“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“Are you f-cking kidding me?!”
It took a few tries to coax a bunch of bleary-eyed bus riders into chanting on a mid-January morning earlier this year. We were just minutes away from Washington D.C. after an all-nighter from Toronto, rubbing the cricks out of our necks from a night of upright napping. The chant also caught some of us by surprise — it’s not every day a bunch of women are encouraged to swear loudly in the street (despite all the times we may have wanted to). But by the time our Women’s March logo-emblazoned red toques merged with the sea of pink pussy hats in the streets around the U.S. Capitol building, the awkwardness faded and we cussed with fervour.
Americans, with cheeky signs and chants of their own, stopped for hugs and heartfelt thanks — clearly moved that Canadian women had crossed the border to join their protest against freshly-inaugurated President Donald Trump. “You know shit’s bad when the Canadians are here,” Canadian Women’s March co-organizer Penelope Chester Starr yelled into what I thought was a megaphone (it wasn’t, she could just really holler). Canadian women were mad as hell alongside their American sisters — and we were there to get the work done.
Twelve triumphant hours later, our journey home was severely delayed by bus trouble, which left us waiting for hours in a D.C. stadium parking lot, wrapped in American Red Cross blankets. Despite the suckiness of the bus breakdown, most of women I talked to were still riding the high of the march. “I feel all tingly, like something’s changed in me,” one young woman said. Another openly cried on the bus ride home, not just due to exhaustion but from a newfound fire and responsibility she absorbed in the streets of D.C.
January 21, 2017 felt like a huge, harnessable moment for women’s rights activism, no matter where you marched — about 500,000 people are estimated to have participated in the Washington march, and there were more than 700 sister marches around the world. Here in Canada, more than 120,000 people filled the streets in cities nationwide, from Salt Spring Island, B.C. to St. John’s, making it one of the biggest coast-to-coast protests this country has ever seen. But the bus breakdown in D.C. is actually a great metaphor for what ended up happening to the nascent Canadian Women’s March movement: the wheels literally came off. Before International Women’s Day rolled around some six weeks later, there was an acrimonious split between the Women’s March Canada organizers. As a result, six months after the main event, Canadian organizers are still struggling to harness the energy that ricocheted across the country on January 21. Can this movement be saved?
When I met Chester Starr on the bus down to D.C., she was most excited about what was to come — how the Canadian women who flooded the streets in Washington and back at home would keep the spirit of the Women’s March alive. The 33-year-old strategy consultant, who splits her time between Toronto and L.A., was one of about six women who made up the core of Women’s March Canada operations, working around the clock for six weeks to organize the Canadian rallies and the buses down to D.C.
“It was like, There’s no way we got all these women together and then on January 22 are like ‘peace out.’ I just don’t see that happening,” she says now. When the exhaustion of the journey wore off, she and her fellow organizers signed an agreement that they’d all make all decisions for Women’s March Canada together and, later in the spring, elect a board. And at first, the activism continued — when Trump announced his executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., Women’s March Canada joined with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in urging Canadians to call their local MPs or join a vigil or protest.
Unbeknownst to them, another key organizer, Marissa McTasney, was talking to the core Women’s March founders in the United States about how the Canadian group could move forward under their umbrella. McTasney, a successful entrepreneur who sells a line of construction gear for women, had also built a strong relationship with the U.S. counterparts and, after January 21, attended a Women’s March retreat in New York City.
McTasney’s fellow organizers were not happy that McTasney went to New York on her own. What’s worse, in the view of Chester Starr and some of the other core Women’s March Canada organizers — including Samantha Monckton, Gillian Sonin and local organizers like Toronto’s Bianca Spence — was the Women’s March organization’s decision to have anyone who wanted to keep working with them officially apply with a résumé. This, Spence says, particularly rankled women on the ground who felt they had built the movement in their own backyards.
McTasney invited the Women’s March’s new global liaison, New York City-based Breanne Butler, on a call with the Canadian organizers to explain why structure and vetting of official Women’s March organizers was so important. “You look at movements like Occupy Wall Street, it failed because there wasn’t that structure,” Butler says.
But the phone call quickly turned ugly. Butler says there was yelling and swearing in response to what the central Women’s March was hoping to do. She believes the women were taken off guard. “We’re human, people mess up, but that was a red flag,” Butler says now. Chester Starr says it got so heated because the grassroots organizers in Canada felt blindsided by the U.S.-based Women’s March, with whom they’d had little to no contact in relation to their own marches on January 21.
Butler and McTasney went ahead and registered themselves as the sole co-directors of Women’s March Canada after that call. But a few days later, McTasney decided to quit working with Women’s March Canada and instead focus on her business.
In the meantime, Chester Starr and the others reached out to the Women’s March organizers in the U.S. saying communication between them, McTasney and Butler was “seriously failing” and that they’d like to reopen a dialogue about how to move forward. They did not get a response. Instead, Women’s March Canada was folded into the global brand, its mission statement — “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families” — exactly the same as its American counterpart. And so Chester Starr, Spence and Sonin removed themselves, too.
Marching in different directions
Chester Starr and Spence get visibly emotional when they talk about the split — and have since helped form a separate movement called March On Canada that they say is more grassroots than top-down. Spence says it was tough for localized Women’s March groups to retrench; in the case of March On, they’d lost a huge amount of social media reach by leaving Women’s March Canada and starting a new movement.
But Women’s March Canada has marched on too, as it were, only now with two official executive directors. In interviews, the leaders of both organizations expressed the same desire: Can you get the word out that we’re still doing this work? Nobody seems to know that Women’s March wasn’t just a day in January to protest Donald Trump.
Infighting aside, the Women’s March movement also seemed to struggle with moving forward together in a way that makes sense for everyone. The march came together rapidly (over seven weeks) and had the challenge of pitching (and holding) open that unwieldy umbrella of intersectionality — the idea that social categories such as race, class and gender are connected and experience similar forms of discrimination. Packing the streets of major cities across the globe sure seemed like a moment of unity at the time, despite tensions between those who felt swallowed by a sea of white women in pussyhats playing social activist for the day (one protest sign which read, “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next #BlackLivesMatter march, right?” encapsulated the frustration).
Social movements expert Roberta Lexier will only go so far as to call the Women’s March “an attempt” at unity, albeit one that was totally worthwhile. “Women obviously have different concerns around race, class, nationality, political perspective, etcetera,” says the associate professor of general education at Mount Royal University in Alberta. “But I also think the march was an amazing opportunity for thousands, millions, to come together and see that they can find some common ground, even if it’s for a couple of minutes.”
It’s not the first time activists have wrestled with helping the broader public understand and embrace intersectionality, Lexier says. The ’60s were defined by major civil action — the Vietnam protests, civil rights, the women’s movement — but those movements splintered when they tried to interlock related forms of discrimination (gay activists felt they had to divide from black activists, for example, she says). We’ve now entered a new moment of possibility: Social media has cracked this conversation open, and the Trump presidency, says Lexier, affords an “interesting opportunity” to engage on these issues with renewed energy. “All the things that have led to Trump have happened for a long time, he’s not an anomaly,” she says. “But what that moment does is make it so apparent and so clear for so many people who for a long time have thought ‘politics don’t affect me.’ Now there’s this one person in this one system who’s trying to dissolve government. People who for a long time have been able to pretend things don’t affect them are now finding they do.” (For the record, Lexier participated in the Calgary march, and says she found the event so inspiring, “it was hard to think of it as a one-off.)
While the splintering of the Canadian movement is a bump in the road, each separate organization — March On Canada and Women’s March Canada — are getting on with their work, both hoping to make a difference by advocating for greater change related to Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, agitating for better childcare options and protecting reproductive rights. (Both also participated in various Pride events.) Right now they’re just making connections and “listening,” both groups say. They want to work with those who’ve been advocating for decades, they just have different approaches.
March On recently announced a partnership with the Completing the Story, a project to draw attention to the lack of female representation in communities across Canada, whether in terms of city council, statues or street names. And Women’s March Canada, for its part, wants to be a centralized resource for the women’s movement in Canada, says co-executive director Michelle Brewer, who had co-organized the Edmonton march. It has also been holding “Lean In” circles in the tech hub of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Butler has been in touch with Brewer and her co-director, Sara Bingham, and is especially impressed by the intersectional board they’ve put together.
By comparison, the U.S. Women’s March — obviously a far larger organization than Women’s March Canada — has been extremely active, launching the “10 Actions for the first 100 Days” campaign shortly after the march, encouraging citizens to write their government representatives. It also held a general strike on International Women’s Day called #ADayWithoutAWoman, in which it advised women to take the day off of work, and/or avoid shopping aside from at small, women- or minority-owned businesses. It was also active at Pride, has been a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter and has tried to get out the social justice vote in international elections, including in France.
Can we divide and still conquer?
While it’d be nice to have an organized, unified movement here at home, at the end of the day perhaps it really doesn’t matter. Butler draws a line between a march and a movement — they’re different, and one takes far longer and can be messier and more complex than the other. It’s clear the fire of January 21 is still alive in a lot of the marchers on a far more personal level.
Alison Poste, another co-organizer of the Women’s March in Edmonton, is now running for a seat on her municipal council. Jennifer Gibson, a Guelph, Ont. woman who rode the bus down to D.C. with me, moved from an accounting job in the public sector to working for a charity. “For me, the election, the march, the political climate have all helped to define my priorities and provide me a greater sense of social responsibility,” she says.
Sadaf Jamal, an entrepreneur who founded Move n Improve — a non-profit wellness and empowerment program which offers, among other things, fitness instruction for Muslim women — was one of the first to email the group of bus riders just after our return in January to urge us to “keep marching” through our daily lives. One of the ways she’s done this, she says, is by opening up her Eid celebration dinner to her non-Muslim Toronto neighbours for the very first time this spring.
Toronto-based social worker Jocelyn Murphy, who took the bus to D.C. with a few friends, calls the Women’s March a “life-changing experience.” Afterward, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union to help support efforts to fight the injustices that keep rolling out in the States. While the Women’s March helped her reframe her work with Indigenous women in Toronto as her own form of daily activism, it’s tough to feel like she’s really doing something without that urgency, that organization, that motivation of January 21. “It felt electric,” she says. “It felt good to be in a space with people who felt the same thing as me.”
“I think I would have stayed in touch with the group and kept meeting up for events if it hadn’t kind of broken up,” she continues. “We were already getting to know each other, so it would have been kind of easy.”
For her part, Lexier wishes we could all get a little more comfortable with the idea of social progress being messy, fraught and not as united as we think these movements ought to be. Maybe that’s the solution. And maybe six months is way too soon to judge whether the Women’s March has made a lasting change. But still, the activism continues: Just last weekend, Women’s March organizers in the U.S. held a two-day protest decrying the National Rifle Association for airing an ad that suggests social activists are inciting violence. Roughly 1,000 people gathered in front of the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, VA—and then walked 27 km to the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington.
“I think the Women’s March inspired people to think about how they might participate in social change,” Lexier says. “Some of that is going to be unified, but a great deal of it is going to be divided. That’s OK too.”
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