“Grab ‘em by the Midterms.” That now-iconic rally sign efficiently compresses both women’s activist rage at Donald Trump’s attitude toward women’s bodies and women’s commitment to the power of the ballot.
Ours is a contradictory moment for U.S. women. On the one hand, the repressive policies issuing from the Trump-Pence administration have catapulted many women into social justice and electoral activism. On the other hand, we are reminded, repeatedly, that women’s voices are still often dismissed. Witness the testifying of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford and the ultimate dismissal of her claims as Brett Kavanaugh took his seat on the Supreme Court. I draw optimistic lines between women’s leadership in “Resistance” organizations and the uptick in women running for office or actively working to elect those women. This swelling of women’s activism can help address the “ambition gap” that may, in part, explain why fewer women have gotten involved in politics.
I write as a Women’s and Gender Studies professor who has long been a community activist, out of personal conviction and because turning theory into practice is at the heart of my discipline. I am also a student of history, and I know that social movements succeed when they employ wide-ranging strategies focused on shifting both policies and culture. Right now, I see women working hard — and often leading — in both areas.
For context, Catherine Bolzendahl’s insightful piece on “The Election of Women and Women’s Political Empowerment” lays out the record numbers of women running for office and possible outcomes.
Here, I will focus on what this looks like locally — in South Bend, Indiana — as someone who is active in several social justice groups and political campaigns.
Some quick history: Progressive women in Indiana energetically protested Mike Pence’s policies well before Trump’s election. During his 2013-2017 term as Indiana’s governor, Pence’s unconstitutional abortion restrictions sparked reproductive justice rallies and the creative “Periods for Pence” postcard campaign. Pence’s religiously motivated (and ultimately unsuccessful) Religious Freedom Restoration Act, further fanned activist flames, and by the time Trump took Pence with him to D.C., progressives in Indiana had perfected our protest sign-making skills and were ready for the Resistance.
After Trump’s election, many women were, therefore, prepared to step up to public leadership around social justice issues. Women organized a “Rally for an Inclusive Michiana” just days after the election drawing about 400 people alarmed by Trump’s campaign promises. The South Bend Women’s March in January 2017 drew over 4,000 people. Women got to work organizing issue-based community groups like the Northern Indiana Community Coalition for Health Care, whose leadership team included women drawn to advocacy from personal experiences as cancer survivors or mothers of premature babies. The personal had become political — and fast — in the pressure-cooker of Trump’s repressive policies.
Women began pulling together other groups, too, such as “We Go High” (inspired by Michelle Obama’s call to action), a Moms Demand Action group, and a local branch of Indivisible, just to name a few. These groups met (and continue to meet) regularly to plan activism around gun safety, immigration and DACA policies, Black Lives Matter concerns, and reproductive access and sexual violence.
After a few months of Resistance organizing, these groups dove into electoral politics, directly lobbying representatives on issues, particularly health care and immigration, and starting to recruit candidates to run for office, up and down the ticket.
By late spring of 2017, many of us already had forgotten what we used to do with our weekends, or what it was like to meet friends at a café just for coffee, rather than to hunch over computers for community organizing sessions. We expanded our friendship circles at a dizzying speed, many of us finding allies and friendship across lines of race, class, religion, and age. (Certainly, dancing the Macarena with women from the Islamic Society of Michiana and lots of children from the neighborhood at our “People’s Inauguration” is a bright spot for me in the otherwise bleak memory of Trump’s inauguration.)
Here’s what struck me, though, as a student of gender and history: In those early months of organizing, many women were expert at calling and structuring meetings, preparing handouts, ensuring someone was taking and sharing out minutes, etc.… but very few were comfortable speaking publicly. When we held public rallies, town halls, or press conferences with multiple speakers, women often shunned the mic, or read directly from pages of notes, hands trembling. Many of our calls to action were crafted in long, periodic sentences that didn’t translate well into addressing a crowd through a dicey microphone in wind, rain, and snow. In contrast, male speakers from these groups were more likely to go without notes, and to use short, powerful, declarative sentences that were easier to hear, and more likely to draw cheers and applause from the crowd.
But, over the course of months, I watched women grow more confident in their public roles, including at the mic. I am reminded of the 19th-century women who ventured into the public sphere to advocate for abolition, discovered the power of their voices … and then also began advocating for women’s suffrage. In the 20th century, many women who rose up through the Civil Rights movement became leading voices of second-wave feminism.
In South Bend, I’m heartened that some women who found their voice in activism decided to run for office, often starting in township races that most of us (I include myself) didn’t pay attention to until now. Many community organizers championed a progressive female candidate for Congress, losing the primary but gaining enormous insight about party politics and barriers, which we’ve stored up for the next run. Locally, women activists lead voter-registration efforts and are now among the most effective canvassers. (Our admittedly anecdotal evidence suggests people are far more likely to open doors to speak with women.)
My hope — and expectation — is that these new civic habits last far longer than the Resistance to Trump. Women freshly appreciate the power a single county or city council member can have, based on a recent zoning vote regarding an abortion provider. (As Roe is threatened on the more conservative Supreme Court, local and state reproductive politics will become more significant.) These same energized activists organized against the Kavanaugh nomination, funneling women’s personal stories of surviving sexual violence to our “Blue Dog” Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly until he promised to vote “no” because of those women’s voices. [“We Believe Them” rally ]
What’s next? Early voting is crackling along here in St. Joseph County and door-knocking for candidates is set on “blitz.” After the ballots are counted, and our knuckles heal, I’m optimistic that regardless of the results, more women than ever have grown to see themselves as active citizens whose voices are crucial for public policy. The rage and focus of the “Grab ‘em by the Midterms” rally sign reminds me of Audre Lorde’s 1981 essay, “The Uses of Anger,” more timely than ever: “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” That’s not just theory to us now in Northern Indiana.