On Jan. 19, protesters will take to the streets for the third iteration of the Women’s March.

But after a year marred by accusations of anti-Semitism, financial opacity and infighting, the national Women’s March organization is facing turmoil. This year, it has sought to refocus the group with a rally and the rollout of a new federal policy platform dubbed the Women’s Agenda.

Meanwhile, local groups across the country — largely unaffiliated with the national organization — have been unable to separate themselves from the fallout. They say it has hurt their ability to organize, to attract participants and to be heard.

Even the name, Women’s March, has become a flash point.

Four organizations have sued the national Women’s March group — led by activists Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour — over efforts to trademark the name, arguing that no entity can own the march or the activism it has inspired. Some groups have sought to rebrand to shed the “Women’s March” name and the tumult that comes with it.

As they prepare for the Women’s March on Saturday, leaders are grappling with the question:

What is in a name, and is the name “Women’s March” worth fighting for?

“There’s power in the name because of what we’ve all done and the movement we’ve all created,” said Katherine Siemionko, who founded Women’s March Alliance, a New York organization that will lead a Manhattan march Saturday, and who organized the first Women’s March there in 2017. “But then having the name also ties us to a group we have nothing to do with. And that’s been a problem for us this year.”

Building a brand

The story of the Women’s March began in 2016 with a single Facebook post calling for women to rally in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

While the group that would become Women’s March Inc. organized a massive rally in Washington, more than 600 cities and towns across the country hosted sister events. The groups that grew out of those marches have, in many states, continued to organize. Most registered as nonprofits, and many gave themselves names that included the words “Women’s March,” a nod to the event that started it all.

“We just didn’t see down the pipeline what would happen,” said Emiliana Guereca, the executive director of Women’s March Los Angeles Foundation, which is independent from the national organization. “There was never a discussion of trademarking or what would happen if we continued to work under this brand. We have all built this brand together. All of us. But there’s one organization taking ownership.”

Why some local marches are distancing themselves

According to the national organization, there are fewer than 40 recognized chapters in the national Women’s March network. In recent months, even those chapters have begun to distance themselves from the national group.

The value of the name “Women’s March” lies in the brand recognition and media attention that come with it, leaders said. But after a tumultuous year when national organizers were accused of anti-Semitism and all four co-chairs were asked to step down by founders and former supporters, some activists see the name as a blessing and a curse.

Groups gather for the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
Groups gather for the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

Local leaders said they spent much of 2018 putting out fires associated with the national group because of the perception that they are connected.

Protesters convened outside the Women’s March Los Angeles chapter recently, demanding that its leaders denounce anti-Semitism and the Nation of Islam. Guereca said the backlash was so intense that she hired a public relations firm to manage it.

“It was tough, and as a Latina Jew it was hard for me to talk to people who my own kids go to school with about what was going on,” she said. “My kids had to hear people come up to me and say, ‘You’re part of an anti-Semitic organization.’ It gave me chills to think about.”

In New York, Siemionko said, the group has been answering questions daily about its relationship with the national group and whether the Women’s March’s national leaders should step down. After months of discussion, the New York organization decided to further distance itself from Women’s March Inc. in a rebranding effort this year.

“I think there’s been a lot of disinformation out there,” said Vanessa Wruble, an organizer of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington who founded the organization March On, which focuses on supporting grass-roots legislative action.

“There were over 600 marches, and they were all organized separately. So everyone uses that term. Everyone called themselves a women’s march,” she said.

“It was never meant to belong to one group. It was a movement. And it should remain a movement.”

Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report.

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