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Amber Selman Lynn wanted to help plan a women’s march in Mobile, Ala., this month to mark the first anniversary of last year’s huge protests across the country. With no experience in political activism, she had helped organize a bus full of women to go from Mobile to NY. After they came back from the euphoric trip, they formed a group called Mobile Marchers that met monthly. They spoke up for the Affordable Care Act at town-hall-style meetings, and knocked on doors for the Alabama Senate candidate Doug Jones, the Democrat who beat Roy S. Moore in a stunning victory last month.
In Texas, emails collected by the organizers of the Women’s March in Austin are being repur posed to promote candidates who support abortion rights. In Arkansas, Gwen Combs, the elementary schoolteacher who organized the Little Rock march, is now running for Congress. Thousands of women in October attended a convention in Detroit training them on every thing from lobbying elected officials to white supremacy.
But as the movement evolves, differing priorities and tactics have emerged among the women, nearly all of them unpaid and spread across the country. Now, on the eve of the anniversary, a rift is emerging between two groups: Women’s March Inc., which organized the march on NY and spent much of the year creating more social justice protests, and another organization of activists who planned sister marches last year and believe that winning elections, particularly in red states, should be the primary goal. The split has raised questions about who can claim the mantle of the Women’s March — and the funding and press attention that goes with it.
“We can march and take to the streets and yell about all the stuff we want to change, but unless we’re getting people elected to office who are going to make those changes, we’re not really doing anything,” said Lindsey Kanaly, who organized the women’s march in Oklahoma City and is now a March On board member.
The group is now focused on helping liberal women in Republican-led districts organize ahead of the pivotal midterm elections this year.
Mindful of the optics of dividing the movement, March On founders describe the organization as a complement, not a competitor, to Women’s March Inc. Both groups have refrained from criticizing the other in public. But behind the scenes, there has been some frustration.
The organizers of the march in Washington made a point of picking leaders from communities who have historically been ignored by mainstream feminist groups. Of the four national co chairwomen of the Washington march, three were minorities. But the group’s leadership had very little geographic diversity. Nearly all of the board members of Women’s March Inc. are from New York City.
Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.
“What they are doing is great, but it’s difficult to tap into here,” said Kelly Smith, a librarian from Berea, Ky., who organized buses from Kentucky to Washington for the march last year. A general strike could not work in Kentucky, a state where many women depend on hourly wages and do not have union protections, she said.
March On’s founders say the group grew out of weekly conference calls held by the organizers of sister marches as they swapped tips on applying for permits, finding sponsors and obtaining event insurance. After the marches, they met for the first time at a retreat and decided to form a new organization that would focus on giving organizers tools to help win elections. In October, March On began an initiative called March on the Polls, which urges local activists to use the anniversary to help register and educate voters in advance of the midterm elections. Two months later, in December, Women’s March Inc. announced its own campaign called “Power to the Polls,” with an opening rally in Las Vegas on Jan. 21.
So far, the split between Women’s March and March On has not dampened the enthusiasm for marking the anniversary. Many activists in the field said they were unaware of the division. Those who are say they seek resources from both organizations: Women’s March Inc. provides a unifying vision and a national spotlight, while March On gives on-the-ground support, such as legal advice on applying for nonprofit status.