The third annual Women’s March took place on Saturday, January 19. The original march, held the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, drew approximately 500,000 participants in DC alone, but the event’s most recent iteration drew only 100,000 protesters. The 2019 march notably saw the introduction of the Women’s Agenda, a detailed policy platform laying out key goals of the Women’s March organization.
The shift to a more structured organizational approach does not come without its criticisms. Over the past three years, the women’s movement that began as hundreds of grassroots organizations spread across the country has become increasingly centered on the Women’s March group itself and its four main leaders: Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour. Vanessa Wruble, one of the 2017 march’s original organizers and founder of March On, emphasized her belief “that the best movements are run bottom-up, not top-down.” While the Women’s Agenda and the centralized style of leadership may make the movement more cohesive, it feels increasingly less authentic over time.
The controversy surrounding Tamika Mallory’s refusal to condemn black nationalist Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments contributed to the debate leading up to the 2019 march. Many decided not to attend, and high-profile organizations such as the DNC and NAACP decided to pull their sponsorships of the event. Women’s March leaders attempted to make amends, creating a new steering committee for the organization consisting of three Jewish women, and putting out regular statements emphasizing their rejection of all forms of bigotry.
Compared to previous Women’s Marches, there was a distinct shift not only in the issues addressed by the organization’s leaders, but in the structure of the event itself, both of which reflect the way in which the movement is headed. In both 2017 and 2018, the march centered around the National Mall before heading to the White House; this year, however, crowds convened at Freedom Plaza and marched along Pennsylvania Avenue NW, passing Trump International Hotel, before ending where it had started. The change in route was due to weather concerns in DC the weekend of the 19th, but many were confused in the days leading up to the protest, believing it to still be taking place near the reflecting pool; this could have been one of the reasons why turnout declined.
Another organizational issue arose in the structure of the march itself. Whereas in 2018 the rally preceded the march, giving more than two hours for crowds to accumulate, in 2019 the march began promptly at 11:00, and the rally followed, lasting until nearly 4:00 PM. As the highlight of the event is the marching itself, many individuals left after they returned to Freedom Plaza, either unaware that there were more events to follow, or not willing to listen to speakers since they felt that they had accomplished their duty.
There was also a spike in the number of moderates in attendance. First time marchers made up approximately 25% of the crowd, and out of those surveyed, nearly all identified as moderates. When asked why she thought why this was the case, Professor Dana Fisher of the University of Maryland explained that, “It’s getting to the point that even folks in the center have had enough and feel the need to take to the streets and express themselves through activism.” The dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs comes as no surprise, considering the political context of the march. Taking place on the twenty-ninth day of the longest government shutdown in American history, amidst debates regarding border security and the state of Roe v. Wade, and in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, protesters had an abundance of reasons to gather in the streets.
The presence of such a large number of moderates in an environment that was previously considered radical could mean several things for the movement. On one hand, as Fisher said, more moderate protesters serves as a sign that the country as a whole is demanding a change in American leadership. However, if this were entirely true, it would be logical that more people would come to the march each year, not fewer. Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour admitted that the third march was for the most part “ceremonial,” suggesting that despite the newly revealed Women’s Agenda, the movement itself is losing its influence as a tool of mass protest, and is on its way to becoming a fad. To ensure that the Women’s March does not become a passing trend, there is a need to return to the grassroots style of organization. These localized groups, which tend to be more diverse and have a more intersectional focus, would lend a greater sense of dynamism to the movement as a whole.