Turning Anger into Action

Women marched in January, but will they run in November?

Image Credit: Tanya Cooper.
Photography: Tanya Cooper.

For Valentine’s Day, Chelsea Gibson’s husband gave her a clipboard.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to need this to collect signatures to get on the ballot,” she says.

Gibson, MA ’13, and a doctoral student in history at Binghamton University, is among tens of thousands of women across the United States who watched the extraordinary events of the 2016 presidential election and said, “Sign me up.”

Protest marches, grassroots organizing and political boot camps proliferated in the months following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Energy was high as the spotlight moved from one woman — Hillary Clinton — to millions of women who are determined to do something.

So what will women do?

Women are searching for a way to be heard, says Debbie Walsh ’79, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Some may run for office, some may work to get others elected. Some are becoming advocates for specific issues.

“Women who might not have been as engaged before are now desperate to find a way to have a voice, have an impact and make a difference in the world of politics and policy,” Walsh says.

Before the election, Walsh was concerned that when Clinton won, victory would be declared in the struggle for women’s parity in political institutions — even though no more than a quarter of office-holders at any level are women.

After Trump won, she feared that women would be so turned off by the tenor of the campaign that they would shun politics.

“Quite the opposite has happened,” she says.

The Center for American Women and Politics runs a nonpartisan campaign-training program called Ready to Run that’s offered in about 15 states. Walsh says the program in New Jersey typically has 150 participants; this year it had 250. “Our partners around the country are telling us the same story. Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma — they’ve all had to move to bigger venues and close out registration because the response has been overwhelming.

“People, especially women, are understanding in a very powerful way that elections have consequences. There’s a great saying in politics: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.’ And I think, for a lot of women, that’s what this moment feels like.”

Why women run

When men and women are asked why they first ran for office, men typically cite an interest in a career in politics, and women say it’s because of a public policy issue.

“Our shorthand is that women run to do something and men run to be somebody,” Walsh says.

In 2010, Julie Lewis ’93 of Vestal was vice president of a landowners group advocating drilling for natural gas in New York. To allow drilling or not was a highly contentious public policy debate, and she felt strongly that the state would miss an extraordinary economic opportunity if it banned drilling.

With encouragement from her father and a seminar at the local community college titled “So You Want to Run for Office,” Lewis ran for, and won, a seat on the Broome County Legislature.

During her two years in office, she successfully led the repeal of a law allowing Broome County to confiscate the mineral rights of tax-foreclosed properties. Anyone buying those foreclosed properties will now be able to reap the benefit of mineral ownership, should gas drilling ever be allowed in New York.

Without a hot-button issue as motivation, most women just need to be asked by their political party to run for office, Walsh says.

That was how Diane Marusich ’78 became a Johnson City trustee. She was a former IBM avionics manager turned stay-at-home mother when she was asked to run for the Johnson City school board in 1998. She won and served 10 “fulfilling” years before being asked to fill a vacancy on the Johnson City Board of Trustees. She was later elected to the same position.

Marusich, a Republican, says her party needs to recruit more women to run.

“You don’t feel like you’re part of the dance unless you’re asked to dance,” she says.

What unites also divides

Early on Jan. 21, Leigh Ann Wheeler and Jean Quataert squeezed into a train car outside Washington, D.C., for a stop-and-go trip to the National Mall to join the Women’s March on Washington.

The Binghamton University professors of history became part of history, as the march is likely the largest one-day demonstration ever in the United States. It is estimated that more than 4 million people protested around the country that day.

For Quataert, there was a sense of familiarity. “I grew up in the anti-Vietnam era; we were in the streets, we were mobilizing.”

Wheeler, carrying a handmade pink hat she wasn’t eager to wear or even call by its popular name, didn’t know what to expect. “One of the horrible things about the election was that it left me feeling alone. But the march made me feel part of something bigger. It gave me energy and made me feel hopeful in a way I had not felt since before Nov. 8,” she says.

Quataert sees this post-election activism as a moment for transformation of the women’s movement and the Democratic Party, though politics should not be approached solely from the perspective of women, she says.

“We have to have broad-based, grassroots, inclusive mobilization — and there won’t always be agreement,” Quataert says.

Michelle Courtney Berry ’88 knows grassroots.

“I live in Ithaca, so we’re pretty much protesting or marching against something on a daily basis,” she says. “I was not surprised by the outcome of the election, and I knew we had to hit the ground fast.”

Berry has held political office in Ithaca and was a delegate from New York’s 22nd Congressional District for Barack Obama in 2008. Now a stress-reduction coach and public speaker, she first sought to lift people’s spirits by getting them involved in good works in the community through a group called RiseUp Ithaca. She increased her donations to Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center. She gave an impassioned speech at the Ithaca Women’s March.

“I took my normal level of activism and just skyrocketed it,” Berry says.

If calls for grassroots mobilization are answered, will Trump be remembered as the man who united women?

“We don’t talk about what unites men. So to say that women should be united is kind of ridiculous,” Wheeler says.

“That’s been a source of great frustration for women activists, certainly throughout the 20th century. A lot of women advocated for the right to vote because they thought, ‘If we get the right to vote, we’ll vote as a bloc and then we’ll really clean things up.’”

Generations later, the women’s movement was faulted for being white, middle-class women focusing on white, middle-class problems, without addressing minority or working-class problems. The Women’s March faced similar criticism, until organizers recruited women of color to give it a broader reach and more diverse message.

There are opportunities for women of color to have a larger presence, and to be seen and heard more, Berry says. “Tensions need to be aired, and some people are really rolling up their sleeves and getting into it,” she says. “I think conflict is a sign that people want to make it work.”

Juanita Diaz-Cotto, professor of sociology at Binghamton, says the broader the coalition, the more diverse will be the demands for social change and, thus, the probability of success.

“The truth is that people of color have historically participated in reform-oriented social movements, even those that were white-dominated, just like white women have been involved in social movements that have been male dominated,” says Diaz-Cotto, who marched with Latin@Dreamers at the Women’s March.

“If women of color are in the lead in conjunction with white women, then there’s an opportunity to achieve significant change,” she says.

“The exciting thing is that we’re trying to work together. If you look at Black Lives Matter, you see a lot of white, young people participating in the demonstrations. This generation, maybe more than any other in recent times, understands the interrelationship between race, class, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation because they have benefited from the rights won by social movements in the past.”

Can we talk?

Gibson is a Georgia native, and her family was dead-set against Clinton.

On the bus back to Binghamton after the Women’s March, Gibson says it didn’t take long for her Facebook posts to stir an argument with a friend back home who is a police officer and gun owner. “She said, ‘While everybody else is marching, I’m home doing my job, so maybe don’t worry about all these unnecessary issues.’ I said, ‘I have a job. We’re not a bunch of lazy, worthless people …’ Then her friends started attacking me, and the vitriol was insane. Meanwhile, my friend and I had a side conversation that was respectful.”

Finding common ground and being a willing listener is difficult but necessary, women say.

“I try to get a good understanding of why people are angry, why they are upset, why they feel left out of a process that was made to represent them,” says Amy Dacey ’93, executive vice president of MWWPR, a public relations firm, and former CEO of the Democratic National Committee. “You have to have conversations.”

“I think we assume people on the other side don’t know what they’re talking about,” Gibson says. And it can be hard to argue a point if you’re not conversant in all the facts. But facts aren’t what most arguments are about, she says.

“I don’t think we’re actually arguing dollars and cents, or policy. We’re arguing about what our interpretation of this government should be. I can say all I want about the healthcare bill, but if somebody says, ‘Yeah, but the government shouldn’t be paying for healthcare at all,’ that’s an ideological viewpoint that a fact doesn’t necessarily sway,” she says.

Labels — political, religious or gender — can be a shortcut to understanding someone’s values. But relying on them, some women say, can distract from really hearing what a person is saying.

“I think sometimes we have to remove our labels,” says Marusich, a board member of The Agency, a Broome County economic development group. “If I identify myself as a Binghamton University graduate, you and I immediately connect. If we define ourselves as living in the Southern Tier, we immediately connect. If you say you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican — the way the world is right now — we split. Labels should be respected, but leave them at the door.”

“I identify first with my faith; God’s not a Democrat or Republican,” Lewis says. “When I first registered to vote, I was a ‘blank,’ then I realized I had no say in the most influential elections — the primaries — so I registered as a Republican. I use my faith to guide me, and I’ve voted for Democrats. It’s really about the person.”

Change demands endurance

Women who commit to seeking office need to understand that the process of changing the face of political power is a marathon, not a sprint, Walsh says.

“I’m interested in seeing what our numbers will look like in terms of candidates in 2018 and beyond. Will these women have staying power? Will they stick with it if they don’t get elected the first time? I hope they do because that’s the way we’re going to see more women in office. They need to be in it for the long haul,” she says.

Contrary to what some people might expect, women’s and men’s successes in raising money and winning office are comparable. But women tend to get into politics later in life, perhaps because of money or family responsibilities, so their trajectory is shorter.

“A woman who first runs for office in her early 50s doesn’t have as much time to rise to higher levels of elective office,” Walsh says.

“Politics is a great sacrifice,” Marusich says. “But I felt valued as a public servant. You get out of it what you put into it.”

Dacey, who spent three years as executive director of Emily’s List, a political action group, is encouraged by the number of women interested in running for office. But she wants to also see continued engagement by the electorate.

“What would be worse would be to have excitement and conversations around what’s happened, and then have people not go to the polls and vote,” she says.

“My dad ran for school board when I was 8, and he basically told me that all kids worked on campaigns. We went neighbor to neighbor to get signatures on the ballot. Then he ran for county legislature when I was in high school and lost by something like five votes. You could probably find a therapist to say I’ve been chasing those five votes my whole life,” she says, laughing.

Gibson will hang onto her clipboard; someday she’d like to run for city council. A State Department-sponsored trip to Russia this summer and finishing her PhD come first. Still, she’s laying a foundation for the future. She’s a member of the Democratic Women of Broome County and the League of Women Voters. And she talks politics with her Republican father in Georgia.

“We are so politically divided in this country, but we are so unengaged with politics. Everyone should give service to their community, and part of that is voting,” Gibson says.

Posted in: In the World