NOW members at the Philly Women Rally event on Saturday, Jan. 19. The author is on the left.

by Karen Bojar

In January 2017, and again in 2018, millions of women worldwide poured into the streets of Philadelphia to protest the election of Donald Trump. It was a quickly-formed and impressive movement fostered by activist women who marched for gender justice and racial justice and local organizers, who fundraised, secured permits and planned the events. Their energy and commitment had much to do with the number of women who ran and won in the 2018 elections.

Beginning as a Facebook post and driven largely by social media, the Women’s March demonstrated the power of social media to quickly mobilize large numbers of people. A nonprofit, Women’s March Inc. emerged from the initial march. That organization, however, was not a membership organization with the power to set the agenda and elect board members and officers.

Women’s March is now demonstrating the limits of a social media-driven mobilization. When conflicts arise, there are no agreed upon mechanisms to resolve them or to hold leadership accountable.

Conflict in the organization broke out into the open in February 2018 when two of the co-chairs were prominent attendees at Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Saviours’ Day event. Many supporters of the Women’s March saw the relationship with a notorious misogynist, homophobe and anti-Semite as a disqualifier for leadership of a movement committed to gender justice and the elimination of all forms of bigotry and discrimination. Co-chair Tamika Mallory’s widely publicized praise of Farrakhan, as well as the failure to include Jewish women in the March’s unity principles, led to calls for the co-chairs to resign.

The co-chairs responded to the outcry by including Jewish women in their unity principles, adding three Jewish women (including one trans and two black Jewish women) to their steering committee and by putting out a statement condemning anti-Semitism. For some, the statement rang hollow given Mallory’s continued refusal to disavow Farrakhan.

Questions were also asked about the co-chairs’ management of the more than $2 million raised through contributions and sales of merchandise emblazoned with the Women’s March logo. Women’s March Inc. is currently trying to trademark the name Women’s March and is being sued by four local Women’s March organizations, which have argued that it can’t trademark a movement. Given these controversies, it’s no surprise that the 2019 march attracted far fewer participants than previous years and saw a dramatic drop in the number of sponsors as well as competing marches in several major cities.

The Philadelphia March(es)

The conflicts on the national level played out in Philadelphia with two competing marches held at the same time: Philly Women Rally, which was unaffiliated with national Women’s March Inc. and Women’s March Pennsylvania, which was connected to the national Women’s March.

The Philly Women Rally at Eakins Oval was the larger event with participants numbering in the thousands and many elected officials among the speakers, including Mayor Jim Kenney, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, newly elected congresswomen Madeleine Dean, Mary Gay Scanlon and Chrissy Houlahan and Jovida Hill, Director of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, who gave a rousing speech drawing on the words of Sojourner Truth: “She told us that if women want more rights than they got, why don’t they just take them?”

Women’s March Pennsylvania, which rallied at Love Park, was considerably smaller with participants numbering in the hundreds. From all reports, however, the speeches were dynamic and the audience was energized. Among the speakers were city council candidates Sherrie Cohen and Melissa Robbins, Yaya Rivera of the Northwest Indivisible Reproductive Justice Working Group and Nina Ahmad, former Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement and candidate for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor.

“To me, it was not a matter of choosing one event over the other but more about being given a seat at the table,” Rivera said. “It is important for me to share my personal experiences and reasons to why I fight for Title X funding and reproductive rights/justice.”

Chestnut Hill residents board a train at Chestnut Hill East to attend the Women’s March in Center City on Saturday, Jan. 19. From left: Susan Woodward, Ndori, Valerie Stevens, Rick Kagan and Amy Gewirtzman had their signs ready. (Photo by Brian Rudick)

Ahmad celebrated the election of women of color to seats in the House of Representatives, and the impact of the Me Too movement. Her message to sexual predators was, “Be very afraid – we are coming to hold you accountable.”

Feminist organizations grappled with the issue of which march to recommend to their members. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) voted to support the march hosted by Philly Women Rally because, according to CLUW President Danielle Newsome, “We’ve built an institutional relationship over the last three years and respect that they hire union women to build and work the stage. We hope that in the future there can be one unified march in Philadelphia.”

According to Lynne Jacobs, President of the Philadelphia Council of Jewish Women, the council followed the recommendation of their national organization to support local marches not affiliated with the national Women’s March Inc., and thus supported Philly Women Rally.

Philadelphia NOW decided to encourage its members to participate, but declined to endorse either march.

“Some members chose to go to one over the other, but most of us decided we should attend parts of both to support all women,” said NOW President Krishna Rami.

It was a difficult decision for many feminist groups and for individual women trying to decide which march to attend or even if they should attend at all.

“Up until Saturday morning, I was truly ambivalent about marching,” said Mindy Brown, of Northwest Indivisible and a committeeperson in the 9th Ward. “But I decided not showing up would mean giving in to the other side, who’d feast on the stories of internal divisions and lower numbers.

“The fissures are real and painful, and we can’t sweep them under the rug. But maybe this tension can be an opportunity for us to work on solutions. For me, the Philly March has never been about the national leadership. It’s been about the grassroots. I was glad I went in the end. It felt like younger people had really come out in a lot bigger numbers. They were spontaneously dancing, singing and coming up with amazing, inspiring messages. It gave me hope!”

I heard variations on Brown’s comment from quite a few participants who also noted the number of young women involved and insisted that the march belonged to the grassroots women who built local and regional marches across the country.

Another common theme was disappointment that there were two marches and frustration that the two groups could not come together.

“I was disappointed at the paltry turnout for these events,” said Mt. Airy activist Susan Schewel. “I think a lot of people stayed away because they did not know which event to attend. Even though I read what was available about how we ended up with two rallies, (and even a third that I learned of later) it just did not make sense. I wish that the organizers had managed to combine their efforts beforehand. I hope next year Philly has one strong march and rally with diverse voices represented.”

What lies ahead?

Only time will tell how the current conflict in the women’s movement will play out. While concerned about the conflicts, Mt. Airy social justice activist Antje Mattheus said that some conflict should be expected in building that movement.

“We are setting ourselves up for failure if we assume that we can reproduce the success – in terms of attendance and broad alliances – of the 2017 worldwide Women’s March and call it a movement,” she said. “A march is an action. In 2017 it was a very large action, but a march is not a movement.

“The ‘cracks’ – lower attendance, simultaneous marches, infighting among leaders, disunity between racial and religious groups – which we now see are normal in social movement development and should be expected because the work to achieve a united movement has not been done. Movement building, especially on the level desired by 2017 Women’s March organizers and attendees, takes much time and dedication.”

Karen Bojar is a former, longtime Democratic committee person. She lives in Mt. Airy.

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