Flawed but Valuable: Three Years of the Women’s March

By Melissa Wells
Photography by Ellie MacLean and Melissa Wells

Generations from now, when America looks back on the poignant moment in history that was the 2016 presidential election, each one of us will be able to vividly recount the moment Donald Trump became president: what we were doing, how we felt, and what we did next.

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I had just turned 17, a year shy of being able to contribute to the election that would define my existence. As a woman, as an Afro-Latina, as an American, and in the simplest sense as a human being, I felt that very existence was threatened by a choice my country made without me.

For many women, this story was familiar — bubbling outrage that reached a boiling point on Nov. 7. It was out of that collective call to reject the racism, sexism and xenophobia Trump represented that a movement was born.

As incredible as the movement seemed in retrospect, it was not perfect. It was never perfect, from the very beginning.

I did not attend the first Women’s March. Still processing raw emotions, I was frustrated by the seeds of a movement I felt didn’t include the voices of women of color like me.

It would be remiss not point out the significant role white women played in that first Women’s March. It could not yet reckon with what some would coin the “53 percent,” the percentage of white women who pushed Donald Trump into the presidency.

Despite the fact that the Pew Research Center would eventually prove that the percentage of white female Trump voters was actually 47 percent, the narratives perpetuated by these numbers kept many women of color from truly investing themselves in this first wave of the resistance.

This narrative did have some truth to it: the Women’s March was less a call for solidarity across racial lines and more a surge of resistance among white feminists who felt betrayed by their female, Trump-supporting counterparts.

Women of color, especially black women, still remember that our white feminist counterparts proudly placed their “I Voted” stickers on the gravesite of Susan B. Anthony, who excluded black voices from the feminist movement and opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which would have granted black men suffrage.

By the time of the second Women’s March, a year had allowed that initial flurry of emotions to mature. The resistance expanded and took on the mantle of intersectionality, and for every targeted action Trump made that targeted one community or another, we took notes.

I had reached voting age and finished my first semester of college. I was just starting out on my path to be a journalist, but I took note of how I planned to use my voice in this blossoming resistance.

In many ways, that second Women’s March was perfectly timed. The march brought together communities that hadn’t felt represented and became the catalyst for grassroots activism throughout 2018. Perhaps most importantly, though, the majority of us weren’t aware of the issues behind the scenes.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools the resistance has put forth is accountability — in Hollywood, in politics and even within the Women’s March.

Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez were the diverse dream team of Women’s March leadership that graced TIME’s The 100 Most Influential People in 2017.

Tablet Magazine’s expose, “Is the Women’s March Melting Down?”, however, details the anti-Semitism and hypocrisy among the four women self-selected as the face of this movement. The revelation of ties between Mallory and Sarsour and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, an openly anti-Semitic Democrat with misogynistic and homophobic views, was the icing on the cake.

Alarming hints pointed at this ideological disconnect, from allegations of anti-Semitic talking points made by Mallory and Perez at the very first Women’s March meeting to Mallory’s attendance at a speech Farrakhan gave in Chicago that was riddled with anti-Semitic comments. Even the Women’s March homepage notably excludes disabled and Jewish women from their unity principles.

As accusations of anti-Semitism rocked the organization, other issues came to light: undisclosed finances and PR statements defending the organization as the co-leaders’ actions openly contradicted them. All of this would reach a boiling point just before the third Women’s March.

Headlines normally praising the movement reported the fallout instead; from The Democratic National Committee backing out of its partnership of the Women’s March to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center quietly distancing themselves from the organization. Local and state chapters from Chicago to Rhode Island cancelled rallies and formally broke off their connections to the organization born out of that first chapter in D.C.

The circumstance highlights an important lesson. The growth the movement continues experiencing is the result of conversations surrounding intersectionality over white feminism.

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The mistake the four women make in their apparent animosity towards Jewish women is that the very definition of intersectionality does not exclude anyone, nor does it place blame on one group or the other for the marginalization of certain communities. It is about unity that educates based on shared experiences and explores justice across the board.

When the third march came around, the women on the ground, undeterred by the fracture lines traveling throughout the movement, took charge of the narrative.

This time, the common message rang clear; the march wasn’t about Mallory, Sarsour, Perez or Bland. It was about solidarity among women who continue to stand strong where those four have failed — for equality, for justice, for intersectionality.

Despite the struggles, even in light of the controversy, I believe the movement transcends a single entity. It is representative of two intertwined forces that prevail in America, regardless of the era, the administration or the issues: the evolutionary strength of activism, and the power of women.

The collective goals women strive to achieve are bolstered less by physical unity and more by the forums through which we network, support and broaden our messages.

In this digital age, we use the Internet, social media and even the press to strengthen our movement’s presence not just in America, but around the world. We pressure those in power to act and translate the movement's goals into definitive legislation.

Even with dwindling visible attendance at this year’s Women’s Marches, even with the palpable shadow over the embattled figures of Women’s March Inc., even with the growing animosity that is political partisanship today — the resistance is amorphous, composed of millions of women, across all communities, unified by the power they found in raising their voices three years ago, not just that of four women who chose to overshadow us.

So march, for women of every community more severely threatened by the president’s power than Mallory, Sarsour, Bland and Perez combined. Vote, for the girls whose voices we must represent, for the women who made strides throughout history for the rights we have, and for us, the women who continue to demand change.

The movement isn’t perfect, nor should it be. The movement is made up of the best of humanity, but we will make mistakes, we will falter, we will struggle. All that’s left is to learn from our missteps and strive forward. I carry hope that even in a chapter as dark as the one in which we are living, women will light the way for brighter days.

In the words of Coretta Scott King, “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.”

Slowly but surely, we’re doing just that.