When an estimated 4 million people turned up for the Women’s March protest in Washington, D.C., and 650 sister marches across the United States in January, just a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, both participants and observers asked, “What’s next?”
Nearly eight months later, the march’s organizers are planning a major follow-up event: a multi-day forum, called the “The Women’s Convention,” aimed at building support ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. The convention is scheduled to take place in Detroit on Oct. 27-29.
“We need to take the organizing power we gained from the Women’s March and convert that into political power,” said Bob Bland, the national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington. “Our goal is for people to come out of this with revolutionary new knowledge, training and connections.”
The convention is the latest high-profile effort to maintain the grassroots energy from the January march, which was likely the largest single-day protest in U.S history. Organizers expect 5,000 people will attend the convention; nearly 1,500 people have registered so far.
Organizers picked Detroit for its symbolism as a city struggling with some of the catalyzing issues — like income inequality and police brutality — that led women to join the January march.
But Michigan also has political significance. Along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Michigan helped Mr. Trump clinch his presidential victory, but it’s long been a blue state that could flip back to Democrats. In August this year, an NBC News/Marist poll put Trump’s approval rating below 40 percent in the three states.
From protest to politics
So what has the national Women’s March group been doing since January? Bland and fellow organizers Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour have been working closely with local Women’s March groups that formed in 30 states. The movement has launched two main follow-up campaigns: a large-scale campaign to write and call members of Congress, as well as the formation of more than 5,400 “huddles” — small groups of women and men who meet to organize local initiatives.
In March, to coincide with International Women’s Day, the national group organized a one-day strike called “A Day Without a Woman.” Time magazine included the four women behind the Women’s March in its list of most influential people of 2017.
Meanwhile, Emma Collum, the founder of Florida’s Women’s March group and head of field operations for the national organization, has announced she’s running as a Democrat to replace Republican state Rep. George Moraitis.
But it’s still unclear if the Women’s March can lead to electoral wins in 2018.
“The central question from the beginning is, what follows?” said Todd Gitlin, a scholar of political movements and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. “It takes momentum from a seminal event like the march to convince a critical mass of people to dedicate themselves to the enduring work of political change.”
Capitalizing on the momentum from the march will require a disciplined approached and setting out concrete goals, Gitlin added. For example, “a goal is to bring 40 seats in the House,” or register a certain number of new voters, Gitlin said.
Some said the Women’s March organizers face important challenges around communicating their agenda. “They need to find the right balance between hard-core strategy talk and emotionally inspiring people,” said Maria Stephan, the co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works.” Stephan added: “It can be political but not hyper-partisan.”
It’s also important to give a movement time to mature, Stephan said. “Before political change happens, you have to raise consciousness and educate the public,” she said.
Tresa Undem, a partner in the non-partisan polling firm PerryUndem, said polling showed that a growing awareness of gender equality was simmering among voters well before the Women’s March.
“Before Trump’s election, in every focus group I did among women, at least one out of eight people would mention women’s equality,” Undem said. “There wouldn’t be a specific issue but it was just below people’s consciousness. Then on November 9th, suddenly there was something incredibly tangible to hang on to.”
But supporters of feminism or women’s issues aren’t monolithic. For activists and leaders, the central question remains: How to unite a broad coalition of people who come to the table with different perspectives, priorities and grievances.
Divisions among female voters along race and class lines were on display in the 2016 presidential election. A majority of white women — 53 percent — voted for Trump, while roughly 94 percent of black women voted against him, according to exit polls.
And since the election, the Women’s March has had to navigate tensions around race and the women’s rights movement’s legacy of excluding women of color. Ahead of the January march, some on social media — particularly minority women — called for greater attention and sensitivity to the issue. It was seen by some, however, as alienating and even unwelcoming.
The convention appears focused on addressing these issues. The event’s website says the convention will focus on “working towards collective liberation for women of all races, ethnicities, ages, disabilities, sexual identities, gender expressions, immigration statuses, religious faiths, and economic statuses.”
The success of the Women’s March as a sustainable movement will hinge on what comes from such efforts. Predicts Bland, “I don’t think anyone can underestimate the change that will come from” the convention.