The Women Are Marching

The Women’s March on Washington, and its DC chapter, show the power and complexity of both social activism and feminism

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Scores of volunteers in Washington, DC braved snow and frigid temperatures this weekend to hang flyers (like the one below), engage with local businesses, and start conversations with potential supporters. They were part of a citywide outreach effort to promote the Women’s March on Washington and boost local turnout.

The march, scheduled for the day after President-elect Trump’s inauguration, is expected to draw as many as 400,000 people. Started by a single Facebook post by a retired attorney in Hawaii, the march has received overwhelming support. Chapters have formed throughout the US to mobilize participants in an effort to drive home the message to the incoming administration that “women’s rights are human rights.” 300 sister marches are also being organized throughout all fifty states and another 60 will be held worldwide, in countries as far away as Kenya and New Zealand.

“Our hope is that by bringing together women and our supporters in the spirit of democracy, this march will send a bold and powerful message to lawmakers around the country that women stand together and will not rest until we are recognized and represented equally in our society,” stated Mercy Morganfield, a leader of the DC chapter of the Women’s March on Washington, in a press release.

The march is not portrayed as an outright protest of the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. However, his election, despite numerous misogynistic comments and at the expense of what was to be the first woman President, is certainly an energizing force for the movement. So too is the surprising support Trump received among women: 41% overall (52% among white women).

“Personally, for me, it’s not that he said those things, and how he portrayed women and all that, but that he got voted in. That other people put their economic needs before…who I am as a human.” says Jackie Savage, a regional leader in the DC Chapter and a Montessori school teacher.

“‘Grab ’em by the pussy’…my students heard that.”

The Washington, DC Chapter of the Women’s March has multiple roles: supporting the national organizers in hosting the march, maximizing the participation of District residents, while also building a network of people engaged on women’s rights to organize around issues in the long term. They embody the definition of local activism. Much like many movements, they started small, with only a handful of people gathering within each of the District’s wards. Ms. Savage, who began as the representative for ward 6 in central DC, says her first ward meeting was with about a dozen women in a local recreation center.

Member roles and responsibilities developed organically, based on the initiatives of individuals willing and able to undertake them. In addition to dividing among wards, the chapter also includes committees to address specific needs related to the march such as outreach, communication, housing etc. As the number of members grew, so did the networks supporting the chapter, now sponsored by the Women’s National Democratic Club.

“I see a lot of what we do as community building” says Savage.

Volunteers from the DC chapter spreading the word. (Photo from: Women’s March on Washington-DC Chapter)

She describes the last few months she has volunteered for the march as a dizzying whirlwind of organizational meetings, coordination with local community groups, press interviews, conversations with council members and ANC representatives, and a plethora of other duties necessary to both ensure that the march is a success, and that the groundwork is laid for further community action going forward.

Last weekend’s outreach efforts were heralded as a successful step in this direction. Volunteers contacted over 700 businesses citywide, who agreed to display flyers and postcards promoting the march. Many business owners were eager to get involved further. For Ms. Savage, such personal connections are a crucial step in the effort to get everyone on board in the pursuit of gender equality.

Despite massive support, the march has also fared controversy about inclusivity. Many called out the march’s original name, The Million Women March, for appropriating the name of a march organized by African American women 10 years ago. The name was swiftly changed (though this prompted further criticism, this time for co-opting the name of the march organized by Martin Luther King in 1963). Concerns still remain that much of the march’s agenda is dominated by white feminism, and that too little attention is paid to the experiences of women of color, as well as those of women from other marginalized groups. A low participation among men is also problematic.

The issues surrounding the Women’s March nationally are reflected in the workings of the DC chapter. Despite seeing increases in volunteers and supporters since their inception, the chapter still remains composed overwhelmingly of white women. Participation from African-American neighborhoods is noticeably missing, as is representation from the District’s sizable immigrant communities.

Ms. Savage acknowledges these issues and is working to address them: “The first step is taking the time to think about these things and make sure we are considering all perspectives.”

While some may decry criticisms of the march as divisive, they are not misplaced given the contentious history of American feminism. The earliest movements for women’s suffrage often ran contrary to abolitionist and civil rights efforts of African-Americans. In marches for the votes for women in 1913, black women were often asked to march at the rear of the procession. White feminists have maintained this pole position since, while still trying to advocate for the rights of all women. Women of color were often excluded from such efforts or, at best, told to put their specific needs aside for the greater good of the women’s movement.

The result has been an inherent ignorance on the part of the mainstream feminist movement of the way women belonging to minority groups experience gender inequality. This has served to further entrench inequality among women and dampen progress on women’s rights. The best example of this is the gender gap, which white women (earning 82% of the wages of white men) experience much less acutely than black or Hispanic women (65% and 58% respectively). It is not the criticism of the march that is divisive, but rather the status quo.

For their part, the march’s organizers at both the national and local level have seemingly accepted this reproach positively, and have sought to learn from their initial mistakes. The national organizing body has put “holding uncomfortable conversations” about feminism as a main agenda item. They have also sought to recruit more minority women (their national committee leadership includes a Palestinian-American Muslim and an African American woman). Their recently released guiding principles put pursuing justice for minority groups as inherent and necessary to achieving gender equality.

The DC chapter has also recognized its faults. To address the lack of minority involvement, the chapter is looking into ways to make meetings more inclusive. Ms. Savage is an active proponent on this end, even calling for meetings to be held in locations more accessible to minority and less well-off supporters.

“We are working to get everyone at the table” she says. “And you can’t do that by ward.” She envisions the future of the chapter as one more representative and inclusive of all communities within the city.

In pursuit of this goal, the chapter has sought to form better connections with community leaders and increase their cooperation with organizations serving majority-minority neighborhoods. On Monday, they have been invited to take part in DC’s Martin Luther King Day parade.

The Women’s March marks a starting point, rather than climax, for both national and local organizers. They hope that the momentum generated by the march will carry on to resisting future infringements on women’s rights, as well as furthering efforts to make gender equality a reality. If they succeed in addressing and incorporating the perspectives of minority women, this may stand to be the first truly equitable movement for women’s rights.

Much work lies ahead, and Ms. Savage is ready to tackle it. Asked if she is afraid of failure, she shakes her head confidently:

“To not try would be the real tragedy”

News // Feminism / Feminismo / Gender Equality / Womens Rights