Women's Rally controversy divides Chattanooga over what it means to support women days before the event

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Demonstrators march on Market Street during the Chattanooga Women's March on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Thousands of demonstrators gathered at Coolidge Park and marched across the Market Street Bridge through the city's tourist district to show solidarity with a national women's rights movement.

Instead of organizing collective action, Chattanooga's annual event to support women is causing fractures across the city.

The Women's Rally, scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday at Miller Park, is an increasing point of contention. At the center of the controversy is what the day should accomplish and whether an event to honor women can include local politicians, such as Republican state Rep. Robin Smith, who are against abortion rights and have voted against LGBTQ rights, immigration and health care expansion.

Unlike in previous years, when the January event meant walking in the streets in protest, the rally this year will stay in Miller Park and focus on commemorating the 100th anniversary of women's right to vote.

The rally is latching onto the momentum of previous marches without holding to the principles on which those marches were founded, said the Rev. Alaina Cobb, who has organized previous events.

"Those [founding] principles have been completely abandoned and utterly destroyed by this women's rally," Cobb said. "They have no respect for the progressive nature that this event was intended to be."

Rally organizers said there is a misunderstanding. The decision was made in planning the event to hold a rally with a different mission from the marches. This was not communicated well to the public, said Emily Kate Boyd, an organizer.

"Through the lens of the march, the Women's Rally is a broken promise," Boyd said. "When the march became the rally, we did a really poor job of communicating to former marchers that we made this transition."

The rally on Saturday is designed to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment, said Kristie Wilder, a rally organizer. Author and historian Paula Casey will be the keynote speaker. However, the Chattanooga event is scheduled for the same day as Women's March events across the country, which began three years ago in protest of the election of President Donald Trump.

Organizers said the idea to do a rally was intended to broaden the appeal. There would be activities for kids and the opportunity for nonprofit organizations that support women to speak about their mission. Hopefully people could get involved in creating change on the local level, especially because being a progressive in a Republican-controlled state and federal government can feel impossible, said Krissa Barclay, an organizer.

Originally, the rally was to be nonpartisan, Barclay said, but the group wanted District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz to speak on behalf of the Mayor's Council for Women. To create balance, they looked to Smith, especially because the state representative is on the state's Official Committee of the State of Tennessee Women's Suffrage Centennial.

Women's Rally

The Women’s Rally will be held Saturday, Jan. 18, at 11 a.m. at Miller Park, 910 Market St. Among the people who will be speaking are the TN Women 100, 1920-2020 TN Women’s Suffrage Centennial; Paula Casey, author of “The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage;” and leaders of various local nonprofits.For more information go to www.chattanoogawomensrally.com

Smith said she was grateful for the invitation to speak and it has been her understanding from the beginning that the event was about the history of the 19th Amendment.

"I'm deeply grateful for any who are commemorating Tennessee's history and its pivotal role in our nation as we moved into ratifying the 19th Amendment," Smith said. "And as I understand, from the invitation to participate in the event on Saturday, that's what this is about."

Tennessee Rep. Patsy Hazlewood was not invited to speak at the rally, but instead was told she could take the stage during it to be honored among the 78 current or previously elected women from Hamilton County, Barclay said.

Boyd said she was also upset when she learned the rally would bring a different tone from the marches. Since she stayed on the committee, she had months to understand the change, while others are just learning about the switch. When planning for the event was beginning in later summer 2019, a group of around five women left the committee, citing a variety of personal reasons.

Jill Black, who attended two previous Chattanooga marches, said she is frustrated with how a nationwide event designed to protest the presidential administration and empower marginalized women was changed. Past marches were a chance for local progressives to feel they were not alone, she said.

"It was a comforting place to be, even though it was a protest," Black said. "Changing the direction of that, it feels like something has been taken from the community."

Both sides of the debate expressed hurt over how the events of the last week have played out. When people began posting online about how the rally was different from previous years' marches, Barclay said, the organizers made the decision to not list the organizing committee members' names online because they were already receiving hateful text messages, emails and social media posts.

Cobb and others who were arrested at last year's rally for blocking the street said they had no choice but to speak out against the new tone of the event. Jean-Marie Lawrence, who organized previous marches, said the new direction is hurtful and the spirit of previous years to raise the voices of the most marginalized women has been stolen.

"To see someone take what is supposed to be a day of empowering minority women to lift their voices in dissent of the current administration and turn it into another opportunity to compromise and come to the table together is incomprehensible to me," Lawrence said. "Those opportunities exist already. We needed a safe space to feel heard and validated. They took that from us."

Wilder said the mission among the rally's organizing committee is for the day to be an opportunity to build a coalition, especially among people with opposing views. The city has not had a politically inclusive event for all women, especially since the state is more than 60% Republican, she said.

Nonprofits with representatives scheduled to speak at the rally include La Paz, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute and Girls, Inc.

Multiple organizers emphasized they welcome protesters to the event on Saturday.

Cobb is directing people to volunteer on Saturday rather than attending the rally, pointing to the 11th Street clean-up hosted by Marie Mott and Green Steps, and classroom library installations hosted by Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice as more worthwhile causes than the rally, she said.

From the reporter

I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.