In January 2017, one day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March burst into existence. The march was not without criticism: It was trans exclusionary, as pink pussy hats became one of its embodied worn symbols (“As a woman without a pussy, I felt adrift in the sea of hats,” Samantha Riedel wrote in a piece for this site), and some women of color quickly marked the event as little more than an Instagrammable moment for some white women, many of whom casted their votes for Trump. But despite controversy, many Women’s March participants and supporters still considered it a deep and impactful launching point for something bigger. As the Women’s March gained traction, however, it also came under a microscope, primarily because it elected to align its branding with the iconicism of its founder Bob Bland and its national cochairs, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour, who all spoke regularly and with pride about the workings of the Women’s March, the national organization’s goals, and its intention to expand beyond a single event.
Once Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour began attending conferences, speaking on panels, and offering keynotes about the Women’s March’s forward movement, they seemingly became feminist icons overnight. The Women’s March began on Facebook, as Bland explained during Vanity Fair’s Founders Fair in 2017. “The Facebook group I was in was like, what do we do now?” Bland said. “I created an event to march on Washington on inauguration weekend. One of my friends called and said, hey look at this!’ It turned out other people had the same idea. We merged our separate Facebook events. It went from being a gut reaction to the election to being this serious thing.” During the same event, Sarsour said, “The Women’s March could have been just January 21—we’re all proud. We could have just walked away. But we had something too great to ignore. We are an entity. We’re looking for people who stand up for the values and principles we share, and we’re looking at 2018.”
At that point, the Women’s March was considered a success, though it was more complicated than it seemed. In “Race And Feminism: Women’s March Recalls The Touchy History,” a piece published in NPR on the day of the march, Karen Grigsby Bates wrote, “The Women’s March on Washington started out pretty white, but quickly added young women of color in positions of leadership. They’re three of the four main organizers, and a lot of attention has been paid to how diverse this march has been in contrast to earlier ones. But even as the march’s diversity was being celebrated, it was also causing tension.” After all, you can’t push Black women activists, women of color activists, and white women together for an Instagram photo and expect immediate synchronicity, even if they have similar aims and goals. “These groups have historically had vastly different agendas, used different tactics and haven’t even always gotten along,” Charlotte Alter wrote in a 2017 article for Time. “It remains to be seen if they’ll work together after the historic march, and if they do, what that would even look like.”
Alter was onto something: Now, a little more than three years since the initial Women’s March, only Perez is still associated with the national organization. As allegations of antisemitism rammed the sparkly surfaces of the march’s legacy, Teresa Shook, one of the march’s original founders, called for the cochairs to step down. “Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez of Women’s March, Inc. have steered the Movement away from its true course,” Shook wrote on Facebook in November 2018. “In opposition to our Unity Principles, they have allowed antisemitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.”
Each of the cochairs were asked to step down because of their individual feminist beliefs as well as the activities they participated in outside of the Women’s March. They faced criticism for the events they attended, what they posted on social media, and what they said (or didn’t say) in interviews. Mallory’s tweets, in particular, were picked apart for allegedly suggesting her alliance with antisemitic figures, most notably the Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan, who, Rewire News notes, Mallory was asked to “condemn.” As the controversy swirled, it became nearly impossible for the cochairs to escape wild and fiery conversations about them: Are they icons worthy of honor and respect? Are they good women? Are they legitimate feminists? Are their beliefs inclusive enough? Do they have the values necessary to lead a movement? Ultimately, they weren’t deemed credible enough to lead this movement; in fact, it seems, no one is.
There came a point when it became difficult to distinguish the work and online presence of the cochairs from the work and presence of the march itself. What would the Women’s March be without them, given that their names and faces were so interwoven into the messaging of the Women’s March movement? In 2017—the same year the Women’s March movement rose to prominence—Teen Vogue pivoted to be a part of the revolution: Since many people disliked the newly elected president, it was now safe for publications to align themselves against Republicans without running the risk of losing ad dollars and access to branded content opportunities (especially if you could still sneakily publish conservative-leaning content). Teen Vogue offered up a slate of resistance-focused writers, including Lauren Duca, a then-weekend writer for the site whose piece, “Donald Trump Is Still Gaslighting America. I Really Care. Do u?,” went viral. After Duca verbally sparred with Tucker Carlson on prime-time television, Teen Vogue tapped her to write “Thigh-High Politics,” a column that “breaks down the news, provides resources for the resistance, and just generally refuses to accept toxic nonsense.”
Duca’s column made her one of the most recognizable faces of the resistance: Through her large social followings, Duca called out Trumpism, helped Gen-Z recognize its political influence, and even landed a book deal for How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics (2019). Thanks in part to Duca’s rising profile, Teen Vogue became the star of endless positive memes about the kids being alright and Gen-Z saving us from the end of the world. But then the pieces fell, and, as Scaachi Koul wrote for BuzzFeed News in 2019, Duca’s revolution backfired. In a 2019 piece for Jezebel, Anna Merlan, now a senior writer at Vice, wrote that Duca “seems to have particularly ardent fans among young women, and it’s that audience that she frequently encourages to become more empowered, more politically engaged, and more outspoken.” However, as Merlan explained, her former colleagues at HuffPost weren’t thrilled to see Duca’s increasing power given that she was accused of harassing them via anonymous emails.
Thanks to her growing platform, Duca was given the chance to teach a course titled the “Feminist Journalist” at New York University. Feminists, particularly feminists of color, mocked the syllabus because it lacked inclusivity and an overarching goal for what students would learn and achieve. Then, as Gwen Ihnat wrote in a 2019 article for the A.V. Club, every student in Duca’s course filed a complaint against her. What does the criticism leveled against Duca mean for Teen Vogue, the magazine of the revolution where she built her brand? In 2020, there’s no such thing as a movement without a face, so now we’re in an age when “revolutionary” brands are interlinked with their ambassadors and said ambassadors become iconicized because of their connection to said brands.
It’s difficult to have a movement without an icon because it’s easier for the larger public to connect with a singular person (Martin Luther King, Jr. and DeRay McKesson, for instance) than an overall political movement; there’s almost an innate human need to have a role model who makes us feel as if that person, alone, can save us. But social media has further complicated an already flawed idea: It’s no longer a matter of just associating a person with a movement; the person becomes the movement. If you’re invested in a movement, such as the Women’s March, then you’re more likely to follow the cochairs across social media than follow the organization’s centralized account. In this way, digital spaces have given rise to a culture where we have access to folks in a way that feels intimate, even if, in truth, they’ve cultivated an online persona to build their brand.
Feminist icons—or online feminist icons, given their ever-expanding digital reach—have a unique rise and fall. It’s more complicated than a wellness blogger turning her back on healthy smoothies and never drinking coffee or a writer-turned-influencer gaining the title of scammer seemingly overnight. The internet becomes the perfect breeding ground to go from admiring someone to hating them and everything they’re associated with. In a 2019 article in the Atlantic about the rise of online nemeses, Taylor Lorenz writes, “While having an opponent is nothing new, the nebulous concept of having a secret digital adversary is a more modern condition.” She continues, explaining how social media has turned having a nemesis into a motivator. “Broadcast-based social-media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have allowed everyone to have real-time updates on other people’s biggest accomplishments, and that can make it feel as if everyone on the planet is getting married, writing a book, or winning an award. It’s easy, when you see someone leading a seemingly perfect life, to want to tear that person down.”
The more we invest in the people leading movements than the movement themselves, the more we blur stan culture and protest.
The internet loves a good nemesis, especially a feminist one, but perceived feminist leaders are simply people—no matter how large their movements get, how many followers they accrue, and how impressive their reach or their impact is. Every movement is bigger than a singular person; King might be the one with a national holiday, but the Civil Rights Movement spanned decades and was made of a collection of activists, just as the Stonewall Riots and eventual Pride Movement expands beyond Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. And the more we invest in the people leading movements than the movement themselves, the more we blur stan culture and protest. It’s strange that Kamala Harris has the K-Hive, a political version of Beyoncé’s Beyhive, and that people get tattoos of Bernie Sanders’s face and Elizabeth Warren’s campaign hex code. It’s strange that protest has become a way to gain popularity, sell a book, and land a job, rather than a risky act that aims to push forth structural change over personal branding and success.
The perils of feminist prominence, and progressive prominence, are such that we risk losing hold of our own movements as we hand them off to a handful of leaders who, without fail, will make decisions that we view as movement-destroying mistakes. Activists are not influencers, but because many of them rely on impressions, clicks, and likes to push their movement, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between people who genuinely uplift communities and help orchestrate new conditions and those who simply want to profit from being associated with a movement. Now, and in recent years, social media followings come first and passion and skill comes last as influencers and those with high followings have activism mapped onto them, rather than the other way around. On the surface, Duca appears to be a feminist activist invested in empowering young women and teaching them how to be activists; Jameela Jamil appears to be a body-positive activist fighting for inclusion in Hollywood; and the Women’s March cochairs will seemingly stop at nothing to lead this movement and accomplish its goals. But these women are so bolstered by their own prominence that their activism gets warped by social influence and careerism to the point that it’s unclear where they end and the movement itself begins. So when they make a misstep—as people are wont to do—they’re poisoned and so are the movements they’re associated with.
Though Mallory has been pushing to end racial inequality, her association with Farrakhan was enough to push her out of a movement she believed in. As the aforementioned Rewire News article notes, Mallory “has since been asked to [condemn Farrakhan] over and over, irrespective of the fact that his words are not her words, she is not responsible for him, and that asking her to do so means effectively condemning her ‘family’ and community—the people who were there for her and her son after the death of her husband.” It isn’t about if Mallory should or shouldn’t be held accountable; it’s about the impact of so closely associating Mallory with the Women’s March that both are now tainted. It isn’t that Mallory did or didn’t push for a bill or skipped a protest; it’s that she revealed her own humanity, and we didn’t like what we saw.
At the end of the day, the failure we feel when the faces of our movements and the prominent feminists we assign power and influence to end up being little more than human is a reflection of us, and not of them. What would our small, feminist worlds look like if we put more curiosity and interest into learning the ins and outs of a movement and its mission than the tweets and Instagram Stories of its faces? What would happen if we could unlink a movement from its face, and see its goals and needs instead?