CNN  — 

Over the past year, Women’s March supporters fought for the soul of the country and the future of their movement.

It was a year of setbacks and astonishing gains, as the movement faced Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, the midterm elections, and internal division and controversy.

Now, as activists and organizers head into marches scheduled on Saturday, they say 2019 is about agitating for unapologetically progressive policies that benefit women across race, class and sexual orientation, among other identities, leading up to the 2020 election.

What started in 2017 as a reaction to President Donald Trump’s election became a movement in 2018 to get more women to show their power at the polls. A wave of volunteers and activists joined different strands of the women’s movement, contributing to unprecedented wins for the Democratic Party by women of color in the midterms.

The national Women’s March group will return to Washington this weekend to commemorate the victories and launch its road map to the 2020 elections. Starting with a lobbying day Friday, organizers said they will debut a policy document called the “Women’s Agenda,” with proposals addressing issues including immigrant rights, violence against women, civil rights and liberties, and climate justice, among others.

“The agenda is specifically focused on legislative and policy actions that are achievable by 2020,” Women’s March Chief Operating Officer Rachel Carmona said.

The marches come as concerns about diversity and inclusion continue to rattle groups across the country. Allegations of bigotry against leaders of Women’s March Inc., the national group formed by organizers of the 2017 march, threaten to overshadow the work of grassroots activists. The group has released numerous statements condemning anti-Semitism and vowing to learn from its missteps through training and discussions – pledges that people associated with the group say are underway.

But organizing is messy, numerous activists and organizers told CNN, and transitioning from a massive march to a unified movement is no easy task.

Critics and supporters of Women’s March Inc. said they were eager to move forward, emphasizing that unity was needed in the face of what they perceived as much bigger threats from the administration.

“This is exactly what the boys always depend on – that we’ll be divided and tearing each other down, and when we’re divided instead of fighting the patriarchy, we lose ground,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women.

In addition to the D.C. march on Saturday, rallies and demonstrations will be held across the country by different groups. Some are affiliated with the national Women’s March group, others are not. Organizers of the marches say they want to build on wins and learn from losses to unite against a common enemy in the Trump administration.

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Women's March organizers face racial tensions within
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“There’s a larger issue at stake and that’s the policy coming out of D.C.,” said Kathy Wray Coleman, organizer of the Women’s March Cleveland. “That was the premise of the march in the first place. We have to place our eye on the prize.”

Coleman is expecting thousands of people Saturday, based on interest shown on a Facebook event page. Scheduled speakers include Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Samaria Rice, whose 12-year-old son, Tamir Rice, was killed by a police officer in Cleveland.

To Coleman, who is African-American, the speakers represent what a progressive women’s movement is supposed to be about: gathering despite differences and seeing issues like racial justice and health care as women’s issues.

“We cannot be distracted in terms of what our goal is, and our goal across the country is to seek policy change for the betterment of women and their families.”

CNN reached out to the Trump administration for this article and did not receive a response. The Trump administration has stood by its policies related to immigration and criminal justice, calling them necessary to ensure public safety.

Kavanaugh and the midterms

While the 2017’s Women’s March was about building community, the movement shifted in 2018 to focus on the midterms.

Instead of organizing a demonstration in January, the national Woman’s March group held a rally in Las Vegas to kick off its Power to the Polls campaign. It was the group’s first stop in a multi-state tour aimed at increasing voter participation and civic engagement in swing states.

In addition to voter registration, Women’s March organizers trained thousands of women in 2018 for mass mobilizations on issues ranging from immigration to sexual violence, Carmona said.

“There are Women’s March activists who never marched before 2017, and in the two years since have risked arrest, organized actions, and mobilized their own communities,” she said.

Protesters in Washington demand an end to the separation of migrant children from their parents.

Among those actions was participation in a broad protest in the summer at a Senate building against the administration’s family separation policy at the border.

The group also mobilized against the Supreme Court nomination of Kavanaugh. For weeks, protesters maintained a presence in and around the Senate, waving signs in support of Christine Blasey Ford and proclaiming their allegiance to survivors of abuse.

For protester Heidi Sieck, it was a moving and dramatic experience that helped the movement coalesce. While standing in lines or sitting in jail, women shared their own stories of assault and engaged in difficult conversations about the movement.

“We were creating our own support network,” said Sieck, co-founder of #VOTEPROCHOICE, who contributed to the Women’s Agenda.

U.S. Capitol Police arrest protesters on the steps of the Capitol before a scheduled vote on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Then came the midterm election, with its mix of disappointments and historic gains for women of color.

In Pennsylvania, Shawna Kipper didn’t feel the excitement of the blue wave because Republicans won several seats in her state’s midterm elections. But Democratic candidates also made gains in red districts in her state – and she doesn’t want the momentum to die.

In Mississippi, Talamieka Brice was discouraged that Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won a Senate seat after making racist comments that, Brice said, made everyone in the state look bad. But her opponent, Mike Espy, came closer to winning than any other Democratic candidate for US Senate in years.

In Texas, Robin Paoli felt “gratitude” for those who helped flip Republican seats in the state House of Representatives and elect its first Latinas to Congress, she said.

“It was that feeling that we hit the first hill on the mountain we’re climbing, and we have several more ascents ahead of us.”

A diverse network

Questions about whom the Women’s March represents persist. One thing is certain, Carmona said: “This is not a movement for supporters of President Trump.”

The Women’s March is more than one group, said University of Maryland sociology professor Dana Fisher, who studies social movements. It has grown into a movement that’s bigger than a single march or the national organization that uses its name, she said.

Activists and organizers distinguish between the actual protests, the activism they inspired, and the national group called the Women’s March, she said. But to outsiders, they’re all the same, which frustrates some activists and organizers from other rights groups who don’t identify with the Women’s March in any form.

Fisher calls the activists who were inspired by first Women’s March “the resistance.” Her research suggests that their activism wasn’t confined to the Women’s March. But they crossed the line that divides protesters from those who work for electoral change, which is unusual, she said.

On the day members of the national group rallied in Las Vegas in 2018, marchers in other cities flooded streets and plazas across the country in unexpectedly high numbers. Turnout exceeded expectations in Chicago, Women’s March Chicago co-organizer Ann Scholhamer said.

People rally downtown for the second Women's March in Chicago in 2018.

Despite its name, her organization is not affiliated with Women’s March. It’s part of March On, the coalition formed by organizers of sister marches in 2017 when it became clear that marchers in their cities were looking for ways to continue challenging the administration, she said.

“We’re two separate organizations with the same energy and goals,” she said.

March On affiliates in other cities groups are holding gatherings nationwide on Saturday. But not Women’s March Chicago, for reasons unrelated to the controversy surrounding the national Women’s March group, Scholhamer said. The group held a rally in October before the midterms, and organizers want to focus their efforts on mobilizing voters for 2020, Scholhamer said.

For some, aligning with the national Women’s March group brought their causes in front of white feminists and other social justice groups they don’t typically overlap with.

Two years ago, indigenous groups were just trying “to be seen and heard,” said Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy. Since then, she credits the Women’s March platform with increasing the group’s visibility, helping to pave the way for partnerships with celebrities including Oprah and John Legend that amplify her community’s stories and issues.

Now, she feels empowered even in the face of what she considers increased threats to Native and indigenous communities from what she calls the administration’s racist rhetoric and policies.

“I’ve definitely felt continued sisterhood with the leaders in the past two years, and I know that opportunity was not there before,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Controversy haunts Women’s March leaders

Concerns about Women’s March leaders’ association with the black nationalist group Nation of Islam spilled into 2018.

In February 2018, co-chair Tamika Mallory came under fire for attending the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day, where Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan delivered a speech with anti-Semitic rhetoric.

It was not the first time she was called out for her association with Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam, considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its “deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric.”

In May 2017, she posted a photo of Farrakhan with his arm around her with a caption wishing him a happy birthday and declaring him the GOAT – the greatest of all time.

The Women’s March issued a statement distancing themselves from his remarks and condemned “expressions of hatred in all forms,” and the issue subsided.

Then, in December, an article in the Jewish online magazine Tablet, citing unnamed sources, accused Mallory and co-chair Carmen Perez of making anti-Semitic comments to a Jewish woman who invited them to organize the march.

Later that month, The New York Times published an interview with the woman at the heart of the Tablet story, Vanessa Wruble. The Brooklyn-based activist repeated the allegations.

Mallory and Perez denied the allegations and the group issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism. But for many, it wasn’t enough. The Democratic Party and Emily’s List pulled out as sponsors of Saturday’s march in D.C., which is being organized by the national group known as Women’s March Inc.

The National Council of Jewish Women also pulled out as a sponsor, but the group remains in conversation with march leaders and staff, said Jody Rabhan, director of government relations and advocacy for NCJW.

“To move our collective agenda forward, we need to be in communication and relationship with one another – no matter how complex it may be. This leads to stronger partnerships and outcomes. What unites us is far greater than what divides us – the fight for reproductive rights, health, and access; civil rights; gun violence prevention; and a fair and independent judiciary; among so many pressing issues our country is facing,” Rabhan said.

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Women's marches across the US
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In Cincinnati, march organizer Rashida Manuel called off her city’s march. She said she was disappointed, but she’s not giving up on the movement, she said.

One year ago, she says, she pulled out as a speaker at the march in solidarity with other African-American women who felt they were excluded from organizing and invited at the last minute as a gesture of inclusivity. The Ohio chapter of Women’s March has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

Manuel returned this year as an organizer because she wanted her voice heard. But organizers were forced to cancel when another group’s withdrawal left them unable to fundraise in time, she said.

“I’m disappointed by the way things happened but it does not make me any less committed to the work we’re trying to do here,” she said. “There are challenges in any movement, but I think we have an opportunity here in Cincinnati and I don’t want let that to slip away.”

Numerous women involved in the movement said they felt the controversy around the national organization distracted from the work ahead of them.

“I credit the leaders – then and today – of the Women’s March for inspiring and mobilizing a national movement, and I worry there have been a lot of efforts to detract from their work and efforts,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area.

“It concerns me because what we need right now is strength, unity and courage, and the Women’s March leaders exhibit all of those traits.”

Others were more critical of the national organization, including Van Pelt with the National Organization for Women. The 2017 march was a beautiful display of solidarity among women, she says, but seeds for the mass protest were planted decades ago. And while she said there’s no denying the group’s impact, the controversy has left her ambivalent about its future.

“I don’t want to see this march being disempowered because of the action of the leaders.”

Carmona and others chalk up the discord to growing pains of a movement that’s trying to bring together numerous groups.

Disagreements “demonstrate the health of the movement,” Carmona said. In a follow-up email, she elaborated: “We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, in particular. We regret that.”

After parting ways with Women’s March leaders, Wruble became executive director of March On, whose affiliates are organizing marches this weekend, too. She stands by her allegations, but she declined to rehash or elaborate on them, citing her desire to move forward.

March On is different from the Women’s March because it started as a decentralized coalition of groups from different cities, Wruble said. She credits March On affiliates with doing the grassroots organizing and voter mobilization that led to the election of the most diverse Congress in history.

“I feel like our focus is sharper now,” she said. “Now, we know what we need to do to achieve those wins, we just need to do it bigger.”

Marching ahead

The “Women’s Agenda” reflects the priorities of grass-roots organizers and policy experts, Carmona said. It’s part of their efforts to amplify voices within their coalition in the fight against the administration.

“We are working to make sure that we have a strategy that is flexible to meet the threats of the administration and escalate them,” she said.

Jessica González-Rojas, executive director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, described the agenda as a policy tool that organizers in different cities can use to take on issues that matter to their communities.

What makes it unique is how it takes typically gender-neutral issues such as immigration and offers policy solutions that specifically benefit women and families, she said.

“It’s about looking at different identities among women and femmes and the policy solutions to address attacks on those identities,” she said.

Organizers from the Women’s March chapter in Atlanta are looking forward to marching in D.C., then coming home to prepare for the city’s annual Martin Luther King parade and day of service.

“We are moving forward from some great electoral wins like Lucy McBath here in Georgia. That is energizing,” said Janel Green, executive director of the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, which organized the 2017 march and a 2018 rally that featured Mallory and Alyssa Milano as speakers.

“We are also encouraged by the enormous gains Stacey Abrams and other Georgia candidates made that seemed impossible just two years ago,” she said. “We didn’t get here overnight and it’s going to take some time to get things right. We are here for the long game.”

Meanwhile in Mississippi, Talamieka Brice is finalizing plans for her third year in a row marching at the state capitol in Jackson. But she decided this year it was time for a rebrand, and instead of the Women’s March, she’s organizing a Womanist Rally.

Talamieka Brice and her mother marched together at the Women's March in Jackson, Mississippi in 2017.

Brice hopes the rally’s name and theme become a conversation starter to talk about the differences among women of different races, religions and political beliefs.

She credits the national controversy for nudging her in this direction.

“I’m just glad it finally got brought up. The whole reason we are where we are is because we are not having the hard conversations,” she said.

“Our leaders are going to disappoint us because they’re human,” she added. “They have a valuable platform, they started the platform, but it’s up to me how far I go.”