The Challenging Decision the Women’s Student Association Faced Ahead of the Women’s March

BY SOUMYA KONA

The Women’s March began as a protest in the streets of Washington D.C. on the day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. The march’s momentum made its way to cities all around the world, bringing millions of marchers to the streets to support reproductive rights, racial equality, and reform in many areas. The protest was inspirational by all measures and was replicated in January 2018 with similar success. However, in December of that year, rumors of anti-Semitic rhetoric by the leaders of the march were circulating, making many hesitate to commit themselves to attending the march in January 2019.

One organization on campus that had to contend with this issue was the Women’s Student Association. Given its status as a prominent platform for female-identifying students on campus, WSA’s response to one of the biggest devastations to Women’s March fans was one worth hearing about. In November 2018, the executive members of WSA began discussing the possibility of making a stand for women’s rights by attending the 2019 Women’s March in person. “We all thought it would be a really important event to participate in,” said Cameron Hunter, a second-year advertising major and Marketing Director of the Women’s Student Association. “We thought we could stand up for what we believe in in a way that’s not always possible in Gainesville.” Excited for the potential experience, the executive board wasted no time in ensuring their dream trip would happen. “This was the first time all of us went to the D.C. [march],” said Amber Bond, third-year public relations and political science major and Co-Programming Director of the Women’s Student Association. “It became an actual plan in December.” Come December, however, accusations of heinous behavior first published in Tablet Magazine brought the enthusiasm to an abrupt halt. Allegations of anti-Semitic beliefs and behavior on the parts of the Women’s March leaders slammed WSA’s executive board with a complex question: should they still go?

The news about the march’s leaders was especially a blow to the women of WSA, who spent so much of their time working toward social equality for all. “I was very surprised,” said Michelle Ospina, a fourth-year accounting major and President of WSA. “I thought the organization as a whole would be more inclusive and representative of marginalized women and communities.” The news prompted conversations about the march among the members of the executive board. “I know that we were all shocked when the news surrounding that came out,” said Hunter. “We had some discussions amongst ourselves concerning what we should do about it.”

Staying behind to protest the anti-Semitic views of some of the march’s leaders remained an option for the heads of WSA. However, they concluded it would not be the best use of their platform. “All of our group had trouble deciding what to do when we heard about the allegations,” said Elizabeth Lossada-Soto, second-year psychology major and and Co-Service Director. “We talked about it and did our research and decided to still go.” Though they opted to go to the march finally, WSA’s leaders did not come to that conclusion lightly. “I thought that representing myself and my beliefs at such an important event would be more impactful than not going,” said Hunter. “In a way, going to the march while promoting messages that were against anti-semitism and pro-inclusivity was a form of protesting what the leaders had said.”

WSA embarked on their weekend visit to D.C. on January 18th; once there, they created their protest signs and readied themselves for a day of marching for equality. “Even though there was this controversial background to it, it shouldn’t have out-shadowed the message behind the march which was: women in solidarity; women united; and women just fighting for their rights,” said Bond. “We’re fighting against a patriarchal society.” Though they acted as a group, the leaders of WSA did have personal reasons they decided to go to the march. “I wanted to make sure that I was there to support all individuals who felt like society was against them,” said Viviana Moreno, second-year journalism major and Co-Marketing Director. “Especially if someone who leads the org[anization] was the very one against them.”

Ensuring they were holding themselves to a higher standard, WSA decided to address their presence at the march in a Facebook post alongside their photos from their D.C. weekend. Accompanying photos of colorful protest signs and bright grins was a more somber message:

Despite the recent controversy surrounding the march WSA decided to attend the march to support women of all religions, races, genders, and sexualities. So many women lack proper representation, such as women of color and trans women. WSA is here to support them and denounce every aspect of anti-semitism and discrimination.

One might wonder what would prompt an organization to be so open about their own potentially controversial actions, but WSA never questioned itself. “We wanted to make sure that our members understood our reason for going to the march together and our reason for marching, and our solidarity with all women of all religions, socioeconomic status, races, and abilities,” said Ospina. Additionally, WSA felt it was critical to condemn all instances of prejudice. “We knew it happened and felt like it was important to acknowledge,” said Lossada-Soto. “Anti-Semitism shouldn’t be tolerated in anyway and so we felt like acknowledging the issue and outwardly standing against it showed that we were not blind to the issues.”

Honors students on campus formed their own opinions on the accusations of the Women’s March leaders, with some students simply pointing out the lack of logic in discrimination at the Women’s March. “Minorities should stand with other minorities,” said Yinlu Zhu, first-year Chemistry major. “That’s the only way we make progress.” A few other Honors students disapproved of groups attending the event and felt it invalidated the topic of anti-Semitism to partake in a march that had leaders who were discriminatory. “Marching under a civil rights cause while undermining another group’s worth at the expense or overshadowing of your own cause is ironic, toxic, and may stir even more dire boundaries in the future,” said a student who opted to remain anonymous. Though some disapproved of their actions, the majority consensus among honors students was that the anti-Semitism allegations, had they been centered on, would have detracted from the reasons behind the Women’s March: equality for all persons. “I would have attended,” said another student who wished to remain anonymous. “I believe actions speak louder than words, and it is hard to not look past at all the momentous accomplishments that march has brought to our society.”

One month later, the Women’s Student Association leaders do not regret their experience. “The energy was amazing because everyone is so passionate and happy to be there and voicing their opinions and views,” said Lossada-Soto. “It was cool to be surrounded by people from all over the country that all want to fight for the same things as you.” The march has evolved into a cultural social justice gathering. “The Women’s March has surpassed just being a physical organization that pursues certain goals,” said Moreno. “It has transformed into a fluid space that reaches everyone and is for all individuals to seek justice, share their stories and be heard without an ounce of judgement or hatred.” Dealing with this major controversy of such a powerful movement their first year attending the march in D.C. allowed the WSA executive board to emphasize to themselves the importance of standing up against unfairness, even if that means going to the source. Through their actions, the heads of the Women’s Student Association stressed to those watching the capability of individuals to define their own purpose in their actions. These students were met with an ethical betrayal by leaders they once looked up to; consequently, they made the decision to take themselves to the capital to confront anti-Semitic discourse, as well as all infringement on the rights of any person. The result of this commitment was an unforgettable day and a group of young women who now know the type of leaders they really don’t want to be.

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