The Women’s March Was Just the Beginning

All across the country, activists inspired to fight Trump are building a new kind of feminist movement.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images.

This article is part of a weeklong series on President Trump’s first year in office.

When a few disparate women—spread across several states and with little history of organized activism—conceived of a women’s march on a whim after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016, no one knew how it would turn out, or whether it would happen at all. Nothing about the march went as planned. The promised venue, the Lincoln Memorial, was unavailable; organizers hadn’t so much as called the National Park Service to see if any other events were scheduled before they created a Facebook invite. The original name—the Million Woman March—had to be revised to avoid co-opting a 1997 rally. On the day of the march, the planned route had to be scrapped because the crowd was so many times larger than expected, with hundreds of thousands of women smashed ass-to-groin on the D.C. roads where they were supposed to be marching.

No one knew what to expect after the event, either. More than 3.3 million people had poured onto streets across the country. There was no precedent for such a massive, spontaneous demonstration and no clear path forward. Most major protests are culminations of years of movement organizing with clear benchmarks and discernible goals. This thoroughly grass-roots, multi-issue march felt more like a beginning. But the beginning of what?

One year later, it’s still hard to assess the impact of an event so unprecedented in its size and formation. No rally since then has come close to rivaling the crowds of that day, leading some to wonder whether the march had sustained its early momentum. The organizers have coordinated some smaller actions, like a daylong strike and an 18-mile walk against guns and police brutality, and they have urged the organization’s more than 548,000 Twitter followers to lobby their elected officials on a slew of progressive issues. Many of the marchers, including an offshoot group called March On, have channeled the energy of the march into their first attempts at political activism. The Women’s March pulled more newbies into the political fold than any single event in U.S. history, and women—as voters, organizers, and candidates—have already fueled a surge of Democratic victories in state and local elections across the country. If Democrats retake the House this year, it is clear they will have women to thank.

But the activism inspired by the Women’s March has grown beyond simply defeating Republicans at the ballot box. What began as an outpouring of grief and anger at Trump’s election has evolved into a broader re-examination of the feminist movement and the structural factors that allowed a man like Trump, who openly demeaned just about every marginalized demographic in America, to ascend to the nation’s highest office.

“Right now, our democracy is in crisis, and it doesn’t at all surprise me that women were the first to call for a march and to show up by the millions,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a recipient of the MacArthur genius grant. “Somebody in the family is in crisis, and we respond. Somebody in the community is in crisis, and we organize.”

Last week, Poo was a guest of Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, one of a handful of activists invited by celebrities involved in organizing the Time’s Up initiative to combat the sexual harassment and abuse of low-wage workers. Time’s Up grew out of the #MeToo movement—a months-long reckoning that has shown what the energy born of the Women’s March can accomplish, but also how far the movement for gender equity still has to go. If the nasty shock of Trump’s election proved that women weren’t as equal in contemporary American society as they thought they were, then #MeToo has shown that inequality still pervades every industry and class. It is a testament to the solidarity of the post-march movement that women of different colors and classes have committed to fighting these injustices together. Of all the little silver linings in post-election activism, the awakening of complacent liberals to the realities of modern-day sexism and racism might be the most significant and surprising.

For many women, the march was an inspiration to start bridging these gaps. Cheryl Brown, 56, is part of an activist group that formed from a text chain after the march last January and is now a 100-person email list, whose members live all over the country and coordinate actions—phone banking, letter writing—a few times a week. In addition to their political work, members of Brown’s group have pledged to join at least one additional activist group that represents an identity different from their own. Brown, a black Catholic, now attends the meetings of an otherwise all-white Jewish women’s organization. “They’re hearing my message, and I’m also hearing their message and bringing it back to my own group,” she told me at the Women’s Convention in Detroit in October. “We’ve had some hard conversations about race. Even with white women you consider to be your close friends, you don’t always have those conversations, because you don’t want to offend anyone.”

The Women’s Convention, which was organized by the Women’s March and brought together nearly 5,000 attendees for a kind of make-your-own-activism boot camp, showed how far those conversations had come. The convention reflected a new, inclusive vision of feminism that treats all issues as women’s issues, with more than 100 panels, spread over three days, ranging from informational sessions on topical issues (“Fighting the Prison and Detention Industrial Complex”; “How Disability Rights Can Save the Women’s Movement”) to more tactical advice about how to get involved (“Protecting Immigrants on a Local Level Through Policy Campaigns”; “The Role of Cities in Protecting Reproductive Freedom”).

Some of the most popular sessions centered on cross-racial dialogue. A session on “Confronting White Womanhood” was well past capacity at around 200 attendees; when organizers scheduled a repeat session for the next day due to the high demand, about 500 people showed up. The main event on Saturday, a lunch honoring Maxine Waters in the name of Sojourner Truth, was billed as a corrective to the fact that “the Women’s Movement has never sufficiently included, let alone centered, black women’s experiences in the fight for gender justice.”

The women’s movement that is currently underway has taken direct aim at that imbalance. “I’m not going back to a suffragist movement where Susan B. Anthony says she’d rather cut off her right arm [than] demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” said activist Brittany Packnett during one session on putting more black women into positions of power. “I’m not going back to a feminist movement that says women make 80 cents to the man’s dollar when that’s not true for women of color.”

Ingrid Vaca, a domestic worker and undocumented activist who immigrated from Bolivia in 2000, said women were listening to her stories and ideas with a newfound dedication. “I feel that in a lot of meetings, a lot of conventions, nobody talks about us,” Vaca said.
“Coming from this convention, I am feeling really good, because they said they are not only feminist, they are not working just for undocumented or immigrant women, but also for domestic workers. It makes me feel like I have a space in this world.”

For some women, that process has been educational and, at times, exhilarating. Sarah Schulz of Women of Michigan Action Network (WOMAN), whose 1,300 members hail from a small community in central Michigan, said her group has, in the last year, organized an anti–Muslim ban event with a local Islamic center, supported a ballot petition to reform the redistricting process in Michigan, and successfully pressured their representative in Congress, Rep. John Moolenaar, to hold a town hall about the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“This is the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done,” Schulz, 40, told me. “I’m just this lady, this mom. I literally woke up on Nov. 9 and thought, ‘What the hell, what am I going to do?’ But somebody told me once that the antidote to despair is action.”

The members of WOMAN, who are mostly white, also supported a group of local high school students of color when they protested the national anthem during a recent football game. “For some people in the group, the initial reaction was to be the white savior: ‘Oh, we’ll do it for them, we’ll take a knee,’ ” Schulz said during the “Confronting White Womanhood” session at the convention. “It took a lot of discussion and communication before we figured out that wasn’t the best way to do it.” Instead of hijacking the action, WOMAN members recruited volunteers to use their bodies as shields to safely escort the students off the field, and directed media inquiries to the students, keeping themselves out of the spotlight.

That kind of collaboration represents a step forward for newcomers to social justice organizing, for whom the impulse toward showy actions is strong, and the learning curve for effective allyship is steep. The Women’s March has helped build a kind of fast-track to movement leadership, both by modeling how it’s done—Women’s March co-president Bob Bland had little experience in traditional activism before she made a Facebook event for the march that went viral—and by creating opportunities for concentrated self-education that would normally occur over a period of years.

“It’s amazing to work with people who have never organized before, because there’s a sense of energy and urgency for them. They absorb everything,” said Carmen Perez, one of the co-founders of the march. “It’s not always easy. … There are sometimes things people say that are dismissive of certain communities—and so again, it’s how do you, instead of shaming them, how do you use that as a teaching moment?” Perez points to Facebook video conversations the march organizers have moderated over the past year, on subjects including immigration reform and Trump’s Muslim ban, as examples of how they’re trying to get new activists up to speed on intersectional feminism without alienating them.

“What I’m practicing as a woman of color is patience—patience with a community that is fresh to this fight,” said black writer and stylist Michaela Angela Davis at one convention panel. “Let them learn from us. But y’all better learn quick.”

Some of the newcomers are still catching up on the basics. “What’s a palm card?” asked one woman during a small session led by Baltimore Women United, a voter-turnout organization formed after the 2016 election. Most of the attendees were leaders of their own local activist groups, eager to ask questions like “How did you get that voter data?” and “What do you say to get people to stay and listen when you’re canvassing?” The members of Baltimore Women United have focused their own efforts on getting Democratic and independent women to donate to progressive candidates and vote more regularly, targeting “inconsistent” voters who’ve come out for two of the last three primaries. They do one action a month—registering people to vote at community gatherings, knocking on more than 2,500 doors to spread the word about a primary date—always on the 8th, to “reclaim” the date from the horror they felt when Trump was elected last November.

That grass-roots organizing began to pay dividends in November, when women won electoral victories both substantive and symbolic. Democrats won 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates: 11 of those were picked up by women, one of whom is a transgender woman who unseated the man behind a bill banning trans people from certain school bathrooms. In New Jersey, a young woman and first-time candidate was moved to run for office after a male county legislator posted a meme on Facebook that asked, “WILL THE WOMEN’S MARCH PROTEST BE OVER IN TIME FOR THEM TO COOK DINNER?” She beat him handily. Last month, women—and especially black women—helped Democrat Doug Jones win an upset victory in Alabama over Republican Roy Moore, who had been accused of pursuing, and in some cases assaulting, teenage girls. It was the first time Democrats had won a statewide race in Alabama in decades.

The challenge for activists will be to sustain those results over the coming year, and translate that momentum into tangible gains for women of all backgrounds. The Women’s March organization, which now has several full-time employees (though representatives won’t say how many), plans to launch its own nationwide “voter registration tour” in Las Vegas on the anniversary of the march. “The fact that we saw a flip happen in Alabama as well as Virginia is kind of a ray of hope for us,” Carmen Perez, one of the four co-chairs of the march, told me. “Last year was a time to get people engaged, and to educate them, and to give them the tools that they needed in order to work in their local communities, or on a state level or a federal level. And now it’s time to get people out to the polls.”