What we saw at this year’s Women’s Marches

January 24, 2019

Elizabeth Schulte rounds up reports from around the country after last weekend’s Women’s Marches — and looks at the challenges that lie ahead.

MASSES OF people turned out for Women’s Marches across the country last weekend, with some 100,000 gathering in Washington, D.C., and smaller marches taking place around the country.

The numbers weren’t as large as the turnouts for the first two Women’s Marches — the first history-making day of demonstrations fueled by anger at Donald Trump’s inauguration the day before and the following year’s by the #MeToo explosion — but they had many of the same characteristics.

In Los Angeles, an estimated 200,000 people demonstrated last weekend — less than a third of the size of the march in 2017, but undoubtedly an impressive show of resistance.

Peter Stasko, a fourth-grade teacher at Bertrand Avenue Elementary in Reseda, who has been walking the picket line all week with his fellow union members, was there. “The marching doesn’t end on the weekend,” Stasko told reporters.

IN THEIR aftermath, much of the mainstream media reported that the Women’s Marches were smaller due to charges of anti-Semitism against march organizers, particularly longtime activists Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour.

Protesters take to the streets of San Francisco for the 2019 Women's March
Protesters take to the streets of San Francisco for the 2019 Women's March (Lynn Friedman | flickr)

These accusations did have an impact, but the media did nothing to look deeper into the charges, despite their seriousness. If they had, they would have understood how seriously activists take the very real threat of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today — and they would have looked at the content of the accusations and the motivations of those making them, as well as the support that march organizers received from progressive Jewish activists.

As Jen Roesch argued in SW:

For the far right, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism are intertwined. Our opposition to the right must likewise stand in solidarity with all oppressed groups, not pit them against each other.

The bulk of the attacks on the Women’s Marches have been levied by those who would limit their politics and solidarity. The real issue of anti-Semitism is being cynically used to discredit leaders whose inclusive political message is threatening to more conservative elements in the movement.

Nonetheless, the slanders did have an impact. In New York City, there were two separate events on the same day — one called by Women’s March Inc. and one by Women’s March NYC — creating unnecessary confusion. People in other cities reported the same confusion, making it more difficult to organize.

Several major liberal organizations, including the National Organization for Women, Southern Poverty Law Center, Emily’s List and the Democratic National Committee, withdrew their support.

In many places, Democratic politicians took the podium, like newly declared 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, who celebrated the influx of women in the new Congress in an appearance in Iowa. Other Democrats stayed away, like DNC chair Tom Perez, who had spoken at the first Women’s March.

But other factors impacted the marches this year. In several places, organizing for the January marches was downplayed while resources were devoted to getting Democrats elected in the midterm elections.

In Chicago, no January march was called because organizers decided pre-emptively to devote resources to a “March to the Polls” in October 2018. Last weekend, supporters were invited to take part in “Operation Activation,” which asked people to “spearhead an action in their own community,” such as writing postcards to legislators or taking part in a neighborhood coat drive for the homeless.

Siphoning away resources from mobilizing our power in the street and putting them instead into campaigning for Democrats has been repeated throughout the history of struggle in the U.S. It’s all the more tragic now because of the amazing potential shown by past Women’s Marches for mobilizing tens of thousands of ordinary people who would like to be part of a resistance.

DESPITE ALL this, people in many cities turned out to protest on January 19 — or if there wasn’t a protest, they organized their own. That happened in Cincinnati, where 200 people showed up in the rain for a march organized by local socialist organizations when the official march was cancelled the week before.

“The official women’s march was cancelled, but we still feel like we needed to be here,” said Jessica Witczak, who marched in Cincinnati. “The cultural climate in our country right now is really unfortunate and disappointing, and that’s why we had to come. I feel like if we don’t do anything, we are complicit in what’s happening.”

In many ways, those who helped build the marches and attended them have bigger questions to ask.

What kind of organizing do we need to be a part of to build a sustained movement for gender justice from the bottom up that draws in new people to be part of that organizing? How can we amplify and learn from the past year’s struggles of women workers against sexual assault and harassment at places like McDonald’s and Google? Or those of women internationally, in support of abortion rights in Ireland and Argentina or against sexual abuse in India or the far right in Brazil?

In many cities, socialists, feminists and other activists came together for contingents and events with an eye toward knitting together the activists and networks we will need to confront the attacks that the Trump administration still has in store for us.

If the protests surrounding the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh has taught us anything, there is an angry opposition that can be mobilized — but it has to be better organized if we are going to win.

In New York City, a convergence on the day after the marches brought together about 120 individuals and members of organizations taking up a range of gender justice issues — fighting for reproductive rights, clinic defense, LGBTQ liberation, #MeToo, the demands of women of color, struggles of women internationally and more.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), International Women’s Strike, New York City for Abortion Rights, National Women’s Liberation and Socialist Alternative (SA) were among the groups who attended.

Creating more places where activists can discuss strategies for building a stronger gender justice movement can be a part of the answer to building lasting organization out of the desire to fight back that the Women’s Marches represent.

In Washington, D.C., some 100,000 turned out, despite a change in location due to lack of snow removal because of the federal shutdown.

Like marches in previous years, people came with their handmade signs, many of them celebrating the Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm elections. Others linked the fight against sexism with the struggle for workers’ rights, and for immigrant rights in particular.

“You can’t fight sexual assault if you’re not fighting against racism or poverty, or for immigrant rights,” said Shannon Wokojance, a Barberton, Ohio, City Council member.

The National Nurses United had a tight, loud contingent with chants like “Up with the workers, down with the bosses.”

Some marchers emphasized the necessity of intersectional, anti-racist feminism and inclusion of trans women in feminist struggle, calling for protesters to “Fight for your sisters, not just cisters.” Women’s March speakers also spoke about anti-racist feminism and the power of the people to effect change.

The D.C. branch of the ISO, along with Metro DSA and Socialist Alternative, organized a “Feminism for the 99 Percent” contingent, which called for an international, borderless struggle and led fellow marchers in chants such as “Tear all prisons down, justice for Cyntoia Brown!” and “Women’s rights are workers’ rights, #MeToo is a union fight!”

In San Francisco, where some 30,000 people turned out, speakers and organizations responded to the controversy around the national Women’s March Inc. by organizing contingents and taking up issues of women and others who experience gender oppression.

Idle No More SF Bay organized a contingent and coordinated speeches about missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The first speakers were Costanoan Ohlone and Chumash artist, poet, author and activist Kanyon Sayers-Roods, who opened the rally with a traditional Ohlone welcome; along with Aurora Mamea, a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana; activist Marge Grow-Eppard; and Annita Lucchesi, a Southern Cheyenne descendant researcher, activist and creator of the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Database.

Gilda Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parenthood NorCal told, told the crowd:

In 2016, I was shocked and mortified because I knew this was going to be a fight of all fights, and that we would be one of Trump’s first targets. The Women’s March in 2017 was a beacon of hope and strength. I am very grateful because you marched in 2017, 2018 and today...We will never stop performing abortions, period. We are clear in our commitment. Unity is an imperative. Together we are fierce and unstoppable.

The 100-person Feminism for the 99 Percent contingent organized by the San Francisco DSA chapter, the Bay Area ISO and La Voz de L@s Trabajadores/Workers’ Voice confronted San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s cruel program of removing the ever-present encampments of homeless people in the city by chanting “Homeless rights are women’s rights, stop the sweeps,” during the entirety of her speech.

The California Nurses Association showed up with dozens of members to push for Medicare for All. Since “the biggest representation of nurses are women,” said Jojie Aguilar, “we see the importance of what they are trying to fight for.” Union members representing SEIU 1021 and California Educators Rising also marched.

Bonnie McGregor has attended previous marches and spoke about the important next steps: “It seems to me that the TSA is the force that has the most power at this point. I’m not sure if they recognize it just yet, but if we can shut down aviation, then I think that something has to move.”

In Seattle, though turnout for the Womxn’s March was more modest in 2019 — 2017 was the largest protest in the city’s history at 100,000 protesters, while this year was 10,000 — the passion was nevertheless high.

The demonstration began with a rally at Cal Anderson Park led by Seattle Club Executive Director Colleen Echohawk Hayasha and Monserrat Padilla, a coordinator with the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. This was followed by a march to the International Fountain in Seattle Center.

A revolutionary feminist contingent that included ISO, Seattle Clinic Defense, Freedom Socialist Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation and others chanting “My body my choice” and “Abortion/Transition is health care! Health care is a right!” filled the streets throughout the demonstration.

In Boston, some 7,000 people turned out to Boston Common on Saturday, in an event organized by March Forward Massachusetts. Despite the bitter cold and the ongoing national controversy, as many marchers came out as last year’s event in Cambridge.

“I lived in D.C. for a couple years,” said Chrissy, a medical student at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. “A lot of my friends are furloughed right now and really struggling because of that. They’re trying to get free food everywhere, and that shouldn’t be what they have to do.”

A marcher named Emily said: “This is one little thing we can do as individuals to say we’re against everything that’s going on.”

Many marchers were looking for politics, organization and steps beyond this single march. UMass Worcester student Canary wanted to challenge the profit-driven health care model. Chrissy is involved in a campaign in Worcester for expanding sex education in schools.

“This is amazing and it’s very cathartic,” Emily said. “But I feel like I need a bit more of a cathartic release on a more consistent basis.”

“I think there’s a lot I can still educate myself on, a ton I can still learn,” Molly said, adding to Emily’s point. “It’d be nice to be around people who are helping to educate me, in helping to channel that into something that can affect people, particularly minorities and people who are being marginalized.”

Socialist, feminist and antiwar groups organized the “Feminism for the 99 Percent” contingent. At its height, some 300 people followed its banners into the Women’s March, as the contingent raised chants for trans rights, Black Lives Matter, immigrant solidarity and Palestine.

Like last year, the far right attempted to infiltrate the Women’s March. Roughly a dozen Trump supporters milled about the crowd, harassing participants but remaining generally disorganized. Another dozen members of the neo-Nazi group American Guard, clad in battle helmets, successfully entered the protest.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, about 4,000 people gathered in subzero temperatures for a protest organized by Women’s March Minnesota. But greater than the pride of being the hardiest of the sister marches was the pride of gains made in the “Women’s Wave” and the focus on an intersectional movement.

Some signs signaled broad anti-Trump sentiment, such as “It’s Mueller Time.” Others focused on the fight for reproductive justice, like the huge red banner that read “Abortion Rights on Demand.”

“Twin Cities Clinic Defense thought it was important to bring an unapologetically socialist feminist perspective to the Women’s March and to reassert the call for free abortion on demand without apology,” explained activist Mandy Medley. The banner was also strategically used early to block the sign of a lone right-winger near the front of the stage, rendering him invisible and drawing crowd cheers.

Protesters marched to the state Capitol building, where they heard speakers including high school students, activists, an immigration lawyer and Rep. Ilhan Omar. “When I first heard the term intersectional feminism, I immediately connected to it,” said Women’s March board member Jenessa Marquette. “I invested in it, I lived and breathed in it.”

Rene Ann Goodrich, an activist with the Native Lives Matter Coalition, focused on her work for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Kara Lynum, an immigration lawyer who went to Tijuana to represent asylum seekers, including the mother and children who were teargassed by border officials, spoke. So did Montha Chum, a leader in the campaign to save eight Cambodian immigrants from deportation.

Black trans woman and fierce LGBTQ+ activist CeCe McDonald highlighted the need for trans rights to be central to the fight for gender justice. Kelis Houston, founder of Village Arms and the NAACP-Minneapolis’ Child Protection Committee chair, and state NAACP Vice President Anika Bowie also spoke.

In New York City, activists used the Women’s March weekend to come together in protest on January 19, but also to discuss the next steps for the movement for gender justice at a convergence on January 20.

In part due to the controversy surrounding Women’s March organizers, forces were split between two separate demonstration. One of two rallies that day, the Women’s Unity Rally in Foley Square, turned out about 1,000 protesters, with speakers addressing a range of issues, with many of them making direct connections between women’s movements and labor movements.

Speakers included a representative from Jewish Voice for Peace, with other speakers taking up the importance of Black feminism and a sex worker speaking on how “sex work is work.”

Some attendees said they attended the march because the wanted to show their solidarity. “There are some forces that would divide the women’s movement,” Katherine Profeta told reporters, “and I’m much more interested in not even necessarily overcoming our differences, but just not walking away from each other, and understanding how we should join together to support the cause.”

The next day, 120 activists gathered at Verso Books for an Anti-Capitalist Feminist Convergence, which included individual activists as well as those representing various socialist, feminist and other activists who came together to talk about building networks of activists to build the resistance to Trump and the fight for gender justice.

Organizers included NYC for Abortion Rights, DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group, ISO NYC, Socialist Alternative, International Women’s Strike and National Women’s Liberation.

Speakers from DSA discussed the NY Health Act campaign for universal health care, as well as the Ain’t I A Woman campaign for justice for homecare workers, as well as reading groups and movie screenings. Others described the Feminist Rapid Response Network, which was formed in September to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination.

The ISO’s Lillian Cicerchia pointed out that as liberal organizations have failed to address systemic sexism and build a women’s movement, the left will need to take a greater lead. More democratic spaces, like the convergence that day, are a key part of that organizing.

After the speakers, organizers screened video about an October 6 clinic defense titled “This Church Harasses Women,” and then participants took a group solidarity photo for striking LA teachers.

In Denver, thousands came out to support women in the “Womxn’s March On Denver,” put together by a volunteer grassroots group, which is unaffiliated with the national Women’s March organization.

Speakers included Pasha Ripley, executive director of Red Light Resources International and Sex Workers Outreach Project Denver, as well as poet Mar Luther, who spoke about trans liberation, and Kaylan Heffernan, front woman for the band Wheelchair Sportscamp.

Marchers chanted “Free abortion on demand,” “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re feminists, don’t fuck with us!” and “Trans women are women” as well as calls for solidarity such as “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go!”

In Northampton, Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Women’s March drew over 1,000 to a march. Speakers addressed a broad range of concerns, from Indigenous struggles to the “Women’s Wave” in elections.

One speaker read a statement of solidarity with Eduardo Samaniego, a local immigrant activist currently incarcerated by ICE.

An anti-capitalist contingent of 30 people involved members of various socialist and left groups, being comprised of ISO, DSA, Party for Liberation and Socialism, Green Rainbow Party, UMass Students United Against Fascism and others.

In Columbus, Ohio, 700 people—prominently led by women of color—marched from the Washington Gladden Social Justice Park to the Ohio Statehouse.

Rev. Susan Smith of the Ohio Poor People’s Campaign reminded us of the immense power of ordinary people by drawing on the revolutionary work of Liberian women to end a civil war in 2003. Zerqa Abid of MyProjectUSA asked the crowd to organize for women’s rights, empower women, and protect women leaders against sexist attacks.

Amanda Ponomorenko of Socialist Alternative connected the fight for women’s liberation with workplace struggle, pointing to the Los Angeles teachers’ strike, the Marriott workers’ walkouts and the #MeToo strikes at McDonald’s and Google last year.
Democratic politicians were also prominent.

Newly elected State Rep. Erica C. Crawley and State Sen. Tina Maharath spoke of their struggles as women of color. Many speakers gave shout-outs to newly elected congresswomen such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, in a fiery speech, drew on the legacy of the civil rights movement and celebrated the increase in women representatives in Ohio and in Washington, D.C. But Beatty has a record of repeatedly taking positions against building solidarity. For instance, while she stood up against the Muslim ban at the Columbus airport occupation, Beatty has repeatedly joined Ohio Republicans in condemning Palestine solidarity efforts at Ohio State.

The 3rd Ohio Women’s March gave us a glimpse of how we can build a genuine, intersectional movement, and the challenges we will have to face.

In Madison, Wisconsin, 700 people rallied on the Capitol building steps despite subzero temperatures, with speakers emphasizing protest and linking our struggles such as segregation in Wisconsin, the poisoned water supply of Flint, Michigan, and the crisis of femicide of Indigenous women.

A socialist feminist contingent of 70 gathered for speeches before marching to the Capitol rally behind Madison Abortion Defense’s “We (heart) Abortion.”

In Portland, Oregon, where official Women’s March organizers didn’t call a demonstration, some 150 people gathered for a #MeToo Speak-out and Women’s March put on by socialist feminists from the ISO, DSA, SA and unaffiliated socialist feminists.

Moderators began the event by acknowledging the stolen land of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Cowlitz bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya and Molalla peoples, and invited participants to come forward to speak.

Survivors spoke about their experiences with sexual violence, supporting other victims, why we use words like victims/survivors interchangeably since some of us don’t feel we are yet surviving, and how joining a movement against sexual violence has empowered them.

Chants like “Our stories are true. We say #MeToo,” and “Tear every prison down, justice for Cyntoia Brown” were popular during the march, which met up with the Cascade Abortion Support Network’s action to counter so called “pro-life” activists who planned to rally in Pioneer Courthouse Square.

In Cincinnati, where the official Women’s March was cancelled the week before, more than 200 people turned out for a march organized around “Feminism for the 99 Percent” and co-hosted by three local socialist groups: SA, DSA and the ISO.

“Women, workers, all those oppressed must stand up and say that the feminism we’re fighting for, the emancipation we’re fighting for, the world we’re fighting for is not one where we seek to simply ‘lean in’ and win individual duels against rampant workplace prejudices that affect us all,” the DSA’s Christine Uebel Niemeier told the crowd. “Socialist Feminism is the future.”

“The people at the top intentionally try to degrade and divide us along racial, gendered, religious and other lines because they know the real force and power we have when we stand together in solidarity,” said the ISO’s Ashley Theissen. “We need to understand this divide-and-conquer strategy, and build robust, democratic movements based on solidarity to fight back against their violence, hate and exploitation.”

The three organizations are co-hosting a socialist feminist town hall titled “Building a Fighting Women’s Movement“ on January 23 to start this process locally and to take on local battles such as anti-abortion legislation in Ohio and Kentucky.

In Asheville, North Carolina, several hundred people took to the snowy, windy streets for the city’s third annual Women’s March. A small brass band joined the throng, and its musicians and followers sang, “No we ain’t gonna stand for this,” to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

About 30 marchers joined a socialist contingent made up of the Asheville and Greensboro ISO, as well as members from NC Greens, PSL, Surj and some folks new to radical politics.

Ethan Ackelsberg, Rachel C., Gabe Cember, Melissa Cornelius, Jonathan Cunningham, Brandyn Friedly, Eli Kane, Sandra Goldstein Lehnert, Ernest Reed, Thomas Scheevel, Joel Sronce, Ashley Theissen and Camille White-Avian contributed to this article.

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