By Karen Bojar
When I boarded the Chestnut Hill East train on January 18 to attend the annual Women‘s March I noted there were plenty of empty seats, unlike the 2017 and 2018 marches, when the train was standing room only. The 2017 march, an outpouring of protest against the 2016 election of Donald Trump, began as a Facebook post that went viral, demonstrating the power of social media to quickly mobilize millions of people for a common cause. Approximately four million people took to the streets in the U.S., inspiring sister marches around the globe.
Tensions soon emerged within the original Women‘s March planning group. Given that the 2017 march was hastily put together by a small group of women – who for the most part had never worked together – some tension was no doubt inevitable.
Long smoldering conflicts in the newly incorporated Women’s March Inc. broke out into the open in February 2018, when two of the four 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.
Dissatisfaction with the co-chairs’ leadership led to calls for them to resign. Since the Women’s March Inc. was not a membership organization with a mechanism for holding leaders accountable, calls for resignation went unheeded. Given the internal turmoil, it was 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 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 group.
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 while the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) left the choice up to individual members.
In response to accusations of anti-Semitism, Women’s March national leadership added references to Jewish women to the 2019 unity principles and expanded their board to include three Jewish women – changes viewed by their critics as too little, too late. In response to the criticism, Women’s March Inc. replaced three of the co-chairs who had been accused of anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement, and appointed a diverse group of 17 new board members.
Despite these changes, some anti-Semitism apparently persisted. The Florida Sun Sentinel reported that one of new board members, Zahra Billoo, had a history of inflammatory statements about Israel, calling herself a “proud anti-Zionist” who does not believe Israel has a right to exist. Two days after her appointment, the Women’s March board removed her, stating that some of her public statements were incompatible with the values and mission of the organization.
The controversy underscores the difficulty of uniting all women under the banner of gender equality. Although the 20th century second-wave feminist movement achieved a unified front by sometimes suppressing or ignoring differences, the Women’s March board is committed to inter-sectional feminism and to addressing differences among women.
They have certainly fallen short in their attempts to do so, in part because the differences about what counts as a feminist issue run deep. The new board has replaced the expansive agenda of the 2019 March, which included controversial positions supporting Palestinian rights and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, with what it sees as a more unifying agenda centered around three themes: reproductive rights, climate change and immigration.
The relatively small number of women who braved the cold and snow to attend the 2020 women Women’s March Philly were generally not focused on the controversies on the national level. Several expressed relief that these conflicts appear to have been resolved and that there were no competing marches this year. The 2019 demographics were similar to those of past marches—multi-generational but predominantly white and middle class, with fewer pink pussy hats than I recall from previous marches.
Most of the attendees I spoke to were veterans of past marches and emphasized that participation in the annual march meant a great deal to them personally.
“I decided it was important to be present and I was happy I went,” West Mt. Airy resident Marilyn Monaco said. “I felt energized by the experience, and although it was vastly different from other marches in the number of participants, I still felt the experience was necessary.”
“It was wonderful to see women of all colors and ages come together to protest all the issues our country is facing,” said East Mt. Airy resident Nan Myers.
“It is so important not to give up and to keep showing up to events like this,” said Nancy Weissman of East Mt. Airy. “I am also impressed by how many folks from the Mt Airy and Chestnut Hill areas show up every year. Rain or snow, we are there in force.”
Pennsylvania NOW president Samantha Pierson also valued participation in the March, but noted attendance has significantly decreased since 2017.
“I think the drop in turnout is due to the fact that there has not been enough of a transformative social change or result. And that’s why, while I still show up to the march, I spend the majority of my free time volunteering to make certain more women and progressives get elected to office in PA.”
Although there is considerable disagreement about what the Women’s March has accomplished, most participants see the uptick in voter participation and record numbers of women running for office in 2018 and 2019 as evidence of its impact. Many signs emphasized the “March to the Polls” and were clearly focused on November 3, 2020.
Karen Bojar is an author and former Democratic committee person. She lives in Mt. Airy.