The elevation of Donald “grab-them-by-the-pussy” Trump to the Oval Office kicked off a tsunami of anger across the United States and the globe. The first Women’s March in January 2017 had millions of participants in towns and cities on every continent. Many wondered if this was the beginning of a new mass women’s movement.
While the jury is still out on that question, the anniversary of the first Women’s March has become a date for feminists to hit the streets. But this year political disputes at the national level almost brought the marches to a halt. It is important to understand the issues if this current wave of feminism is to grow.
Clashing forces. Things came to a head when word got out that Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the national organizing group, Women’s March, Inc., had attended a speech by Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan in which he blasted Jews as “responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out turning men into women and women into men.” While other Women’s March leaders distanced themselves from Farrakhan’s bigoted views, Mallory refused to break with him politically.
Vanessa Wruble, a Jewish member of the 2017 organizing team, then came forward to tell of anti-Semitic bias that led to her being edged out of leadership. Wruble said she was removed for urging that opposition to anti-Semitism be added to the march demands. She also disagreed with the Nation of Islam doing security at the march because of the group’s hostility to Jews. NOI esteems male dominance and promotes the racial separatist orientation known as cultural nationalism.
In a further complication, Women’s March leaders were also being attacked from the right. Pro-police and racist forces denounced the Women’s March for sending greetings to exiled Black revolutionary Assata Shakur. Conservatives and Zionists falsely charged an Arab American member of the leadership team, Linda Sarsour, of anti-Semitism for her defense of Palestine.
Charges and counter-charges, apologies and non-apologies circulated through the media. Some cities cancelled their events. Some marches split into two or three different actions.
Choosing sides. Some who deplored Mallory’s association with Farrakhan were conservatives who made the false assertion that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were the same thing. But this should not have prevented serious activists from identifying and criticizing anti-Semitism whatever its source — just as they are obligated to stand up to racism, transphobia and misogyny.
Instead, fearing to be labelled as racists or Zionists by criticizing women of color, many liberals and leftists downplayed the issue of anti-Semitism. Jen Roesch wrote in the International Socialist Organization newspaper, “In this case, the real threat of anti-Semitism is being cynically exploited to smear the leaders of the Women’s Marches.” The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network encouraged people to sign an online petition that stated, “Targeting the Women’s March for anti-Semitism deflects from the real perpetrators of anti-Semitic violence and undermines a progressive force that is part of confronting white nationalist, misogynist, homophobic power.” Jodi Jacobson, a white Jewish woman writing in Rewire, excused Farrakhan as “an 87-year-old man with no power who holds execrable views on many things, but who nonetheless has deep ties in the Black community.”
Radical Women (RW) believes that women’s rights defenders must stand up to bigotry, not excuse it. As the RW and Freedom Socialist Party leaflet for the 2019 marches stated, “No movement of oppressed people can afford to accommodate internal racism, sexism or other forms of bigotry. Differences inevitably arise because of each group’s diverse experiences. But conflicts have to be dealt with upfront with a desire for resolution.”
Terrell Jermain Starr, a senior reporter at The Root, made a similar point: “Historically, movement work has always been messy … Mallory’s challenge is to engage in the personal work of what it means to be publicly accountable to people outside of her close network of allies.”
This gets at a key problem. Women’s March, Inc., has no mechanism for public accountability. Leaders are not elected. There is no membership to answer to. The core leaders are heads of NGOs and businesswomen supportive of the Democratic Party, which plays a key role in upholding capitalism. Their class interests lead to an orientation toward powerful funders and politicians rather than bold action on behalf of the working-class women who have a stake in solidarity and principled alliances.
Which way forward? Historically, it’s radical demands from the streets that have pushed the feminist movement forward. A positive step in this year’s march was the emergence of left contingents in many cities.
Due to a proposal from Radical Women, the national statement of unity included opposition to anti-Semitism. In Seattle, at RW’s urging, the left contingent took a position to “reject the anti-Semitism, transphobia and misogyny expressed by Rev. Louis Farrakhan and call on Women’s March co-organizer Tamika Mallory to join with other march leaders in repudiating the divisive politics that have undermined women’s marches nationally.”
What’s needed is a working-class feminist movement that recognizes capitalism as the enemy that divides us. The way forward lies through multi-issue, democratic organizations led by working women and other specially oppressed people, especially of color, who are motivated by a determination to transform society from bottom to top. We can do it!