Marching Forward: Separating Leaders from Their Movements

Humans aren’t perfect. We are, in fact, messy, with contradictory and ill-founded ideas. It follows that our social movements would be messy too. So, while it may be disappointing to learn that the human beings leading the Women’s March have been at the center of controversy—accused of anti-Semitism, trans-exclusion, and messy finances—messiness shouldn’t keep us away from important moments in history. As an organization that embraces the human side of things, the American Humanist Association will be at the Women’s March in DC on January 19. Here’s why.

First, splintering movements by pitting us against one another is a tactic for slowing our momentum by those most afraid of our success. AHA is not here for it. After Tablet‘s investigative piece on the topic, many of the outlets that picked up the controversy at its start were right-wing, anti-abortion, and Zionist. Though I’m not denying their claims, they do have a lot to gain by fueling infighting.

Second, if we didn’t show up because leaders are problematic, nothing would ever get done. If everyone stayed home during the civil rights movement because they didn’t like some leaders’ ideas, where would we be? This movement is too important for us to allow ourselves to cower behind accusations. So we must ask ourselves: Who gains from us not showing up? Jewish women certainly don’t. LGBTQ women don’t. Humanists don’t.

History provides the evidence. Looking back, successful movements are scrubbed and cleaned for the history books. Leadership is consolidated and leaders are defined after the fact so that we have a face to go with the encyclopedia entry. Movements are also made more palatable for those who refuse to catch up. We continue to whitewash Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and neglect to teach students that Angela Davis was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Additionally, and more to the point, we choose to forget the ways leaders fail to truly embody their movements. Need I remind anyone that the women suffragists were super racist? These remain shortcomings of history, but remembering them in their messiness is the only way we do better.

Looking forward, this moment presents us with opportunities. One, we can show up and demonstrate once again that such splintering tactics don’t work. Two, we can intentionally center the women that have been pushed to the margins of this movement. And three, we can look beyond concentrated leadership. Leaderful movements fold our objectives into communities and elevate more honest and effective solutions.

We are human and therefore we are imperfect, even those who we ask to lead. But on Saturday, this isn’t about leaders. This is about women. This is about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in our country. This is about staggering domestic violence rates, about the thousands of women who are criminalized for surviving, like Cyntoia Brown. This is about the Black women and girls who are disproportionately affected by human trafficking. This is about Brett Kavanaugh and R. Kelly. This is about teaching little kids consent and ensuring all women have access to abortions. This is about making a better future.

On Saturday we’re showing up for women. We hope you’ll join us.

Correction: An earlier version of this article conflated most of the Jewish media outlets covering the Women’s March as Zionist, which was not the author’s intent. It is The Humanist‘s objective to be exacting in our word choice so that when specific words are used, they carry the appropriate weight.