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Women First Marched to Challenge Trump. Now They Are Challenging Each Other

7 minute read

When millions of protesters flooded the streets of Washington, D.C.; New York; Los Angeles; and dozens of other American cities as part of the Women’s March in January 2017, and again in January 2018, the organization became a powerful symbol of mass, unified opposition to the new Trump Administration.

But on the third anniversary of the Women’s March on Jan. 19, the group has come to represent something else entirely: the fractious and often discordant relationship among those who oppose President Trump.

“There have been broad progressive coalitions on the left before whose main goal was to get as many people out in the streets as possible,” says Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin. “But all the ones I know about were focused on a single issue. There was thus a basis for unity which may not exist in the Women’s March.”

Women’s March, Inc., the umbrella organization that formed after Trump’s election in 2016, has faced increased scrutiny in past months, after its leaders failed to adequately address allegations of anti-Semitism and racism among their ranks. Top sponsors, including the Democratic National Committee and the National Organization for Women, have vanished from the group’s online list of benefactors, and dozens of women have announced on the group’s Facebook page that they will no longer attend the third annual Women’s March on Saturday.

A group in Humboldt County, California, canceled their planned march over concerns participants would be “overwhelmingly white,” and the main Women’s March, which was originally scheduled to return to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, will now take place at a smaller venue.

The backlash to the Women’s March began over a year ago after Tamika Mallory, the organization’s co-president, posted an Instagram photo of herself and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, taken at an event he had hosted. In the photo’s caption, Mallory described Farrakhan as “the GOAT,” meaning the “greatest of all time.” In the past, Farrakhan has compared Jewish people to termites and described them as “satanic.” In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated Farrakhan’s organization as a hate group.

The Women’s March responded to criticism over Mallory’s association to it in an online statement, saying, “[w]e do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.” But Mallory herself repeatedly defended her relationship to Farrakhan, saying she has long attended events hosted by the Nation of Islam and crediting the organization for helping her overcome personal tragedy. This month, Mallory again stopped short of condemning Farrakhan during an appearance on “The View.”

“I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric. I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities,” she said on Jan. 14.

Linda Sarsour, a prominent board member of Women’s March, Inc., has also refused to condemn Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. “People are asking us to take responsibility for commentary made by someone else, and in particular a man, which is actually quite antithetical to feminism,” she told NPR on Jan. 17. “We have our own agency; we should be judged by our own work.”

Teresa Shook, one of the original founders of the Women’s March, formally broke with the organization in November 2018 and called for its leadership to resign. “Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez of Women’s March, Inc. have steered the Movement away from its true course,” she wrote in Facebook post. “I have waited, hoping they would right the ship. But they have not. In opposition to our Unity Principles, they have allowed anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.”

The unraveling of Women’s March, Inc. is partly the result of its individual leaders’ decisions and public comments. But it’s also indicative, experts say, of a broader dysfunction that often affects generalized, fast-growing social justice movements. In organizations with a myriad of loosely defined goals, such as the Women’s March, leaders will emerge with conflicting visions and priorities.

“If you think about the history of the women’s movement in this country, it’s full of divisions,” says Jo Reger, a sociology professor who researches social movements and gender at Oakland University. “Sometimes [fractures] allow movements to develop more organizations. They allow people to find the groups that have the beliefs, the strategies, and the ideologies they’re most comfortable with.” But sometimes, she warns, the divisions rob the larger movement of its momentum.

Janni Aragon, an expert in feminism and current adjunct professor at University of Victoria, says that even an organization theoretically unified by support for women’s equality is not immune to discord. “Feminism is really like Baskin-Robbins,” she says. “There’s 31-plus different flavors.”

The failure of Women’s March, Inc.’s leadership is tied in part to its leaders’ inability to negotiate tensions over U.S. policy toward Israel, an issue that has long roiled left-leaning social justice organizations. Sarsour, who has been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, failed to distance her own views from those held by people like Farrakhan, who have been overtly anti-Semitic.

Vanessa Wruble, a social justice activist and early organizer at Women’s March, Inc., told TIME she was driven out of the organization and believes her Jewish identity was a factor. Women’s March, Inc. failed to respond to multiple requests this week for comment regarding Wruble’s allegation.

“Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members,” the group said in a November statement. “We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused, but we see you, we love you, and we are fighting with you.”

The Women’s March eventual disjuncture can be traced largely to its broad-based, grassroots origins, experts on social movements said. Shook, a Hawaiian grandmother, first floated the idea of a large protest march in Washington, D.C., in a Facebook group after the results of the 2016 election began trickling in. When she woke up the next day, the event page she created almost on a whim had amassed thousands of RSVPs. The Women’s March, in other words, was born of collective concern over the new administration, rather than a coherent set of legislative or policy goals.

Thousands of miles from Washington, Shook enlisted the help of women that had reached out to her, who subsequently enlisted the help of more women. Eventually, Shook took a backseat role, as other leaders came on board. Mallory and Carmen Perez were brought on after Wruble raised concerns that women of color were underrepresented.

The Women’s March, which was intended to express unity and inclusion, has now spawned dozens of other disparate groups, both local and national.

Reger, the Oakland sociologist, says discord within an enormous organization like Women’s March, Inc., can prove positive in the long run. “Sometimes the ways we begin to change these things is when we begin to talk about them,” she says, “and to examine the world around us to see: What have I been allowing? What have I not noticed? What have I been accepting? What has my privilege blinded me to? And how can I begin to address it?”

March On, a national umbrella organization that spun off of the original Women’s March movement and is not associated with Women’s March, Inc., will host dozens of events this month. Last year, nearly 2.7 million people joined March On protests across the country.

The original Women’s March organization may be unraveling, but at least this year, activists say, the spirit that first gave rise to it will go marching on.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com