Amber Selman-Lynn wanted to help plan a women’s march in Mobile, Ala., this month to mark the first anniversary of last year’s huge protests across the country. The day had been significant for her.
With no experience in political activism, she had helped organize a bus full of women to go from Mobile to Washington. After they came back from the euphoric trip, they formed a group called Mobile Marchers that met monthly. They spoke up for the Affordable Care Act at town-hall-style meetings, and knocked on doors for the Alabama Senate candidate Doug Jones, the Democrat who beat Roy S. Moore in a stunning victory last month.
But when Ms. Selman-Lynn tried to register her anniversary event on the website for Women’s March Inc., the high-profile group formed by the organizers of last year’s event in Washington, she received an unusual letter. It said that while the group was “supportive of any efforts to build our collective power as women,” it asked that she “not advertise your event as a ‘Women’s March’ action.”
“It’s kind of silly,” Ms. Selman-Lynn said. “We are clearly the women’s march in Mobile.”
The Women’s March a year ago aimed to start a movement of women from all walks of life who would continue their activism long after they had gone home.
In many ways, that goal has been realized. In the wake of the march on Washington — and simultaneous marches in more than 600 towns and cities across the country — thousands of women threw themselves into activism for the first time in their lives, especially in red states where the events provided a rare chance to build a network of like-minded people.
In Texas, emails collected by the organizers of the Women’s March in Austin are being repurposed to promote candidates who support abortion rights. In Arkansas, Gwen Combs, the elementary schoolteacher who organized the Little Rock march, is now running for Congress. Thousands of women in October attended a convention in Detroit training them on everything from lobbying elected officials to confronting white supremacy.
But as the movement evolves, differing priorities and tactics have emerged among the women, nearly all of them unpaid and spread across the country. Now, on the eve of the anniversary, a rift is emerging between two groups: Women’s March Inc., which organized the march on Washington and spent much of the year creating more social justice protests, and another organization of activists who planned sister marches last year and believe that winning elections, particularly in red states, should be the primary goal. The split has raised questions about who can claim the mantle of the Women’s March — and the funding and press attention that goes with it.
The newer group, named March On, formed after some female activists in red states felt the protests being encouraged by Women’s March Inc., which is based in New York, were not resonating in their communities.
“We can march and take to the streets and yell about all the stuff we want to change, but unless we’re getting people elected to office who are going to make those changes, we’re not really doing anything,” said Lindsey Kanaly, who organized the women’s march in Oklahoma City and is now a March On board member.
The group is now focused on helping liberal women in Republican-led districts organize ahead of the pivotal midterm elections this year.
Mindful of the optics of dividing the movement, March On founders describe the organization as a complement, not a competitor, to Women’s March Inc. Both groups have refrained from criticizing the other in public. But behind the scenes, there has been some frustration.
Winnie Wong, a Women’s March Inc. volunteer and adviser, wrote recently in a public Facebook post that March On “seems like an ill-conceived attempt at organized co-option.”
“Somebody got to tell the truth!” replied Tamika Mallory, a co-president of Women’s March Inc.
Bob Bland, also a co-president, said the new group was “welcome in the resistance.” But she noted that its creation had led to “a lot of confusion” among activists on the ground who did not realize that it was a separate entity.
“That’s why it is so important for new groups coming into this movement, like March On, to make sure they have distinct branding and messaging that is specific to them and their group that doesn’t appear as if it is directly Women’s March related,” Ms. Bland said.
Ms. Selman-Lynn in Mobile had been unaware of the difference between the two groups and organized her event using online tools from March On. To satisfy Women’s March Inc., she reprinted her banner to remove March On’s slogan, “March On the Polls.”
It was a minor inconvenience, she said. But she hopes the two groups will work together in the future.
“The Women’s March is really iconic and of course we want to be a part of that,” she said. “But March On has a great tool kit. Most of us have never done this before. We need all the guidance we can get.”
The dispute over branding gives a glimpse of how much has changed since ad hoc committees of volunteers put together the marches in the weeks after President Trump’s election.
The marches grew out of a Facebook post by a woman in Hawaii who floated the idea, attracting widespread interest. A core group of organizers in New York City planned the march on Washington, while hundreds of other women organized similar marches in their own communities.
The organizers of the march in Washington made a point of picking leaders from communities who have historically been ignored by mainstream feminist groups. Of the four national co-chairwomen of the Washington march, three were minorities. But the group’s leadership had very little geographic diversity. Nearly all of the board members of Women’s March Inc. are from New York City.
After the march, Women’s March Inc. used its powerful platform to advance social justice causes, urging marchers to hold conversations about racial injustice, protest the deportation of undocumented immigrants, attend vigils for Syria and participate in a national strike called A Day Without Women. Women’s March Inc. activists said they saw social justice protests as crucial to forming effective and diverse coalitions.
Yet many of their protests failed to catch on in red states.
“What they are doing is great, but it’s difficult to tap into here,” said Kelly Smith, a librarian from Berea, Ky., who organized buses from Kentucky to Washington for the march last year. A general strike could not work in Kentucky, a state where many women depend on hourly wages and do not have union protections, she said.
Women “would have come back to work the next day and had no job,” she said. “I can’t be on board with that.”
Kentuckians have other urgent priorities, like saving the pensions of public-school teachers that were cut by a conservative governor, she said.
In Texas, Melissa Fiero, who helped organize a march of 100,000 people in Austin, said her group had not participated in any of the protests urged by Women’s March Inc. Instead, it has focused on promoting Democrats for local office.
“The needs are different from Texas to New York,” said Ms. Fiero, who lives in the rural community of Oatmeal. “A woman’s right to choose is constantly under assault in Texas.”
Both Ms. Kelly and Ms. Fiero have chosen to affiliate with March On.
The goal of March On is to take a “bottom-up” approach that can draw women in rural places, said Jaquie Algee, who helped plan the Women’s March in Chicago and now serves as the board chairwoman of March On.
“We wanted to make sure that women in red states who need the most support are in positions of leadership,” said Ms. Algee, who is also an organizer in Kansas, Indiana and Missouri for the Service Employees International Union. Ms. Algee, who is black, said that March On also “strives continually” for racial diversity in its leadership. Four out of 13 board members are minorities.
Ms. Bland disputes claims that Women’s March Inc. has had difficulty in conservative areas. “Red states are where there’s actually the most activity,” she said. “We’re here to facilitate the vision of the actual state organizers and the grass-roots groups that are doing the work.”
March On’s founders say the group grew out of weekly conference calls held by the organizers of sister marches as they swapped tips on applying for permits, finding sponsors and obtaining event insurance. After the marches, they met for the first time at a retreat and decided to form a new organization that would focus on giving organizers tools to help win elections.
In October, March On began an initiative called March on the Polls, which urges local activists to use the anniversary to help register and educate voters in advance of the midterm elections.
Two months later, in December, Women’s March Inc. announced its own campaign called “Power to the Polls,” with an opening rally in Las Vegas on Jan. 21.
Women’s March Inc. has struggled to bring the decentralized women’s march movement under its umbrella.
Before the march, the Women’s March logo, created by Nicole LaRue, a designer who worked pro bono, was shared freely with groups all over the world. Since then, Women’s March Inc. has tried to exert greater control over who can use it.
Canadian activists who held marches in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington were outraged when American activists with Women’s March Inc. in New York registered the name Women’s March Canada and appointed a board without consulting them.
“We believe our network has shown itself to be excellent custodians of the Women’s March spirit and ethos, and respectfully request the time and space to prepare a plan to move ahead in unity and solidarity,” they wrote in an open letter to national co-chairwomen of the Women’s March on Washington.
After they did not get a response, they renamed themselves March On Canada and created the Twitter hashtag #DontTradeMarkTheMovement. They are now affiliated with, but not controlled by, March On.
Jo Reger, professor of sociology at Oakland University in Michigan, says the feminist movement, like other important social movements, has always had people coming together and then breaking apart.
“We think it looks so chaotic and full of factions and what it really looks like is every other social movement,” Dr. Reger said. “Often those factions end up coming back together later on.”
So far, the split between Women’s March and March On has not dampened the enthusiasm for marking the anniversary. Many activists in the field said they were unaware of the division. Those who are say they seek resources from both organizations: Women’s March Inc. provides a unifying vision and a national spotlight, while March On gives on-the-ground support, such as legal advice on applying for nonprofit status.
Many women say the marches last year unleashed a new era of activism and a level of energy that shows no sign of flagging. Ms. Selman-Lynn said she simply wanted all the help she could get to win more elections for Democrats in Alabama.
“We have a lot of work to do, convincing people that there’s a grass-roots group with a lot of energy who is willing to work,” said Ms. Selman-Lynn. “We’ve got a lot of ground to gain here.”
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