On Saturday, January 21, 2017, activist Carmen Perez will turn 40; Donald Trump will wake up for the first time as president of the United States; and hundreds of thousands of women—led by Perez, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland—will participate in the Women’s March on Washington, which is poised to be one of the largest and farthest-reaching demonstrations in support of a wide swath of social justice interests and organizations in the history of the nation’s capital.
Just two months after Donald Trump edged out Hillary Clinton to win the presidential election, the march’s inception now has the patina of myth. Teresa Shook, a retired grandmother living in Hawaii, created a Facebook event for a march in Washington, D.C. shortly after the election was called in favor of Trump. She invited around 40 friends, went to bed, and awoke the next morning to a viral success: More than 10,000 users had clicked “attending.” At the same time, on the opposite side of the country, fashion entrepreneur Bob Bland posted her own event, mobilizing the following she had cultivated after her own viral success: The “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombre” t-shirts she produced raised $20,000 in support of Planned Parenthood in three days. Within a day, they had joined forces; on the advice of Vanessa Wruble, editor of OkayAfrica and head of campaign operations for the Women’s March, that it not be organized by white women alone, Bland connected with Perez and Mallory. Sarsour, who had previously worked with them, soon followed. (Shook, who declined to take a central role in leading the march, will meet Bland for the first time in person this weekend in Washington, D.C.)
Trump’s victory also revealed deep fissures in the American social and political landscape that prompted many people who had no previous experience in activism to seek an outlet for their fear and anger. While three of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March are professional activists and organizers—Sarsour is the executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, Perez is the head of The Gathering for Justice, and Mallory is an experienced gun-control advocate and civil rights activist who previously helmed the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network—many of the women participating are not. Prior to that fateful Facebook post, Bland had participated in Get Out the Vote efforts across Brooklyn in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and growing up just outside Washington, D.C., she recalled occasionally protesting and canvassing alongside her mother, a volunteer for local Democratic candidates, but she didn’t consider herself an activist.
“Heck, I didn’t even consider myself a feminist,” she told me. “And it wasn’t because I’m not a feminist — I just didn’t really know what it meant.” (Now, she’s very much a feminist, and very much an activist: “I think I’ve at least earned that title out of this,” she said.)
While many of the organizers have been working 16, 18, 20-hour days, juggling the march with their full-time jobs and other responsibilities, they agreed on this: The fervor of organizing the march, its breakneck pace, has served as a welcome antidote to the fear, anger, and malaise that have permeated the weeks since the Trump victory. “There’s nothing more healing than a group of powerful women coming together and planning some radical stuff,” said Sarah Sophie Flicker, an activist and artist, creative director of Art Not War, and a member of the Women’s March national organizing committee.
Sarsour echoed her sentiments. “I don’t really have time to do it, but you know what? I’m so angry at the things that are around me that I’m going to take that anger and translate it into some productive work, which is what I’m doing now for this march,” she said.
The Women’s March on Washington is unprecedented in scale — in sheer volume of attendees, in the array of issues it encompasses, and in the diversity at all levels of leadership, from the national to the local level. The national committee comprises 50 women with overlapping responsibilities, from fundraising to logistics to communications and arranging partnerships. This diffuse, decentralized structure ensures marchers aren’t just answering to one leader, Mallory explained — and as a result, the movement will outlast any particular demonstration. Community organizers across the country have helped coordinate transportation and logistics for their constituents aiming to get to Washington, D.C. Solidarity marches have also sprung up in cities including San Francisco, New York, Park City, Raleigh, Shreveport, Albuquerque, Paris, Accra, Warsaw — at the time this article was published, there were an estimated 616 sister marches around the world.
“It’s given a lot of the people involved in it a new outlook on what female leadership is supposed to look like,” said ShiShi Rose, a writer and activist who operates social media — especially Instagram — for the Women’s March.
And it’s not just optics — diverse members of different races, ethnicities, gender identities, levels of experience, ages, regions, all serve to ensure that the needs and desires of those communities are represented in the march’s principles. Not only that — intersectional feminism requires addressing this tangled web, acknowledging that each of these factors are contingent and codependent.
“What we have been doing is ensuring that the voices of women across this country, women of color, that their voices are heard and that we are the mouthpiece to be able to speak on their behalf, and to ensure that this movement looks like what it means to be a woman in this country,” Mallory said. The Women’s March on Washington borrows its name from Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington — and it comes with the blessing of his daughter, Bernice King — building on generations of social justice movements while correcting for some of their shortcomings. Historical movements have often failed to account for the intersection of race, gender, and class. Many early-20th-century suffragettes allied with white supremacists and anti-abolitionists, pitting their own voting rights against those of black men and women in the decades after the Civil War. If they couldn’t have the vote, reasoned prominent suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, then neither should black men. Black women, on the other hand, disenfranchised because of both race and gender, were instructed to march at the back of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913. Today, equal voting rights for men and women alike are again at risk due to partisan voter identification laws in states like Texas, whose new legislation Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued in a 2014 dissent was “purposely discriminatory” due to its outsized impact on black and Latino voters. While much has changed, women of color still have to speak up the loudest in support of their own interests in order to be heard at all, and issues affecting all women frequently disproportionately affect women of color.
The Women’s March on Washington is tough to describe without modifiers, lists, and lengthy explanations. There’s no concise way to express its founding principles, aims, its organizers’ extensive backgrounds in various arenas of social justice, the movements it encompasses. No list is exhaustive. But that’s precisely the point: “We are not a monolith,” Flicker said. “We all come to the table with different pressing issues, and what that means is beyond talking about reproductive justice and equal pay, immigration, xenophobia, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, health care, minimum wage, ensuring that families coming to America are able to stay together, LGBTQIA, these are all women’s issues.”
Add climate justice on top of all of that, and this multifaceted approach could dilute any individual message instead of demonstrating their symbiosis. But then, a week before the march, Sarsour, Perez, and a committee of contributors including writer Janet Mock and Kelley Robinson of Planned Parenthood released a four-page outline of marching orders — the Unity Principles, a document that delineates what, exactly, they march for. It brings diverse issues into alignment. These competing interests depend on each other; as Sarsour put it, “We have to work in this intersectional way or we’re not going to win any of the fights that we have.”
The Unity Principles is a kind of codification of #WhyIMarch, the hashtag that has united marchers across social media. Perez initially envisioned a single call to action describing the goals of the march, which soon evolved into a three-tiered set of issues — but even that proved insufficient. “Though we were centering women, centering women of color, we were centering the most marginalized communities that were impacted by our president-elect’s racist rhetoric, it was really difficult to only identify three issues that we would then plug people into,” she said. As the volume of issues at hand grew, so, too, did the panel of women convened to draw up the Unity Principles, from a handful of individuals to a diverse group representing both themselves and sponsoring organizations (Perez's Gathering for Justice is one of the primary partners of the Women's March).
That doesn’t mean the march has been beyond reproach. It’s navigating a complicated web of issues ranging from reproductive rights to gun control and police brutality to climate justice, and it’s contended with weaving together disparate, sometimes competing interests into a cohesive whole. A pro-life group, the Texas-based New Wave Feminists, was added to, and then dropped from, the list of march sponsors following a story in The Atlantic. (Also listed among the march’s sponsors are organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, but it’s not underwritten by any one interest group.) It confronted questions about required permits from the National Park Service; a contentious Facebook post about white allies on the Women’s March page prompted a swift response from white women who no longer felt welcome at the event while stimulating important conversations about privilege — including a video response from Rose, who penned the original Facebook post.
“We are humans with identities, and our identities, for better or worse, they do create different opportunities and different struggles,” Flicker said. “To me, one of the more saddening things about the election was this sort of rejection of intellectualism and nuance, as if we can’t have courageous, complicated, nuanced conversations. We need to reinstate our vast ability to do that.” These conversations have no end. They have no right answer. There are people who have been having these conversations, who are just joining them, who might not join until January 21 or later. They will be divisive at times; they’re uncomfortable; they surface decades-old tensions in hopes of maybe, finally, exorcising them — or at least holding each other accountable. But on Saturday, the Women’s March on Washington marches as one. Mallory and Perez and Sarsour; Flicker and her three children; Rose; Bland and her seven-week-old infant, her six-year-old daughter, and her 74-year-old mother will march. Then, the marchers, invigorated, galvanized by the sheer power of the movement, hundreds of thousands of bodies marching as one, return to their communities — and that’s when it all really begins.
“The work doesn’t stop just because we stop marching,” Rose said
Additional reporting by Karine Benzaria.