In February, a month after five million people turned up at protests worldwide in support of women’s rights, ten organizers of the largest Women’s Marches in Canada – in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver and Alberta – began talks about formalizing an organization. The group, as they envisioned it, would rally in solidarity with their sisters in the U.S. around issues like the Muslim ban, but would also demonstrate to raise awareness around issues specific to Canada, like missing and murdered Indigenous women.
But when Samantha Monckton and the other national organizers of Canada’s Women’s Marches began making plans to form a board of directors, they were informed by the coordinators of the flagship march in Washington D.C. that they would need to formally apply for the positions they essentially already held at an organization they created. Chafing at the imposition of such strictures, Monckton and her colleagues held a conference call to discuss breaking away from Women’s March and starting an independent group.
The call took place on a Friday, and Monckton hung up her phone believing it would be easy transition. Instead, that weekend, two employees of Women’s March on Washington — one American, one Canadian — registered the name Women’s March Canada and appointed themselves directors of the new organization.
Monckton and her colleagues were shocked. Assuming it was a breakdown in communication, the ten organizers sent a letter to the Women’s March National Board articulating their position. “[W]e feel strongly that we have both the ability and the right to choose our own leaders. We are the women who did the long hard work that gave value to the name ‘Women’s March Canada’ and who will sustain this value in the future. Our contribution needs to be respected,” the women wrote.
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Ten months later, Monckton says, they still have not heard anything back. Instead, she says she and her colleagues were locked out of the social media accounts they built, then banned from commenting on the same channels. (The Women’s March National Board did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.)
A year removed from the Women’s March, a lot has changed. Around the country, events marking the one year anniversary of the protests are focused on channeling their energy into political organizing. But the movement is more fractured than ever. Even the name – Women’s March – has become a bitter point of contention between the women who were the public face of last year’s march in D.C. — Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez — and the organizers of sister marches around the country and the world.
A number of marches across the United States have received letters from Women’s March Inc., protesting their use of the term “women’s march.” As the New York Times reported earlier this week, Amber Selman-Lynn, a Mobile, Alabama-based organizer, received a letter from Women’s March, Inc. requesting the name be removed from materials promoting the march. The letter said that while the group was “supportive of any efforts to build our collective power as women,” they would prefer Selman-Lynn “not advertise your event as a ‘Women’s March’ action.” At issue was Selman-Lynn’s use of the slogan, “March on the Polls,” created by another group with a similar agenda, March On, in her material. (She removed the name and had them re-printed.)
Many of the organizers of last year’s local marches have chosen to incorporate independently – New York’s march is being organized by Women’s March Alliance, Corp.; Philadelphia’s by Philly Women Rally, Inc. – and some have chosen to affiliate with March On, an umbrella group that sprung up with the express purpose of connecting sister marches after last year’s worldwide protest.
Part of the problem, according to Carolyn Jasik, a pediatrician new to activism who helped organize Women’s Marches across California last year, is the fact that Women’s March Inc. have empowered state coordinators who organized transport from states to the flagship march in D.C., rather than the local activists who organized events in their own communities.
“The local city leads have the best inroads into the community. So if boots on the ground were needed for an action, the city organizers were a lot more equipped to make that happen,” Jasik says. After the march, as local groups were primed to get to work right away on issues in their communities, the national organization was still working to formalize a structure and acquire nonprofit status. “These first-time activist leaders needed urgent help with practical matters like legal advice on how to form a non-profit, website support, mailing list management, funding [and] merchandise.”
Today, Women’s March Inc. proudly touts the fact that they have organizers in all 50 states, 5,500 micro, local groups called “huddles” and 35 active state chapters. But in the immediate aftermath of last year’s march, the group behind the Washington event was not in a position to quickly offer that kind of support to local groups. Out of that vacuum emerged March On, co-founded by Vanessa Wruble, one of the early organizers of last year’s Washington march. (Wruble is no longer with Women’s March Inc.)
The emergence of another organization with overlapping goals and overlapping participants has, in contrast to the spirit of the original movement, generated some amount of bad blood.
Bob Bland, co-president of Women’s March Inc., insists that the organization is not trying to monopolize the brand. “We have said from the beginning that we do not own this movement – we are a part of the movement,” Bland says. “But we are holders of a vision that we must protect. It’s not always easy to do that but we feel it’s our responsibility as the people who sparked this movement and were the midwives of it last year.”
She acknowledges leaders of a “select few events” received letters from the organization asking them not to use the Women’s March name, but she insisted that most of those incidents sprung from complaints “from organizations that are people-of-color-led or [from] local communities that are marginalized” saying that they would not feel safe at those events. As an example she cited a march that would have included a police presence employing methods like stop-and-frisk on march participants. She declined to name the specific city.
When demonstrators “come to us and say that there is an event happening that they don’t feel welcome at,” Bland says, “That they don’t feel comfortable with, that there is some organized practices that are outlined in our unity principles or that are against the Kingian nonviolence principles we organize under, we have to have some sort of quality control to that.”
In a video reacting to the Times story, Tamika Mallory, another co-president of Women’s March Inc., used sharper words to describe the dynamic she observed. “I could care less who steals the Women’s March platform,” she said. “Instead they choose to try and steal our thunder in order to do their work. And that’s cool – do it. I’m used to copy-cats. That’s no problem, but to say that the work we’re doing doesn’t resonate in the red states,” as she believes the other groups have implied, is, in her view, counter-productive.
Mallory continued: “When you hear these folks tell you to come and join their networks, what they’re saying is their networks are fluffy fun places where you can go and have your tea parties and get registered to vote, but they’re not trying to come and address the issues that matter to you. They don’t care about the issues that are concerning the lives of young, black and brown men and women in the blue states.”
In the meantime, Women’s March Inc. is continuing to prepare for its anniversary event in Las Vegas, Nevada on Sunday. Vegas was chosen, co-president Bob Bland says, because Nevada is a swing state and a microcosm of many of the issues animating the organization. She flagged the races for Senate – viewed as one of the most competitive Senate races this year – and governor, as well as the history of voter suppression, the fact that the state is home to thousands of Salvadorans poised to lose their temporary protected status and the site, earlier this year, of the largest massacre in modern U.S. history. “There’s just so many ways that these issues are affecting women and their communities,” Bland says.
The disputes between organizations with similar goals, though, are threatening to shift the focus away from that work. “I think it is really sad that Women’s March is pursuing a trademark. Once that is in place, it will make it hard to maintain the fresh, entrepreneurial spirit of the grassroots. The logo, name, and messaging of the women’s movement will then sit under one umbrella, severely limiting the flexibility of organizers on the ground,” Jasik says. “One hundred and seventy years ago when 68 women signed the Declaration of Sentiments they did not pause to call on an attorney to trademark the phrase.”
For now, Monckton is focused on organizing this weekend’s marches with March On in Canada. Women’s March Canada will be holding their own events, mostly in separate cities. The groups have agreed to meet after the demonstrations to discuss a way forward.
A positive outcome, from Monckton’s point of view, would include a public apology from Women’s March, Inc. “I’d like them to recognize that we did do all this heavy lifting, all the labor, we built the social media accounts, we had a really excellent vibe and then something bad happened,” she says. “And it would just be really nice to hear that.”