Pamela Kaye and Mara Steinhaus met up around 10 a.m. Saturday morning with sharpies, poster-board, and coffee in hand. They quickly agreed on a phrase to splash across their signs.
“Anti anti-Semitism. Pro-women.”
This year’s Women’s March — not unlike its previous iterations — has been highly controversial. Many former supporters have distanced themselves, citing the anti-Semitism of the movement’s leaders. In particular, the controversy centers around Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory, who has publicly praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, known for his anti-semitic remarks.
Kaye, 32, and Steinhaus, 30, longtime friends from Washington, D.C., have attended the Women’s March — along with many other protests — in the past. But this year, they said, they had a hard time deciding whether or not to go.
“My friend,” Kaye texted Steinhaus at 7:45 p.m. on Friday, “Are you marching tomorrow!!!??!?? I’m so undecided.”
“Was literally typing as I got this to ask the same thing!” Steinhaus responded. They texted back and forth, weighing things they’d heard and read, debating whether this year’s march was something they wanted to publicly support.
“I was really grappling with the question, ‘What does my presence say?’ Steinhaus said on her way to the march. “What does it say, especially, to my friends who are Jewish? But also, what does it say if I don’t go?” Early this morning, Steinhaus and Kaye decided that they would join the march, while qualifying their participation on their signs.
Susan Sall, a 51-year-old Jewish woman from northern Virginia, tapped Kaye on the shoulder. “I just wanted to say that I really like what you wrote,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Sall had also struggled with the decision of whether or not to attend. But when her daughter heard she wasn’t planning to march, Sall said, she talked her into it. “I think I would have felt bad about myself if I didn’t come,” she added. She worries that voices on the right purposely amplified the division of the Women’s March leadership.
“[President Trump] wants us to be separated, truly,” she said. “But women have to stand together.”
Steinhaus had been worried about the same thing. As soon as she heard about Mallory’s affiliation with Farrakhan — and subsequent refusal to roundly denounce him — she looked up “Women’s March news” to get an overall sense of the story. Many of the news articles that popped up first, particularly those from conservative outlets, she said, “really played up the division within the movement.”
Most of the people I spoke to, many of whom had attended previous women’s marches in the nation’s capital, said the crowd seemed significantly smaller this year. Some attributed the drop off in numbers to the recent controversy. “My roommate is Jewish and she didn’t come,” said Katie Nieman, a 24-year-old from Arlington, Va. “She definitely wanted to be here, but at the last minute she decided, ‘I just can’t do it.’”
There were, however, a large number of Jewish women who did choose to attend. Prior to the March, the affinity group Jewish Women of Color held a prayer service at a downtown Presbyterian Church. Afterwards, everyone joined the march as a group, said Tina Lunson, a Jewish woman from Silver Spring, Md.