More than a million people who turned out on Saturday for women’s marches in all 50 states have put down their placards, taken off their pink hats and ended their chants after what was an extraordinary display of dissent against the Trump presidency.
A critical question remains: What happens now?
The challenge facing the organizers is how to channel the resolve and outrage of an organic protest into action that produces political change. That goal has eluded other popular movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. It is no less daunting now, given that Democrats were unable to defeat President Trump in 2016 despite an emerging demographic majority.
The organizers are trying. Within minutes after the march in Washington ended at sundown on Saturday, its leaders convened a four-hour pep rally and networking session called “Where Do We Go From Here?” On Sunday, Planned Parenthood held a training session for 2,000 organizers on turning mobilization into political action, with health care atop its priority list. David Brock, the Democratic activist, assembled a group of about 120 leading liberal donors in Aventura, Fla., to hear plans for lawsuits and other challenges to Mr. Trump.
Past movements rallied around one unifying cause: the Vietnam War, civil rights, the government bailouts and spending that helped create the Tea Party. On Saturday, marchers and liberal activists embraced a vast array of issues, from reproductive rights to mass incarceration to environmental activism, raising questions about how to create a cohesive movement.
But the leaders believe that the common thread — revulsion and contempt for the man who is now president — may be powerful enough.
“Trump is the cure here,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the Democratic primary who was invited to Mr. Brock’s conference. “He brings everybody together.”
Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, a sponsor of the marches, saw another rallying cry: “Women in America are not going back.”
Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, one of many partner groups of the march, said that organizers intended to study the protests in all 50 states to identify issues and recruit volunteers to gear up for the 2018 midterm elections. In Washington at the post-march panel, Planned Parenthood held a mass call-in event, where participants called their senators and urged them to protect their access to health care.
Even before the march, the left was seizing on panic over Mr. Trump to rally voters who were not so easily roused during the election.
In Macomb County, Mich. — the well-chronicled home of the Reagan Democrats and a county Mr. Trump decisively won — about 6,000 Democrats braved frigid temperatures on Jan. 15 to hear Mr. Sanders and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, among others, defend the Affordable Care Act. It was one of dozens of similar rallies across the country.
The day before, so many constituents of Representative Mike Coffman, Republican of Colorado, packed an Aurora library to confront him over his support for repealing the health care law that he had to leave through a back door.
Yet it was telling that women galvanized the largest protests. Hillary Clinton’s defeat prompted soul-searching about why appeals to feminism did not carry the day. Now a wide range of groups that advocate for women are trying to capitalize on the momentum to turn an event into a sustained movement.
Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society and a scholar of political movements, noted that the civil rights and antiwar movements succeeded because of the organized networks that preceded and followed any single mass protest. “The march on Washington in 1963 was the culmination of years of local activism, including civil disobedience, registering voters, protecting civil rights workers and voter education movements,” he said. “Organizations need to be ready to receive the protesters when they’re ready to take the next step. You need to be a full-service movement.”
That effort, the organizers say, is already underway. At the panel Saturday night, representatives from the partner groups made 90-second pitches to the marchers, urging them to sign up for any of the organizations that appealed to them. The key, Ms. Poo said, was to build a continuous relationship with voters and volunteers so that they are not only approached before elections.
Tresa Undem, a partner in the polling firm PerryUndem, said that several years of convening focus groups had convinced her that women’s issues can translate into political momentum. When she showed focus groups a list of specific restrictions on abortion and health care that had been passed on the local level, she said, they immediately began talking about how men were making those decisions. A poll she conducted that was released this month found that outrage at Mr. Trump’s remarks was the primary predictor of whether women would take specific political actions.
Still, the women’s movement faces several potential obstacles.
Leaders believe the only way to mobilize is to sweep in many disparate groups, which risks diluting their message. And the wounds inflicted by the election still run deep. Minority women in particular say they are concerned that the new attention to the white working class might mean de-emphasizing issues of race for fear of alienating white voters.
“The coalition for Obama was never sustained after the election,” said Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles. “There’s been a failure to engage the base.”
Democrats continue to debate strategy. A former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, urged the conference in Aventura to continue competing for white Rust Belt voters because, she later told reporters, the assumption that “demography is destiny” has “not helped us.”
But at the panel on Saturday in Washington, organizers passionately endorsed the new demographic majority. They argued that without including the needs of minority, immigrant, Muslim and marginalized women, feminism would not rally a broad enough coalition, and Democrats would lose the presidency again.
They also noted that the march itself brought to prominence a multiracial, younger generation of potential leaders. “The rank and file of the women’s movement has not looked like the leadership for a long time,” Ms. Crenshaw said.
Ms. Poo argued that feminism, and the Democratic Party, should not have to choose. “There are so many women who are suffering and disenfranchised in rural communities, the Rust Belt,” she said. “We want this movement to be fully inclusive.”
Finally, attention to specific causes has not always translated into votes on the local level, where Republicans have won statehouses and governorships. Democrats need look no further than the past eight years to find a cautionary tale about what happens when the excitement over a national movement — Barack Obama and his historic presidency — is not sustained in midterm elections.
“In many parts of the country, the Democratic Party is a shell,” Mr. Gitlin said.
Concern over this atrophy is what is prompting so many Democratic officials — including Mr. Obama himself and Eric H. Holder Jr., his former attorney general — to urge donors and activists to direct their time and money toward unglamorous causes such as redistricting and statehouse races.
The urgency of the Trump presidency, the organizers say, may help bridge the party’s divides. “We together have to have the resources and creativity enough to solve problems for all of us,” Ms. Poo said. “There’s a lot of work to do to get there.”