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What's Up With the Controversy Dividing the Women's March — And What Should You Do About It?

As the third annual Women's March approaches, the organization's co-chairs are facing significant backlash internally and externally

By Talia Lavin

Earlier this week, the Democratic National Committee officially pulled support from the 2019 Women’s March, the third iteration of an event that galvanized millions of women to take to the streets across the nation on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president. Not too long ago, this decision would have been shocking — especially given that the Women’s March helped inspire unprecedented numbers of women who entered politics and won elected office in the 2018 midterms. But the DNC’s recusal comes amid an avalanche of former sponsors departing from the March, including liberal stalwarts like EMILY’s List, NARAL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Center for American Progress.

So what caused the controversy? It’s a complicated story, but one that goes all the way to the top of Women’s March Inc., the body that officially represents a sprawling, decentralized women’s movement. For over a year, controversy has swirled around WMI co-chair Tamika Mallory and her ties to the Nation of Islam, an African-American religious organization headed by controversial preacher Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam, founded in 1930, has been headed by Farrakhan since 1977. Farrakhan’s bombastic condemnations of Jews and gay people — calling Judaism a “dirty religion,” accusing Jews of chemically engineering homosexuality among Black men, and stating that “Hitler was a very great man” — have rendered him a fringe figure.

So what does this have to do with the Women’s March? Mallory, a gun-control activist, has both praised Farrakhan on social media, calling him the GOAT or “Greatest of All Time” in an Instagram post from 2017, and attended at least one Nation of Islam-affiliated event during her time in the national spotlight. Critics have said that Mallory, and the Women’s March organization more broadly, have been overly hesitant in distancing themselves from Farrakhan and his openly anti-Semitic rhetoric. Another co-chair, Linda Sarsour, has received significant criticism from the right wing for her support of Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel. Despite Sarsour’s efforts to address her critics, this has melded with criticism of Mallory’s association with the NOI to create a national media firestorm over allegations of anti-Semitism.

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Women's March co-chairwomen Linda Sarsour (L) and Tamika D. Mallory speak during the Women's March "Power to the Polls" voter registration tour.

The simmering controversy boiled over this week after Women’s March leaders appeared on ABC’s The View, and Mallory declined to condemn Farrakhan’s rhetoric. Mallory praised the Nation of Islam’s work in black communities, which has extended for decades, and which black Jewish writer Adam Serwer described as “a force in impoverished black communities — not simply as a champion of the black poor or working class, but of the black underclass.” Serwer noted that the combination of the Nation of Islam’s continual presence in underserved black communities has created a repetitive bind for black leaders, in which Farrakhan’s inflammatory rhetoric is used against black figures in the national spotlight. A similar controversy over associations with Farrakhan embroiled Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in 2016.

The Jewish online magazine Tablet also published an investigation in which an early organizer in the Women’s March alleged that she had been pushed out of the organization due to her Jewish faith and that, during an initial meeting, national co-chair Carmen Perez and Mallory had made anti-Semitic statements, alleging that Jews were primarily responsible for the slave trade and the prison-industrial complex in the United States. (These are debunked anti-Semitic canards, traceable back to a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam called The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.) These allegations were picked up and then expanded on by the New York Times in a lengthy report.

The Women’s March organizers have faced significant backlash due to these associations, both from sponsors and from members of the larger grassroots movement. Numerous local Women’s March branches, including the Women’s Marches in Los Angeles and in New Orleans, have taken pains to stress their independence from the national organization, and to distance themselves from Farrakhan’s rhetoric. A call for the Women’s March leaders to resign has sparked a Twitter hashtag and a petition with nearly ten thousand signatures. Jewish organizations have cut ties with the march, and individual Jewish women have spoken up about their conflicting feelings about participating; one told the Washington Post that she could not endorse women who “oppose one hate monger but refuse to condemn another.” Others have been more circumspect; an article in The Root pointed out a double standard, stating that Mallory’s embattled position “reinforces how black women are held accountable in ways white women rarely — if ever — confront.”

Nonetheless, the whole situation has been something of a boon to the right, with breathless coverage extending from the National Review to Breitbart and the Daily Caller. This week, conservative writer Ross Douthat used the troubles besetting the Women’s March to prop up a New York Times op-ed column painting the entire left as beset by anti-Semitism, entitled “Racists to the Right, Anti-Semites to the Left.” (Douthat did not mention that two months ago, the worst massacre of Jews in American history was carried out in Pittsburgh by a rabidly far-right white supremacist, nor the persistent presence of anti-Semitic conspiracies surrounding Jewish billionaire George Soros on the right.) Moreover, the pitting of black people against Jews has caused significant strain among activists, and has been a cause of racial tension in a broad movement that prides itself on inclusiveness.

So what’s a conscientious, thoughtful woman who opposes bigotry to do this weekend?

The Women’s March will go on, as it has for the past two years. There are many who will decide that a connection between a national co-chair and a faith leader, even one as virulent as Farrakhan, is not sufficient cause to break ties with an organization that has empowered so many women to make their voices heard in politics. A March 6 statement authored by Sarsour addresses the controversy directly on the Women’s March website:

“We love and value our sister and co-President Tamika Mallory, who has played a key role in shaping these conversations. Neither we nor she shy away from the fact that intersectional movement building is difficult and often painful.

Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles, which were created by women of color leaders and are grounded in Kingian Nonviolence. Women’s March is holding conversations with queer, trans, Jewish and Black members of both our team and larger movement to create space for understanding and healing.”

For those who are still skeptical and may be looking for other options, several alternative marches have sprung up in the wake of the controversy. In New York City, local organization the Women’s March Alliance has taken pains to distance itself from the national organization’s controversy, stating on their homepage that “We Do Not Support Any Organization Or Person That Is Anti-Semitic, Anti-Gay, Anti-Woman, Or Does Not Support Equal Rights For Every Human (sic).” And nationally, the organization March On — founded by Vanessa Wruble, an early Women’s March organizer who told the New York Times she felt pushed out on the basis of her faith — will be holding affiliate women’s marches across the country. JTA, a Jewish newswire, has produced a state-by-state guide indicating which state Women’s Marches continue to affiliate with the national organization.

Dueling marches across the nation (including two in the capital) may seem to emphasize an ongoing rift in the progressive movement. But hopefully it’ll be a lively if fractious crowd pouring into the streets, marching on in coexistence.