The Million Woman March (MWM) was held in Philadelphia on October 25, 1997, nine days after the second anniversary of the Million Man March (MMM). Although crowd size estimates are always problematic, there were probably more people at the Million Woman March than the Million Man March. Unlike the Million Man March, which was physically a static rally, the Million Woman March included an actual march, as well as a rally with speakers. Men were not dissuaded from attending, and many did. Like the Million Man March, the Million Woman March had a festival air and a wide variety of speakers. Many reported being enthusiastic and inspired by the event, while a few said that some others tried to make them feel unwelcome. Some attendees thought the event was too much like a street festival with too little political content and too many men hawking their wares. Several reports said it was difficult to hear the speakers and complaints about transportation arrangements were common. Overall, the event was viewed as a success, with much higher attendance that anyone predicted in advance, although as with the MMM, there were later questions about whether anything had been accomplished.
The idea that there should be a woman’s march was a common response to the Million Man March. Black newspapers occasionally quoted someone as saying there should be a march or calling for a march, but it appears nothing came of those statements. A Million Woman event in Los Angeles in June 1996 organized by Los Angeles CORE as a multi-ethnic day of workshops at Exposition Center[i] attracted only a thousand women.[ii] The Philadelphia march was the only event that gained significant traction, but the common belief that there should be such a march doubtless contributed to women’s interest in attending it.
At the top, the organization of the Million Woman March was very different from that of the Million Man March. Even though Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NOI) played key roles in the MMM, otherwise the MMM was organized by a national committee that worked through traditional Black organizing channels including Civil Rights groups, churches, sororities and fraternities, unions, and business and professional associations. By contrast, the Million Woman March was organized by a group of local Philadelphia grassroots activists who neither sought nor received the involvement or endorsement of traditional Black churches or Black elite or civil rights organizations. They did, however, receive and accept early support from NOI member Ben Chavis Muhammad[iii] and asked for and received an endorsement from Louis Farrakhan. Some sources even claim (incorrectly, it appears) that the NOI organized the event, and many sources claim that the Nation of Islam helped rescue the organization of the event when it was foundering. What may be true is that the local organizers recruited speakers and planned the agenda of the event but needed help with the logistics of getting people there and managing the crowds.
Beyond the top level, the evidence from contemporary news sources is that much of the organizing to get people to the rally from other cities on chartered buses occurred through the same networks and local committees that undergirded the MMM. A July article in the Michigan Citizen[iv] describes the formation of local organizing committees in multiple Michigan cities, says the organizers are primarily people who helped organize the Million Man March, and names Basiymah Muhammad and Alia Rashied as national organizers. A September Michigan Citizen article describes a recent meeting of 75 local organizers with Basiymah Muhammad and Alia Rashied, discusses organizing weaknesses at the national level, quotes local Detroit people as calling for collaboration with more experienced organizers and greater unity, and cites Farrakhan’s support.[v] An October 23 Bay State Banner names the Coalition of 100 Black Women and the Nation of Islam as organizers, describes a pre-departure rally, and draws planning comparisons with the Million Man March, indicating that many decisions for this march were last minute.[vi] An October 19 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution[vii] says that organizing is not going well in Atlanta and makes no mention of traditional Black women’s organizations or the NOI as sponsors.
The Million Woman March website was an important mobilizing resource. Multiple news stories mentioned that many women learned of the event or made travel arrangements through the event’s website. Anna Everett[viii] quotes website developer Ken Anderson as saying to her in an email that the website received a million hits and that many Black women found out about the march from a website and then printed out the website information and photocopied it to share it with other woman who lacked computers or internet access.[ix] The idea of a Million Woman March was in the air after the MMM, and it seems likely that many women self-mobilized themselves and their friends when they heard of the march.
News accounts of preparations for the march contain many statements that the organizers were not working with traditional Civil Rights or Black organizations, allusions to professional women being made to feel unwelcome at the march or (conversely) being unwilling to support the march, and coverage of the departure of many of the organizers from the organizing committee just a few weeks before the march, but none of the contemporaneous news accounts we located gave any coherent explanation of these conflicts.
The core organizers of successful Philadelphia march were Philé Chionesu and Asia Coney; these are the only two mentioned in many later accounts, and the dominant story is the one told by Chionesu, that she originated the idea when she was a vendor at the 1995 Million Man March and brought Coney in later to work with her. However, the organizing committee included at least thirteen women, and several of these women are cited as organizers of the Million Woman March in news coverage of planning for it in the spring and summer, including Maat (or Ma’at) Inu Se Ptah[x], and Alia Rashied and Basiymah Muhammad.[xi] Shortly before the MWM, nine of the thirteen members of the organizing committee resigned and formed a new organization, Million Woman Movement International Inc., although they said they still supported the march. Explanations for the split were unclear in contemporary news sources. People quoted in a news article as part of the new organization were Sister Ma’at Inu Set Ptah, Francis Walker-Ponnie, Alia Abdur Rashied, Empress Kaya Sellassie-Turner, Sister Halima Baye, and Sister Linda Love.[xii] Quotations from Chionesu imply that the split was about class, that people who had not experienced poverty were concerned about different issues from those that had.
In an article written six years later and based on interviews with participants, journalist Tonya Pendleton[xiii] discusses both internal conflicts among the march organizers and the early conflicts between prominent Philadelphia women and the organizers. Pendleton says “Divergent philosophies within the MWM organization created fissures early on: Chionesu was fervently committed to self-determination, turning down corporate dollars in favor of donations, while Coney was more of a savvy insider, whose long-term relationships with Philadelphia’s elected officials helped her get things done” (p. 4). Prominent Black women had heard that Chionesu had said she did not want “bourgeois” sisters involved. Chionesu said she had said she did not want it to be a “bourgeois event.” A meeting organized to try to mend the rift did not go well, with elite women recalling that they were offering help and being rejected and Asia Coney recalling that the elite women were angry and would not be mollified even after multiple apologies, acting as if Chionesu spoke for everyone.
In addition to Chionesu and Coney, early organizers named by Pendleton were Basiymah Muhammad-Bey, Zola Aminata, Jacqueline McDowell, Alia Walker and her sister Frances Walker-Ponnie. Sonya Austin-Jones was MWM’s national coordinator. According to Pendleton, the internal conflict centered on Chionesu’s desire to dominate and treating others with disrespect. Some of the original organizers had already left by summer. In June, the other organizers sought to oust Chionesu and put Coney in charge, but Coney would not cooperate. The nine who ultimately left secretly incorporated their own organization before announcing their departure, and this was viewed as sabotage by those who remained. On the day of the march, at Love Park, visible from the main event “The former MWM organizers set up shop there, joined by sororities, nationalist groups and other organizations that felt excluded from the march.”[xiv]
After the nine departed, Coney brought in more people to help finish the organizing. Pendleton says that the “women left standing” were Coney, Aminata, McDowell and Austin-Jones from those listed above, and Ritagay Sisk-Jamison, Nadirah Williams, Lydia Umyemi Barashango, Paula S. Peebles, and Barbara Smith. According to Pendleton, all remained close and continued to work together after the March except Smith, who died of breast cancer in 2001, and Chionesu, who formed her own organization, the Million Woman March Universal Movement. Chionesu told the others after the march that she did not need them anymore, that their work was done. Instead, they formed Sisters of the Million Woman March.
Another possible line of difference among the organizers’ ideologies has not been mentioned in published works. Philé Chionesu was a small businesswoman, at that time the owner of an African crafts shop, and was apparently not a member of any local organizations, although she lived in the same housing project as Asia Coney, where Coney was an organizer. The occupations of the other organizers are rarely mentioned, but they are instead identified (if at all) by the community organizations they worked with.
On the 25th Anniversary of the Million Woman March, Philé Chionesu announced that she is planning another march for 2023.
[i] Los Angeles Sentinel 11-Apr-96 Million woman march nearing Jun 15 date
[iii] Ben Chavis temporarily changed his surname to Chavis Muhammad in early 1997 after joining NOI and saying he sought to reconcile Islam and Christianity. He uses only the surname Chavis now. See https://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wixsite.com/drbfc
[iv] Bell, Natalie Michigan Citizen 12-Jul-97 Sisters Healing Sisters’: Michigan organizes for Million Woman March
[v] Bell, Natalie. 1997. “Million Woman March: Local Planning Continues Despite Obstacles.” in Michigan Citizen. Highland Park, Mich.
[vi] Bay-State-Banner;-Boston,-Mass._1997-10-23_cd847f00e07ee79cc609ca02f39b5487 10/23/1997 Hub women plan for Saturday’s march
[vii] Reid, S.A. “Rally needing Atlanta women Organizers fighting lack of media coverage,” 19 October 1997, The Atlanta Journal – The Atlanta Constitution
[viii] Everett, Anna. 2004. “Double Click: The Million Woman March on Television and the Internet.” Pp. 224-42 in Television after Tv, edited by O. Jan and S. Lynn. New York, USA: Duke University Press.
[ix] I have found no other references to Ken Anderson as the website developer, or to any other information about how the site was developed.
[x] Sarlatt, Rick Philadelphia Tribune 25-Mar-97 Million Woman March set for Philly in October
[xi] (1) The Jacksonville Free Press 28-May-97 Million Woman March in the Planning and (2) Bell, Natalie Michigan Citizen 12-Jul-97 Sisters Healing Sisters’: Michigan organizes for Million Woman March
[xii] Turner, Ras Al Philadelphia Tribune 24-Oct-97 Sister group to cover more issues
[xiii] Pendleton, Tonya A. 2003. “A Philadelphia Story.” Savoy, Dec 2003/Jan 2004, pp. 146-48,50,52,54,56,58.
[xiv] Pendleton, page 5.