Who Owns the Women’s March?
Two years after 4 million people took to the streets, the movement is grappling with power struggles.
In its first, record-shattering year, the Women’s March brought together nearly 4 million people in a simultaneous primal scream against the new president. But two years later, the unity has frayed like a well-worn pussy hat, with power struggles playing out in the run-up to marches that will be held across the country on Saturday, Jan. 19.
The original Washington, D.C., march organizers, who now operate as the nonprofit Women’s March Inc., have applied for a trademark of the name “Women’s March,” angering local organizers who fear they will have to pay to use it. At the same time, some of the local “sister marchers” are distancing themselves from the national leadership, who have been hit by accusations of anti-Semitism.
Groups that organized marches in 2017 and 2018 but decided not to participate this year have seen upstart organizations step into the void. And at least two cities this year will have two dueling women’s marches: one organized by a national Women’s March chapter, and one by the local groups who have hosted the event in years past.
The result: In the midst of all the excitement about this year’s anniversary, there is also confusion, frustration, and in some cases, anger.
“I think it’s sad for the movement when we’re all trying to unify and we can’t even come together for a march,” said Emiliana Guereca, an organizer of the Los Angeles Women’s March. “At this point it just feels like people are saying this is a national organization, but it’s not.”
It is a stunning turnaround for an event that, at its outset, was the single most attended protest in U.S. history. The original march started as a Facebook event created by retired attorney Teresa Shook, who suggested a show of numbers in Washington the day after Donald Trump’s election. A similar idea was posed by New York designer Bob Bland, and the two joined forces—with the addition of activists Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez—to plan what became the Women’s March on Washington.
At the same time, hundreds of local activists from Anchorage to Auckland were inspired to host their own rallies on the same day. Some reached out to the Washington team for support and inspiration; others planned independently. While somewhat hasty and scattered, the result of the efforts was an undeniable groundswell: Nearly 470,000 people flooded the National Mall on Jan. 21, 2017, joined by millions of others marching in concert around the world—solidifying the Women’s March as a powerful force in American politics.
In the years since, organizers of the Washington march have moved to expand their reach, hosting conferences, creating streamlined branding material, and officially recognizing affiliate chapters around the country. They’ve also staged demonstrations throughout the year, like the protest against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which drew hundreds to the capitol in October.
But the effort has been undermined by allegations that some of the national leaders have made anti-Semitic remarks or refused to condemn Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan. The San Diego Women’s March now states on its website that it “never had a formal relationship with the Women’s March, Inc. chapter,” and Women’s March Florida issued a statement noting the national group is “a separate legal entity.” New Orleans organizers scrapped their event entirely, in part because of the controversy.
Other disputes have played out hyper-locally. Some regional organizers have faced accusations they are not inclusive of groups including black women, disabled women, and members of the LGBTQ community. In Eureka, California, organizers announced they are turning over control of future marches to activists of color because their current leadership is “overwhelmingly white.”
In several cities, the conflicts pose questions that have yet to be answered: Who really owns the Women’s March—and should anyone?
In the City of Brotherly Love, there are two women’s marches to choose from this year.
An independent group called Philly Women Rally has drawn thousands of people to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for women’s marches over the last two years. But it’s also been rocked by internal drama, with board members accusing founder Emily Cooper Morse of making racist and transphobic comments and stealing $19,000 from the group’s bank account—charges she has denied.
The board voted to oust Cooper Morse late last year, and shuffled its makeup to include a Latina trans woman and two other women of color. But when the group went to plan its third march, the board learned that another group had already secured a permit for the same day, board member Salima Suswell told The Daily Beast.
The new applicant was Shawna Knipper, executive director of Women’s March Pennsylvania, which is affiliated with the national organization. Knipper, who does not live in Philadelphia, said she knew a local group usually put on a women’s march in Philadelphia that day because her chapter has helped women get there to attend in the past.
But Knipper said she felt called to host her own march this year because of the other group’s turmoil and a desire to highlight the work her chapter does year-round. As she put it: “When we talk about what the Women’s March is doing, there’s no other organization that can speak to it better than we can.” (Women’s March Inc. said they encourage chapters to collaborate with local activists but leave the final decision on staging a march to chapter leaders.)
But why did a statewide group choose Philly for its march? Knipper, who said she communicated her plans to Cooper Morse before the ouster, cited the “hundreds and hundreds” of advocacy groups in the city that her chapter wanted to engage with. And she repeatedly denied that hosting two concurrent rallies would be divisive.
“Really,” she said, “it’s the more the merrier.”
Both groups insist there is no animosity. Knipper praised the new board of Philly Women Rally as “wonderfully diverse,” and Suswell said the organizations have a “great relationship.” But there appears to be some confusion in the broader community.
“Why are there two separate march departure locations?” one woman wrote on Facebook. “Why can’t we join forces and consolidate?”
“This disagreement is soooo... overblown,” another added. “We need to work together or the effectiveness of the ‘wave’ is fruitless!”
The situation is less amicable in New York, where news of two simultaneous marches has sparked headlines like “Competing women’s march efforts in New York City undercut by infighting.”
The controversy stems from a disagreement between former Goldman Sachs project manager Katherine Siemionko, who helped host the previous two marches in New York, and members of the national organization.
According to Siemionko, the New York march started like many around the country: She reached out to Washington organizers about her plans and was connected to other activists in her area.
But emails show that relations turned sour even before the 2017 event, as Siemionko clashed with the national leadership over how much control they would have. Afterward, Siemionko announced she would be starting her own non-profit, Women’s March Alliance, and invited the national leadership to discuss the plan. She said they did not respond.
Last year, as it expanded, the national organization recognized its first official New York City chapter, led by activist and film producer Agunda Okeyo. The chapter began hosting events and in September announced plans for a 2019 Women’s March anniversary rally.
Incensed, Siemionko informed Women’s March Inc. that she possessed the only march permit in New York City for that date. The two groups eventually set up a phone call to discuss collaborating, but Siemionko said it only made matters worse. Linda Sarsour, she said, was “threatening” and demanded a place on the Women’s March Alliance board.
The national organization denies Sarsour was threatening on the phone. In a statement, it said repeated attempts to work with Siemionko failed because there “wasn’t alignment on including leaders representative and reflective of the full population of New York City.”
In the end, New York, like Philly, was left with two events on the same day.
Okeyo said she is aware of the tumult this has caused, but felt she had a mandate to host the event on the same day as the almost 40 other sister chapters.
“There’s only one chapter of Women’s March [Inc.] in New York,” she said. “We’re here to say women have done a great job in the past two years and this is a moment of celebration and uplift. It’s not a moment of conflict… It really should be a moment of positivity.”
Siemionko was upset that Okeyo’s group hadn’t made alternative plans.
“It’s just like, ‘What the heck?’” Siemionko said. “These are clearly women who don’t support women’s rights. You don’t walk into somebody else’s town and say, ‘I don’t support you, I’m going to compete against you.’”
In Georgia, the local Women’s March Inc. chapter decided for the second year not to have a rally, saying they did not want to overshadow the Martin Luther King Jr. march happening days later.
So it came as a surprise when a page popped up on Facebook for a Jan. 19 event dubbed the Women’s March in Atlanta, headlined by Rep. Lucy McBath. The gathering was the work of Gloria Moore, a local activist who was troubled by the lack of a march last year. This year, she decided to join forces with Siemionko’s organization to put one on in Atlanta.
More than 1,000 people have marked themselves as interested or attending on Facebook, but Moore feels members of the national Women’s March chapter, known as the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice (GASJ), are undermining it. At a recent meeting with black leaders at Spelman College, Moore said, she stood up to correct an alliance member who told the audience that there was no march planned in the city.
“They want to own the movement,” Moore told The Daily Beast. “It’s like going to the copyright office saying, ‘We want to copyright the Women's March.’ How ridiculous! That doesn’t belong to them.”
Janel Green, executive director of GASJ, denied ever discouraging Moore from holding her own event or intimidating others from attending. Of the new organizers, she said, “I think if that’s how they want to express themselves on the day then that’s what they want to do. To each their own.”
In the small, beachfront town of Eureka, California, the debate over who controls the women’s march is not being waged between national and local leaders, but on lines of identity. And it’s being fought by two groups of mostly older white women.
In December, organizers of the last two Eureka women’s marches decided to postpone their 2019 event, offering the headline-grabbing explanation that the leadership committee was “overwhelmingly white.”
Beth Ann Wylie, one of the organizers, told The Daily Beast that the leadership—an assortment of volunteers cobbled together through Facebook groups and email threads—realized this year that they were sorely lacking in women of color, native women, and members of the LGBTQ community. They decided to put things on hold until they could rectify that.
“It did not feel authentic to move forward and hold a march without those voices being present to tell us what kind of event would help to bring awareness to their struggles,” Wylie said. “How is it our decision to make? It's not our decision to decide what that event looks like.”
While the decision was praised by tribal leaders and the local NAACP chapter, the backlash was swift. Conservative outlets mocked the decision as an example of political correctness run amok, and local women protested on the Eureka Women’s March Facebook page.
Within days, another Facebook page sprang up to advertise a different 2019 Women’s March in Eureka. About 1,000 people have marked themselves interested or attending, and many have posted their excitement about getting a second chance take to the streets.
But the new march has sparked a backlash of its own, with a number of activists labeling it the “white women’s march.” Tia Oros Peters, executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, urged a boycott, writing that “there has to be more than a sea of smiling pink hats with pats on their own backs for an annual walk around Old Town, while silencing, marginalizing, and ignoring real issues of justice and ongoing colonization.”
The replacement march was launched by Kathy Srabian, a retired psychic who said she usually eschews the limelight. (“My title is ‘Who? I never heard of her,’” she joked in an interview.) Srabian said she decided to host on a whim in a Costco parking lot, while discussing the situation with another woman on the phone.
“What’s important is that we’re holding the space,” she said. “We’re holding a third annual women’s march, so there can be a fourth annual women’s march.”
Srabian, who is white, said she worries that in all of the debate around diversity, the issue of basic women’s rights will be lost. She pointed to the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border, saying it reminded her of the women she knew who had been torn from their children during the Holocaust.
“We’re headed that way,” she said. “They’re separating families at the border. That’s what’s happening, and we’re talking about what color hat to wear? Give me a fucking break.”
Wylie, speaking for the original Eureka march organizers, said Srabian’s event had completely missed the point. She said it wasn’t enough simply to invite diverse groups to attend the event; they should be involved in the planning, too.
The original organizers will be staying away on Saturday and working on plans to host their own, more inclusive event in March, Wylie said.
“Everybody has the right to get out and march,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that the original organizers of the march need to support them.”
The headlines around the various Women’s March power struggles seem to suggest that the movement is destined to become a footnote in history. Yet the past shows that these battles for control are not new—or necessarily fatal—obstacles to the struggle for women’s rights.
In the late 19th century, suffragettes engaged in heated debates over whether to support black Americans’ right to vote. In the 1970s, the women’s movement fractured over whether to embrace free love and pornography. As recently as 2012, a conference on how the women’s movement would function in a digital age was widely derided for ignoring the needs of women of color.
And dissension isn’t even new to the Women’s March. After the first event, a number of local chapters assumed the name “Womxn March,” to reflect the concerns of trans women. Last year, debate raged over whether March On, a nonprofit started by former Women’s March Inc. co-founder Vanessa Wruble, was trying to steal the organization’s thunder.
Despite the disagreements, more than a million people turned out nationally to the second anniversary in 2018.
Wruble, reflecting on the unrest, suggested the divisions could actually help the movement by offering women more ways to get involved.
“People thought it was one group doing everything [in 2017] when in fact it was 600 marches led by 600 plus women who were working in concert with one another, but who had never had any contact and didn’t know each other,” she said.
“I think that’s important for people to understand, so if they don’t identify with the principles of one group, it has no effect on the overall movement.”
Jackie Kucinich contributed reporting