Battling internal power struggles, including accusations of anti-Semitism, the Women’s March that roared onto the political scene following the election of Donald Trump as president is hitting the streets of Washington Saturday, joined by “sister marches” in hundreds of other U.S. cities .
But a cause that in 2017 drew 3.3 million to 5.2 million nationwide – making it likely the largest demonstration in U.S. history – now may be lucky to attract half that many.
Demonstrations and rallies are scheduled in Washington and at some 350 sites nationwide to display opposition to Trump, to demand an end to violence against women and to push for equality.
Marches are planned across the country, from Boston, to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Houston, Nashville, and in smaller cities like Burlington, Vermont., and Grand Junction, Colorado.
Rallies were also held in almost a dozen foreign cities, including Berlin, Rome and Kabul.
The movement that galvanized the nation’s capital with pink protest hats has morphed from a show of force on the streets and sidewalks, into a mobilizing force at the polls.
As the movement has grown into a political powerhouse, it has also run into headwinds in the form of a splintered leadership and accusations of anti-Semitism against some of the original organizers.
The controversy, which prompted the Democratic National Committee and other groups to distance themselves from the Washington event, threatens to erode the movement’s gains, or at least slow its progress.
Without the motivation of Trump’s election or the midterms, the marches this year face such obstacles as travel inconveniences from the federal shutdown as well as harsh weather Saturday from the Midwest to New England.
“This is the heaviest lift they’re going to have,’’ said University of Maryland sociology professor Dana Fisher, author of the upcoming book “American Resistance.’’
“In general, getting people to march in the winter is tough. It’s a hard ask, and right now there’s not an obvious goal, except for perhaps 2020 (the general election). I know Women’s March Inc. says they’re trying to use this as a pivot to start talking about doing more policy-based work, but I think that’s not a good mobilizer.’’
In some ways, the movement is a victim of its own successes, the power of women at the ballot box — a direct result of the strong showing in the 2018 midterms that sent a record number of women into politics and into Congress.
Women, especially those in the suburbs, helped drive the Democrats’ 40-seat gain in the House of Representatives, flipping control of that chamber. A record 102 women – 89 of them Democrats – were voted into the House in November.
“You can draw a direct line from the 5 million who marched that day and our effort after that to impact elections to the makeup of the current Congress as the most diverse Congress that’s ever been elected,’’ said Vanessa Wruble, one of the leading organizers of the first march. “Already you see the movement shifting from reactive to proactive.’’
However, with the growth has come distrust and division.
Much of the controversy stems from Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory’s refusal to condemn Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a proponent of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories who recently described Jews as “termites.”
A detailed story by the Jewish online magazine Tablet said Women’s March board members Mallory and Carmen Perez – whom Wruble recruited to add diversity to the original organizing group of four – confronted her about the role Jews had in oppressing minorities.
Wruble, who is Jewish, was asked to leave the group shortly after the first march, and she told The New York Times her religion was a factor. She later co-founded March On, an organization that provides support and guidance to women-led groups throughout the country, and estimates 50 percent of Saturday’s “sister marches” will have gotten help from the group.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), who attended the Women’s March in 2017, published an op-ed in USA TODAY on Friday saying that she is “walking away” from the Women’s March.
“I cannot associate with the national march’s leaders and principles, which refuse to completely repudiate anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry,” Wasserman-Schultz wrote. “I cannot walk shoulder to shoulder with leaders who lock arms with outspoken peddlers of hate.”
Fisher said the controversy is taking a toll.
“Women’s March Inc. does not own the women’s movement, and it certainly does not own this march, which has been so much a combination of all of these locally distributed efforts across the country,’’ she said. “It’s a shame all of the bad press is having this effect.’’
While Women’s March Inc. has repeatedly denied charges of anti-Semitism, the issue was further inflamed when Mallory, a Women’s March co-president, appeared on ABC’s “The View’’ on Monday and declined to denounce the frequent anti-Semitic statements by Farrakhan, whom she has publicly lauded.
Women’s March Inc. provided a statement about the “sister marches” Saturday, most of which are not affiliated with the group.
“Women’s March is an organic movement, made of the fierce energy and power of millions of women and those who support them,’’ the statement said. “We’re thrilled to see hundreds of marches sprout up in small towns, suburbs, and cities across America and around the globe. In 2017, we marched. In 2018, we took our power to the polls. In 2019, we’re coming with an agenda created by women and for the people.’’
In addition to addressing violence against women, that agenda includes items such as reproductive rights, racial justice and immigrant rights. The objectives are worthwhile enough for sponsors like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood to remain on board.
A coalition of more than 100 supporters of the Jewish Women of Color signed a letter standing firm with the Women’s March.
On the other hand, the Jewish Democratic Council of America issued a statement joining the DNC and other groups pulling away from the Women’s March organization, though not the cause itself.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz