Political News

As Women's March anniversary approaches, divisions in movement strategy emerge

Posted January 17, 2018 4:12 p.m. EST

— The night before the Women's Convention in October 2017, a group of organizers -- many who were behind the massive Women's March after Donald Trump's inauguration -- gathered in a Detroit Marriott hotel room to discuss logistics.

They worked through their exhaustion, hunching over their phones and laptops to finalize last minute details for the event, their biggest since the march itself.

"I just want to go to sleep, I'm so tired," one organizer said, just before Mariam Ehrari, head of operations and partnerships for the Women's March, called on the group to "get started."

"What people don't know here is we came to organize with a local host committee, a local host committee that had their own political stuff that was happening before we got here... there was a lot of struggles: There was race issues, there was organizations who don't like each other, there were people who didn't like each other, sometimes they didn't like us," Linda Sarsour told the group.

The meeting was captured in footage for CNN Digital's upcoming documentary, "Women Who March: The Movement."

The film, which debuts on CNNgo on Jan. 19, shows organizers behind the scenes in the months after the Women's March in Washington, DC, as they try to keep up momentum from that enormous event that united the diverse coalition of people who oppose the President. What's clear from the footage: Organizing such a huge movement is not easy, nor is organizing the organizers.

There are multiple national groups and countless grassroots organizations working together, and often apart.

Such internal tension in a large movement like this one is of course inevitable. But what became apparent to Women's March organizers early on in 2017 was that while they were unified in their goals of a vocal opposition to Trump and encouraging political action and activism, they were divided in how to achieve them.

It was around May when Vanessa Wruble, one of the co-founders of the Women's March on Washington, felt it was time to branch out.

"People think that the Women's March was highly coordinated across the country and world," Wruble told CNN. "When in fact it was highly decentralized. After, some of us started talking about what came next."

She and a handful of other organizers gathered first in Denver and then again in May in Chicago to discuss "how to carry our work forward." Their verdict: They need to be even more of a grassroots movement by focusing on getting people elected in red states. Subsequently, the organization March On was formed.

"I think the main difference between March On and Women's March Inc is that Women's March focuses on issues around social and racial justice, which are issues everyone in March On care deeply about as well. But all these things we want to change about our country, none of it is going to happen until we change our elected leaders."

Still, Wruble pointed out, "it's natural to fight with different tactics."

During the women's suffrage movement, activist Alice Paul formed a more radical National Woman's Party after breaking away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

"People who wanted to focus on electoral stuff came on board with March On," Wruble said of the Women's March. "Those who are more focused on immigration and racial justice probably gravitated more toward Women's March Inc."

Wruble said March On's biggest focus most recently was the Alabama Senate race, which Democrat Doug Jones won, handing a victory to progressives. Now, they are hoping to replicate that success across the US.

"Our grand finale for our actions for 2018 is election day, the midterms," she said.

Women's March organizers also recently shifted their attention to 2018. This year, rather than march on Washington again, the Women's March is moving West to Nevada. Their event, which will take place at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Jan. 21, will serve as a national voter registration and mobilization tour, which the Women's March has dubbed "#PowerToThePolls."

"It was very relevant for us to go to Washington, DC, last year to send a message we were all united," Sarsour told CNN last week. "When 2018 came around, we had to be really strategic about what message we want to come out of this gathering. And in order for us to put forth a strong message that women are going to lead the victories in 2018 electorally, we had to go to a state that was relevant. We chose Nevada."

Nevada was among the few swing states to go Hillary Clinton's direction in 2016. Now, it's poised to play an important role as a battleground state in 2018, as Republican Sen. Dean Heller fights to keep his seat and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is term-limited, prepares to exit.

The state also has a large immigrant population. Several thousand Nevada residents from El Salvador will likely become deportable in September 2019, the Las Vegas Sun reported last week, following the Trump administration's decision to end temporary protected status for citizens of El Salvador. Last year, Las Vegas was also the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, an event that reignited a simmering debate over gun control.

Wruble admitted it did come as a surprise when the Las Vegas event was announced. After all, March On's initiative is called something very similar: "March On The Polls." They are using the upcoming march anniversary to push people to register to vote, and educate voters on local upcoming elections. They are launching something called "Operation Marching Order," which Wruble described as a "massive countrywide interactive poll or conservation" to encourage dialogue and voter action around elections.

"I was not aware they [Women's March Inc] were jumping into the electoral side of things," she said. "But there's a lot of work to do, so I feel like it's an all hands on deck situation... there's certainly enough work to go around."

While their tactics may differ, both groups are riding on the momentum from the last year, which left many women energized.

Merriam-Webster said "feminism" was 2017's word of the year, and searches for the word first spiked following the Women's March. Last fall, the "#MeToo movement took off, as millions of women shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Subsequently, TIME named its person of the year the "Silence Breakers," or women who publicly spoke out about their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.

Perhaps most significant for upcoming elections, women swept battleground states and districts on election night in November. In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor's race, a feat that relied on support from women voters, according to exit polls. Elsewhere in the state, a handful of first-time female candidates made history in races for the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran is one of the first Asian-American women to win a seat in Virginia. Danica Roem is the first openly transgender candidate ever to be elected and serve in a state legislature in the country.

Jennifer Lawless, co-author of the book, "Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era," said the Women's March helped generate "widespread activism to push back against Donald Trump's agenda. And it made women who ordinarily wouldn't participate in politics, or do much more than vote during a general election, become politically activated."

Both Sarsour and Wruble are excited for "Women's Weekend" and optimistic that the momentum -- regardless of who is doing what -- will continue in 2018.

Women's marches are scheduled across the globe on both Saturday and Sunday this weekend.