thousands of people.

It’s not that coverage of the marches as chaotic and fractious — riven not simply by ego and competing tactical factions, but by the exposure of deep and dangerous prejudices — has been incorrect: The Women’s March, since its inception, has been built around the expression of disagreements and provocative arguments about the biases, inequalities, and resentments that wind up getting replicated in any progressive coalition. (Especially in a movement of women, who as a subjugated majority are thus a bigger and more unwieldy population than almost any other oppressed group.)

But the fighting, while often presented as perilously schismatic, has, from the start, been part of the point. As Sarsour told me, back in 2017, “contentious dialogue is by design.” The painful reflections and calls to responsibility were meant to bring anger to the surface as part of the process of marching together, rather than allowing that anger to fester and separate a group that could, united, wield power. That idea is well within the tradition of feminist argument, especially Audre Lorde’s 1981 essay “The Uses of Anger,” in which she suggests that “for Black women and white women to face each other’s angers without denial or immobility or silence or guilt is itself a heretical and generative idea.”

And so, the fact that millions of women and men have turned out for mass protests for two years in a row, not despite tensions over racial, religious, ideological, and economic differences — but in the midst of them, some engaging them head-on — has been one of the most defining and electrifying features of this iteration of a women’s movement. The hot messiness has been one of contemporary feminism’s surest signs of life and of a willingness to work toward being better than it has been in the past.

This year, as in past years, the bonds are delicate, the reasons for resentment very real and very serious. Valuing contentious reckoning between women is not the same as excusing or moving past Mallory’s reported words or the pain her affiliation with Farrakhan has caused. Anti-Semitism within a progressive, women-driven coalition doesn’t deserve a whit less scrutiny than white supremacy, of course.

Yet the intense focus on Mallory as a deciding factor about whether or not to participate is perhaps misguided. It shows a misunderstanding of two seemingly contradictory but in fact complementary points: that Mallory and her co-chairs initially played a crucial symbolic and structural role in organizing a women’s march that could bring together a diverse, fractious, and massive coalition of potential activists, but that in the years since, making space for such a broad and energetic group to coalesce, she and her colleagues have become far less important as leaders —  symbolically and organizationally — than they were as conveners, setting the very tone that now compels activists to pursue questions of anti-Semitism within march leadership, but perhaps not walk away from protest itself.

Ask the women who have devoted their days and nights these past years to marching, striking, running for office, door-knocking, phone-banking, organizing, sending postcards and calling senators who the symbols, and leaders, of their movement are, and they’re as likely — I think far more likely — to name Stacey Abrams or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Emma Gonzalez or Tarana Burke or Elizabeth Warren or Kirsten Gillibrand or Lucy McBath as they are Tamika Mallory.

The Trump-era “resistance” movement is often communicated in shorthand via images of the Women’s Marches; it may indeed have been catalyzed by those events. But it has not been defined in any meaningful way by the Women’s March organization alone. The power of the marches came from the millions of people who attended them, and then went on to put their energies into the campaigns, elections, Indivisible, teachers’ and hotel and fast-food workers’ strikes, the #MeToo movement, and other forms of civic activism and education. Women who may have first encountered each other at the Women’s March — or simply understood because they saw it on TV that they were not alone in their fury — began working together, learning from each other, with unfathomable results: the remaking of the House of Representatives, a renewed culture of walkouts, the dethronement of powerful men from powerful perches.

But that activism could be cast as expansive, future-looking progressivism in part because Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour — who had not worked as feminists in the past, but as activists and leaders of multiracial movements that historically had received too little attention from mainstream women’s organizing — had stepped in early on. Their initial role as leaders defused well-founded concerns that the 2017 demonstration would be an appropriative and misbegotten March of the Suburban White Women.

The co-chairs’ insistence on drafting a set of march principles, aligned with serious left progressivism, expanded the reach of the event politically. It ensured more diverse (though still heavily white) participation, and put many newly angry suburban women shoulder to shoulder with others who’d been advocating for years against environmental racism and sexism, and on behalf of domestic workers and indigenous communities. The march was chock-full of internal dissent, including one iconic sign asking if the bearer would “see you nice white ladies at the next #blacklivesmatter march, right?”

And while it’s certainly not as though every pussy-hatted protester did show up at that next march for black lives, some participants did begin to think harder. At the Women’s March convention in 2017, the session on confronting white womanhood was the most oversubscribed of the weekend; it had to be held a second time, moved to a bigger space, and still there were lines out the door. Part of this is attributable not to the Women’s March co-chairs, but to the media’s long-overdue acknowledgement, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss, that white women — the demographic too often credited and associated with the leadership of feminist movements that were often pioneered by women of color — have also consistently voted for Republicans, and against policies that would benefit women, people of color, and the poor. But there is no question that the women who were the symbolic heads of the first and biggest public demonstration after the 2016 election made sure that the women marching into January — and into years of civic agitation, protest, and electoral politics — would not forget the racial dimensions and need for self-reckoning within women’s organizing.

In the two years since, there has been vivid, if insufficient, acknowledgment of white patriarchy, not just within the nation but within the women’s movement. None of this gets anyone a Certificate of Woke Achievement or a shiny Not Racist badge. Rather, what has begun is an erratic, sometimes painful, and often furious holding to account: of conservative white women, yes, but also of liberal ones — often progressive liberal ones — who have failed to credit or consider or look to leadership from the women of color and black women whose activism has often paved the way for their own achievements. And here, the Women’s March national co-chairs offered an important and corrective symbolic view: of multiracial stewardship of a movement populated by lots of newly angered middle-class white women.

After all, the first plan, hatched by white organizers, had been to call the first event the Million Woman March, without any seeming knowledge of or interest in the fact that there had already been a Million Woman March — a gathering of half a million people in Philadelphia in 1997 organized by black women. There was too little sense that a march of resistance to Donald Trump — organized and primarily attended by white women, co-opting a renewed culture of public protest pioneered within movements for racial justice (BLM) and leftist policy (Occupy), held in the wake of an election in which exit polls showed the majority of white women voting for Donald Trump and 94 percent of black women voting for Hillary Clinton — would have been disastrous. Such an event would have ensured that a contemporary revivification of a woman’s movement was bound to replicate the mistakes of the past, rather than to address and correct them. In other words, Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour wound up covering a lot of white-woman ass in 2017.

But their success in refashioning a model for a women’s movement via a single event — even an epic and historically unprecedented one — did not leave Mallory and her fellow co-chairs as the long-term leaders of the new women’s resistance movement.

Yes, they were honored and feted and covered by the press. They held a conference in Detroit, and a less successful call for a Day Without a Woman in March of 2017. Their specialty, as organizers, has been civil disobedience, and they were pretty spectacular at organizing the protest movement against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, even before the assault claims of Christine Blasey Ford came to light. On that first day of hearings for a man whose confirmation to the court means a sure rollback of civil rights, reproductive rights, collective bargaining rights, and voting rights, it was Sarsour who was the first to rise out of her seat and yell, the first to be led away in handcuffs. Those protests culminated with the elevator confrontation between Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher and Senator Jeff Flake, a viral exchange that would give invaluable voice to the shaking fury of so many women.

But part of what’s been remarkable about women’s activism in these years is that in that moment, Archila and Gallagher became as symbolically important as Mallory or Perez or perhaps even as Sarsour have been. Here is the irony, but also the success of the Women’s March: In inviting so many people to participate, agitate, raise their voices in their own ways, and listen to the raised voices of women differently, the event(s) they planned gave birth to a movement and to a host of figures who have become as symbolically powerful, and in many cases more powerful, than the four co-chairs.

Which makes all the media energy that has been put into not simply exposing and examining Tamika Mallory’s complex ties to virulently anti-Semitic thinking — a thing that the Women’s March focus on “contentious dialogue” compels us do — but rather into discrediting her, leveraging her out of a position of leadership, and ejecting her from the movement she helped to create space for, feel disproportionate. The focus on her, the willingness to boycott a march, and thus to sap an activist gathering of its very activism, doesn’t totally track.

When Mallory appeared this week on The View, she very purposefully refused to accede to the demands of Meghan McCain that she use the language of “condemnation” with regard to Louis Farrakhan, insisting instead that she did “not agree” with his anti-Semitism, and determinedly insisting that her admiration for him stemmed from his work in black communities, and was distinct from his rhetoric of hate and prejudice. Generally speaking, Mallory has not responded well to the criticism aimed at her, has failed to say what many Jews need to hear, especially as they are living through an era of violent anti-Semitism, seeing their schools and playgrounds desecrated, being singled out by white-nationalist demonstrators who chant “Jews will not replace us,” and murdered in their places of worship.

But watching McCain fulminate righteously at how “I would never be comfortable supporting someone who [said] ‘I’m not anti-Semite, I’m anti-termite,’” (a Farrakhan classic) it was hard for me not to consider that McCain’s own father, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years, referred (as recently as his 2000 presidential campaign) to his Vietnamese captors as “g**ks,” in 2013 compared former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a “monkey,” and in 1998 told a “joke” about why “Chelsea Clinton [then 18] is so ugly”… because “Janet Reno is her father.”

The question of who has to answer for the bigotry of those they support is complex, but often in the United States, not so complex. The fact is, we simply don’t ask every white woman — conservative or feminist — to answer for (much less condemn or renounce) every racist or patriarch to whom she has a personal or political connection. In part, that’s because in many of those racists and patriarchs, we can see heroism, decency, the complex and nuanced roots of their biases and hatreds — McCain’s experiences in Vietnam being a prime example. We can value the good they’ve done and the obstacles they’ve faced over, or perhaps alongside, the injuries they’ve caused; too often, we can simply erase any need for an explanation of the bad. This is one of the things that contemporary progressive activism, and the Women’s March itself, has asked us to begin to grapple with: the invisible complicity of so many. In Mallory’s case, it is good and correct that she is being pushed hard to take responsibility for her own reported biases as well as her complicity with the systemic denigration of Jews given voice by Farrakhan, but why is there so little effort to also reckon with the difficult roots of her connection to him and her fealty to the Nation of Islam, and the complicated role that organization plays in so many isolated, underserved black communities?

None of this is to say there’s an easy answer; rather, the opposite. It’s to say that the path toward becoming better as individuals and as movements and eventually as a nation is to do the extremely hard work of talking about the contradictions and challenges of solidarity between oppressed groups, often by fighting and expressing pain and hurt and anger toward the people with whom we also recognize we want to — need to — work toward something closer to justice. It’s not canceling or condemning or boycotting those people.

The reporting on Mallory, on Farrakhan, on the Women’s March, has taught me so much: about the history and role of the Nation of Islam, about the history of anti-Semitism in some black communities, and of racism within some Jewish communities. Is this not the ideal future for a movement of women, in which we must expose and examine the twisted histories of our own resentments? This has been, up till now, one of the legacies of the Women’s March, and the difficult work it directly asked newly activated women to do in 2017.

And it is the work of the masses of women — not the individuals who played a valuable role in making space for them to gather in 2017 — that is reshaping this country. It’s masses of voters and campaigners and candidates, the majority of them women, who brought us the incoming class of the House of Representatives; it’s masses of activists, the majority of them women, who staved off Obamacare repeal; it’s masses of storytellers, the majority of them women, who told of harassment and assault and forced so many powerful and abusive men to give up their powerful positions; it’s masses of workers — the majority of them women, including those striking (and dancing) this week in Los Angeles streets in search of fairer wages and smaller classroom sizes — who have gone on strikes, who have participated in Google walkouts.

And of course, a political media, the political parties, our prominent narrative-builders, don’t want to reckon with what those masses of people and their dissatisfaction mean, because it is so destabilizing and scary and overwhelming and unpredictable. It’s far easier to home in on individuals, who — when taken individually — are far more likely to be shown as fallible, biased, flawed, or weak, than it is to acknowledge the unrelenting hungers and demands of huge numbers of people, people who — as a coalition, if they can be persuaded to gather as one — cannot be undermined or stripped of legitimacy as easily as their individual leaders can be.

I have never been sure that there needed to be another mass Women’s March in 2019, in part because I feel that the idea of one annual demonstration to be a poor measure of the health and persistence of women’s civic engagement and determination to change the world. Look instead to the swearing-in ceremonies around the country, to those Los Angeles strikers, to the R. Kelly documentary that got record ratings on Lifetime last week. I also understand that the expectation of annual turnout will be used as a cudgel, that the pundits and leaders who refused to take the first Women’s March seriously to begin with will wait for the year that the crowds dissipate to gravely proclaim the era of women’s activism ended. (Here I exist in the neurotic tradition of Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally: “That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport … I never wanted anyone to say to me, How come you never take me to the airport anymore?”)

But when I was on my book tour in the fall, I heard from many women and men who were eagerly looking toward January as a release valve for the fury they felt after the confirmation of Kavanaugh, as a reconvening of the determined, as a reminder that they are not alone in their fear or passion, and then, in the weeks after the midterms, as a bit of a celebration.

And as I watch individual shortcomings used to sap the potential energy of the gathering of thousands, to scare off elected officials from taking part, I feel tremendous frustration. I want to scream: If you were going to march, march! If you were going to march because you were terrified by and livid about our courts; if you were going to march because you were horrified by the deaths of children at the border, by the murder of Jazmine Barnes; if you were going to march because participating in past marches made you remember you were not isolated in your rage or commitment; if you were going to march for strength because you are Jewish and you are scared of the rise of global and local anti-Semitism; if you were going to march with happiness because we just swore in all these gleefully rebellious women to the House; if you were going to march because you know that those women’s swearing-in is just the beginning of a long hard road … and now you’re not going to march because one of the national Women’s March co-chairs is as beset by the kinds of bias endemic to this country as many of the rest of us are, then you’re not doing yourself or our future any great progressive favor.

Instead, if you were going to march, draw up a big profane sign saying how angry you are — at misogyny, at racism, at capitalism, at anti-Semitism, at Tamika Mallory — and call on the women marching alongside you to talk to you, even argue with you, about it. It’s the way to move forward.

Don’t Give Up on the Women’s March