One day after President Trump’s inaugural parade wound its way through the District, hundreds of thousands of women poured into the city from across the country, carrying signs, pink knitted hats, and an overwhelming sense of rage and grief.
The first Women’s March — an alliance of hundreds of nationwide marches widely considered the largest single-day protest in American history — funneled feelings into action. Women who had never carried a sign became seasoned protesters. Strangers formed letter-writing campaigns and action networks. It was, experts said, the moment the “resistance” was born.
Three years later, as Trump commences the final year of his first term, the Women’s March is planning to take to the streets once more. But many of the demonstrators who descended on the District that first year, catapulting the new organization from obscurity to a household name, will not be there to see it.
After overhauling its mission, structure and leadership, the organization once considered the beating heart of the anti-Trump movement seems to be on life support.
Experts who follow protest movements said the group’s own successes — putting more women on the front line of American politics, inspiring a new wave of progressive groups, encouraging an unprecedented number of women to run for office — have rendered the Women’s March increasingly irrelevant. Others blame the failures on an organization that has struggled to find its purpose amid national controversies, financial mismanagement, accusations of anti-Semitism and a reputation for being unwilling to play nice with others.
Either way, the result is the same.
“Right after the election, it made sense for them to have this big march on Washington, but right now, nobody really wants another march on Washington,” said Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland professor who studies protest movements. “Nobody needs another pink hat.”
Women who still describe the 2017 march as transformational have walked away from the national organization in droves. Some started their own groups. Many more joined political campaigns, local activist groups or more issue-specific efforts.
Despite a looming presidential election and a cascade of events — including clashes with Iran, Trump’s impeachment, raging wildfires in Australia and a GOP-led push to roll back reproductive rights — that have stoked outrage among the group’s natural allies, experts said they expect to see a fraction of the march’s typical attendance this year.
The 2020 Women’s March expects about 10,000 people to attend Saturday’s march to the White House, according to a permit application filed with the National Park Service. About 4,500 people have indicated on Facebook they will attend.
Marching, experts said, is most effective as a means to an end. But many activists whose foray into activism began with the Women’s March have evolved.
“Burnout is real,” said Jeremy Pressman, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut and co-creator of the Crowd Counting Consortium, which tracks attendance at large-scale protests. “Yes, there is protest fatigue, but it’s also incredibly hard for people to sustain high levels of engagement with a polarized, 24/7 news environment for years at a time. You see more and more activists who are opting to do other things: donating, volunteering, running for their local school board or city council.”
Other factors have weakened the organization’s ability to mobilize large networks of allies and activists. The group’s long-standing ambition to create a “big tent” for women with different backgrounds has resulted in confusion over what the Women’s March stands for.
Ahead of its march last year, the organization unveiled a 10-pronged political platform intended to steer its focus and give lawmakers a list of progressive policy priorities. This year, though, the group has narrowed its focus to climate change, immigration and reproductive rights — issues most important to participants.
“In an ideal world, there is always room for more groups to do more work around those issues, especially if they can bring new energy and new strengths to a cause,” Fisher said. “But I’m not sure what the strength of the Women’s March group is right now.”
The novelty of the annual march has also faded with time.
Since 2017, the kind of demonstration that the Women’s March pioneered on Trump’s first full day in office — simultaneous nationally coordinated protests in multiple cities — has become common practice for liberal organizations trying to rally people around a cause.
On Thursday, an antiwar demonstration dubbed “No War With Iran” drew protesters to more than 370 cities around the country in response to escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. Weeks earlier, protesters at more than 600 locations gathered to support Trump’s impeachment.
“It’s so different now,” said Carmen Perez, a founding member of the Women’s March, who said she spent weeks cold-calling nonprofits in 2017 to secure partners for the demonstration. “You can organize a march on your phone, really.”
Several controversies that followed the Women’s March and its inaugural board members hobbled its ability to attract partners.
Actress Alyssa Milano publicly distanced herself from the group. The organization’s once-robust network of state chapters has shrunk to fewer than 30.
Many who left have been slow to return.
“We were never brought into the discussions that Women’s March was having, so we moved on,” said Emiliana Guereca, an organizer with Women’s March L.A. and founder of the Women’s March Foundation, neither of which are affiliated with the national organization. “How many times can you expect your supporters to deal with negative press while being denied a seat at the table to begin with? No. We moved on.”
Calls for board members to resign were met with little response. Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said the inaction was disrespectful to Jewish women who were concerned about the direction of the group.
“It was such a sad thing to see a movement that had started off with such promise get bogged down because of such problematic leadership,” she said. “The fact that it took so long to make that corrective change was very energy-sapping, very aggravating, and it took a lot out of the movement. Clearly, they’re in a rebuilding mode now.”
In September, the organization announced it had added several Jewish women, one of them a woman of color, to its expanded 16-member board of directors, as well as members of the LGBTQ community. When one new appointee was found to have compared Israel to the Islamic State on Twitter, she was promptly asked to resign.
Women’s March leaders said they are unfazed by the group’s shrunken scale. They expect this year to be a rebirth for the organization and the country.
“This new board comes from such a diverse set of backgrounds, but we all truly believe in the idea that none of us are free until all of us are free,” said Women’s March co-president Isa Noyola, an immigration activist who joined the organization late last year. “For our own communities to actually experience freedom and liberation and have basic human rights . . . we know it’s not just about the march, it’s about what happens afterward and how we can continue to support grass-roots organizing along the way — and not just our own.”
To win back activists who have lost faith in the organization, the Women’s March has swapped out the highly produced demonstrations of prior years for a more conventional protest march from Freedom Plaza to the White House.
Rather than hosting celebrities such as Gloria Steinem and Madonna, both of whom addressed the crowd in 2017, the event will be more issues-driven, board members said. It will feature small-scale events this week leading up to the march, when leaders can chat with longtime activists in the movement, officials said.
Leaders of state- and city-level organizations that began as offshoots of the 2017 march said this year they felt — perhaps for the first time — that the national Women’s March group was treating them as equals.
The theme of this year’s march, “Women Rising,” was borrowed from Los Angeles organizers, who for years have been trying to distance themselves from the national group, said Guereca, the Women’s March L.A. organizer.
“The leadership change, the expansion of the board — it seems like there’s a lot more accountability and willingness to work together with local leaders and other groups that we only wished existed in 2017,” she said.
In New York, where a deep divide between the city’s chapter of the Women’s March and an unaffiliated group called Women’s March Alliance resulted in competing marches in past years, the groups decided this year to do the unprecedented: join forces.
Such collaborative efforts mark a change from previous years, when the organization regularly policed the use of its slogans and materials, issued top-down decrees regarding the march’s date and messaging, and engaged in a prolonged battle to trademark the words “women’s march.”
“They have all-new leadership, we have all-new leadership, and we just got together and said, ‘There’s no real reason to carry this division into the future,’ ” said Julia Fusco-Luberoff, executive director of Women’s March NYC. “We want to carry sisterhood into the future. This is the year women are coming together. We don’t have time to fight amongst ourselves.”