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Does the Women’s March still matter?

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“The Women’s March has the potential to evolve into a proactive movement that outlasts the frustrating political moment in which it was born. A year from now, I hope to praise the 2019 Women’s March for sustaining momentum, continuing to mobilize millions and meaningfully advancing its inclusive vision for our country.”

These were my final reflections on the 2018 Women’s March, an event that I lauded for its action-oriented messaging and its emphasis on civic engagement. The March laid out a vision for a women-led, progressive political revitalization — an ambition that came to fruition in the 2018 midterm elections. Last year, I predicted that “the ‘blue wave’ will only take place if those who showed up at the Women’s March also show up at the polls.” With an unprecedented number of women elected to Congress and nationwide Democratic victories undoubtedly driven by women voters, the Women’s March seems to have channeled its participants’ passion into real political power. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, it provided an outlet for collective frustrations and fears; in the following months, it inspired thousands of women to seek office at all levels of government and to vote in a midterm election for the first time.  

In Jan. 2018, I also questioned the relevance of the Women’s March in the wake of a then-hypothetical Blue Wave, suggesting that the movement “may be destined to dissolve as soon as a Democratic Congress comes into power.” On the national scale, this pessimistic hypothesis seems to have come true. The March did not project a clear sense of purpose, besides perpetuating the spirit of resistance, nor did it make an especially compelling case for attendance. Why put a message on a sign when you can tell it directly to an elected official who might actually do something about it? Why march when you can run? In the coming months, presidential campaign rallies for Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren might garner greater enthusiasm than the marches of Jan. 19, 2019.

To many people, the biggest deterrent to attending the Women’s March was not its unclear political goals, but rather, the immense controversy regarding the history of anti-Semitism in the organization’s national leadership. In December, a must-read article in Tablet magazine laid out the troubling trends of anti-Semitism among the leadership of the Women’s March, highlighting the national organization’s ongoing dismissal of Jewish organizers’ concerns. Co-chair Tamika Mallory’s public praise for Louis Farrakhan, the virulently anti-semitic leader of the Nation of Islam who has equated Jews with termites and disseminated conspiracy theories about the role of Jews in the slave trade, is among the most devastating anecdotes. The Women’s March co-chairs recently updated their Unity Principles to include Jewish women, enjoy good relationships with a number of Jewish leaders and have added Jewish activists to their steering committee — small indications of progress that are rarely acknowledged among the Women’s March’s critics. Yet, the Women’s March co-chairs have undoubtedly tolerated anti-Semitic rhetoric and still refuse to do more than tepidly denounce Farrakhan’s hateful ideology, alienating many Jewish women and their allies. When it comes to understanding and including Jewish communities, the organization’s stated commitment to intersectionality falls short.  

The vast majority of Women’s Marches throughout the country are independently organized; they have no affiliation with Mallory and the other co-chairs. My criticism here is directed exclusively toward the national organization — not toward the sister marches, and most definitely not toward the Stanford Womxn’s March, which I attended and spoke at for the first time. With over a dozen cosponsors representing a wide variety of communities, the campus march brought together a powerful coalition and showcased the incredible activism that happens on this campus. (Full disclosure: I am a board member of the Jewish Student Association, which cosponsored the Stanford Womxn’s March. The opinions expressed in this column are my own, and do not reflect official stances of the Jewish Student Association.)

In contrast to the national march, the Stanford Womxn’s March included and empowered all who wanted to take part. It showed that Jewish communities can productively engage in progressive movements, despite the tensions that have sometimes emerged. When Jewish communities alienate ourselves because we take issue with one leader, we inhibit our ability to counter anti-Semitism when it arises and make our experiences known. Contrary to conservative allegations, anti-Semitism is not endemic to progressive politics; many non-Jewish leftists show a genuine desire to support Jewish people, but are simply unfamiliar with Jewish communities and ignorant of their concerns. However, progressives who claim to care about anti-Semitism cannot only work with Jews whose politics perfectly match their own, especially as it pertains to Israel. Most American Jews, even when they criticize the Israeli government, see the existence of the state of Israel as important to the security of the Jewish people and a meaningful component of Jewish identity. Leftist activists cannot filter out these perspectives, work exclusively with anti-Zionist Jews and then claim to understand and support the Jewish community. Progressives need not become Zionists, but they ought to understand why Zionism is a legitimate political position and respect its importance to a substantial portion of the Jewish people.

Under the leadership of its current co-chairs, I am doubtful that the national Women’s March will redeem itself from its anti-Semitic history and win back the trust of Jewish communities. I’m not particularly concerned. The Women’s March is not the be-all and end-all of progressive politics in America. It galvanized an unprecedented number of women to take part in politics, but their potential to enact change now supersedes that of the Women’s March movement itself. In Jan. 2020, I am doubtful that I will be writing a fourth reflection on the Women’s March. Instead, I hope to write about the move toward true inclusivity and mutual understanding that will emerge in light of its shortcomings.

 

Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.