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One Year Later: The Women’s March Moves From Outrage To Action

Last year’s Women’s March was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. This weekend as thousands take to the streets again, we look at how the movement has grown, splintered, and struggled to find its mission.

One Year Later: The Women’s March Moves From Outrage To Action
[Photo: Jerry Kiesewetter /Unsplash]

Last January, I along with millions of other women (and men) travlled  to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March, a wide-reaching general protest against the newly inaugurated president and his often misogynistic rhetoric. I shared a car with a photographer that I knew only through an acquaintance and three women she had recruited for the trip. The spirit in the car was electric as we navigated through a glut of trucks and cabs and hit the open road of the New Jersey Turnpike. We weren’t even in Washington yet, but there was something already stirring in the air. Four hours of traffic later our spark had burst to flames. Although we had been drawn together for a common cause, it seemed we were not all in agreement on how to peacefully share a car on our way to the revolution. The driver got lost, one smoker offended a car full of non-smokers by repeatedly lighting up, and we all needed to be dropped at different destinations. Rather than projecting outward, our mood of defiance had turned in on us.

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On the surface the Women’s March as a movement seems to have spent the last year in a similar predicament, trying to unify millions of people with a wide range of agendas. Still the movement carries on; it is scheduled to hold events across the country this weekend. On January 20, the Women’s March is hosting an event in Las Vegas to kick off a year of women-led activism aimed at getting people to register and vote. At the same time, thousands of marches both officially affiliated with the Women’s March and independent, will be taking place globally. But the mood has been slightly soured by a feeling among some participants that the organization that created the Washington march isn’t really representing all the women the gave the movement its heft.  

After its inaugural march, the Women’s March set out to accomplish 10 actions in the first 100 days of the new administration. These ranged from taking the day off of work on International Women’s Day to attending a vigil in honor of people who have died amid Syria’s conflict. The organization also hosted a Women’s Convention in October 2017 that drew some 4,000 women, and organizers have a book coming out about how the march came together.


Related: What Will It Take For The Women’s March To Become A Movement?


“This year we spent a lot time in the field organizing our women, training our women,” Bob Bland, co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March told me.  Because so many women at the march were new to activism, she says the Women’s March needed to provide instruction on how to both participate and organize locally. To assist local efforts, the organization launched a digital tool kit to help women organize chapters, help get the word out about voting through Rock the Vote, and consider a run for office themselves.   


Related:  How The Women’s March Could Become A Political Movement For The Left


But not all women felt represented by the kind of actions the Women’s March put forth, which Bland says were intended to be broad in scope to support an intersectional agenda. A report from the New York Times illustrated discontent from several grassroots organizations about their ability to affiliate with or use the logo of the Women’s March. Others felt the range of issues supported by the Women’s March didn’t resonate with women living in the middle of the country. 

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March On, which appears to have grown directly out of the Women’s March [it is cofounded by the Women’s March former head of operations, Vanessa Wruble, and its legal director, Ting Ting Cheng, used to serve as legal director for the Women’s March] is aimed exclusively at getting liberal candidates elected in red states. The board includes women from New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Canada, California, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

“This is in every single movement and it gets edited out of the histories,” David Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine, says of the infighting, adding, “The fiercest fights are with your friends, not with your enemies.” He thinks the overall impact of these sort of internal battles will in the long run be small and go unnoticed by the wider movement. Part of that is thanks to the array of issues that have been taken up by the Women’s March.

“What I said to you last year is, eventually one thing will come to dominate and command the most attention of activists in mass media,” says Meyer. “Either I was wrong or it hasn’t happened yet.” Typically, he says, movements and campaigns are fought on single issues that can be hammered into the ground. By contrast, the Women’s Movement has taken a varied approach through supporting a rainbow of issues and organizations.  

There was early-on criticism that the Women’s March was taking on too much, by not focusing on a singular issue. At the end of last year’s march there didn’t seem to be a clear conclusion. The crowd at the main event in D.C. stretched and pulled and broke apart, taking streams of people up random streets and corridors as the performances and speeches as planned by the Women’s March droned on in the background. What happened in the year since, is that many of those people took that energy and went back to their hometowns and spread it into local actions.

“Thousands of grassroots organizations that are not associated with the Women’s March, our central national organization… have all been actively doing work in the field throughout the year,”  says Bland.  “We need more of this. It’s not limited to one organization,” she says. Some 26,000 American women have signed up to run for office since the election in 2016, according to Emily’s List. And plenty of other people have started donating money, volunteering, and joining or starting locally targeted organizations.

The fervor of activism that’s taken hold this year is likely a result of frustration with Trump and the direction the country is heading. What the Women’s March has been able to do, by virtue of its large platform and its hundreds of official partners, is  to channel eager activists into the nonprofits and actions they’re most passionate about. 

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[Photo: Mobilus In Mobili/Wikimedia Commons]

A Year After Marching

Alison Zaccone already worked for a nonprofit when she attended the Women’s March in New York City last year. She’s the communications director for Bottomless Closet, a group that helps disadvantaged women prepare for and find work while also dressing for the job. But after marching last January she wanted to do more. She started donating money to Planned Parenthood and following the organizers of the Women’s March for other actions. She says she’ll definitely be attending the memorial march this year. Zaccone believes the array of issues the Women’s March stands for—those centered on environmental stewardship and rights for women of color and LGBTQ communities, for example—is important, because it can help energize smaller groups that are already working on those issues, which may in turn inspire others connected under the Women’s March umbrella. For instance, she’s noticed an uptick in support for her organization.


Related: The Women’s March And The Art Of Creative Resistance


“We’ve seen increased desire to help women’s groups,” she says. “We’ve had groups reaching out to us saying they want to donate clothes to us or they want to hold events for us or they want to hold fundraisers for us, and I don’t know that that would necessarily be happening without this administration being in place.” 

It’s not just women’s organizations that are seeing a bump from the rush of newly energized Americans seeking to make change. 

Bryn Behrenshaunsen, a North Carolina resident, came out to the Women’s March in D.C. last year to support his wife, sister, and friends, but also as a response to what he describes as a visceral reaction to the election of Donald Trump. He says, January 21, 2017 is among the top five days of his life. “It was a really incredible experience,” he says. He’ll be marching again this year, but with a different set of issues in mind.  Rather than trek to D.C. he’ll be marching in Raleigh. “It’s a local group called Neighbors On Call and it’s focused on the state issues,” he says. Gerrymandering is a big problem in North Carolina and he wants to join the fight to change the way districts are drawn in favor of Republican candidates.

He acknowledges that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. But he sees the Women’s March as a conduit for helping people invigorated by the march to find their cause. “What was great was that not only did we have this march, but there were organizations like Emily’s List, that was organizing women that want to run for office and taking their energy and saying okay all these people are here, we have all these issues that we care about. What do you care about? Let’s focus on getting you narrowed in this issue or these couple issues,” he says. Emily’s List is an official Women’s March partner. 

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Last year, approximately five million people worldwide marched to protest the ideas of the new president. In the year since Trump took office a spectrum of rights have come under attack like healthcare for some of the most vulnerable citizens, legal status for immigrants protected under DACA, and the ability to serve in the military for transgender citizens. Usually, says Meyer, administrations focus on one or two issues. Former President Barack Obama focused on fixing the economy, healthcare, and the environment. Former President George Bush supported tax cuts and anti-terrorism measures. Former President Bill Clinton focused on jobs and housing. The Trump administration appears to be both fixated on repealing Obama-era rules, raising taxes, revising international agreements of all kinds, while also attempting to put up a giant border wall with Mexico, and blocking visitors from most Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S. “You see the administration battling on so many different fronts at once, ” he says. “Paradoxically that makes it hard for the rest of us to focus.”


Related: The Science And Politics Of Counting The Crowds At The Inauguration And Women’s March


Where the White House’s chaotic operations becomes problematic for resistors is when Trump himself, his questionable statements, and the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s relationship to Russia, dominate the news more than his policy, says Meyer. But the range of issues—from reproductive rights to immigration to LGBTQ rights to healthcare and more— is partially what may make the Women’s March successful in responding to a cascade of legislative orders from the White House. It’s also what allows it to have an audience abroad.  

In London, Jennifer Ross, will be marching this Saturday in protest against sexual harassment via a Time’s Up rally. “Everything that’s happening in Hollywood is very relevant here,” says Ross, “All my friends have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted and we’re making less money because we’re women.” While, they don’t have a Harvey Weinstein-like figure to latch onto, the movement there has used the Me Too movement and Time’s Up to draw attention to British politicians and the gender pay gap.

This year’s protest comes amid a flurry of other issues for the U.K. including immigration, terrorism, and public health and safety, which will likely bring out others seeking to voice their dissatisfaction. 

Whether or not this year’s Women’s March lures as many attendees as last year is not as relevant as how many people they can convince to be consistently active throughout the year. There appears to be enough energy to sustain the movement, according to Meyer.

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“My congressional district is represented by a conservative Republican. It’s been represented by a conservative Republican in the 18 years I’ve been here and there’s never been a close race,” he explains.  “Last spring, activists were trying to organize town hall meetings and call-in campaigns on issue after issue and usually it’s hard to get a Democrat to run for the seat.”

“This time there’s half a dozen Democrats  running,” he says. “This is one thing that’s happening in places all over the country.”

While the Women’s March and March On and more localized organizations that have budded off the initial march may have different approaches on how to coalesce the massive interest in correcting the course the country is running along, they will all be united in amassing people at the polls in November. It’s the urgency of the common foe, Trump and the Republican Party, that serves to unify them, says Meyer. Activists may have their differences, but the emerging trend outside of the disagreements over who gets to own the Women’s March, an event that formed out of a few Facebook posts yearning for a modest rebuff to Trump’s election, is that organizations are increasingly working together if not supporting each other with the understanding that networking issues together under an intersectional umbrella may give them a stronger position than fighting for relevance on their own.

When I think back to last year’s march, that terrible car ride is not the thing that sits foremost in my mind. It’s the feeling of seeing so many women squished onto Independence Ave, their various causes plastered on cardboard, causing a disturbance because they didn’t want to listen to speeches or sway to the music of Madonna or Maxwell, they wanted to march –they wanted to do something.

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of real estate, technology, and the future of work.

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