Debate all you want whether Donald Trump is bad for women, but there's no disputing this: He is great for the women's movement.
The election of a president whom detractors view as misogynistic and backward-thinking has done nothing less than spark a wholesale resurgence of feminism. His defeat of the first woman who might have been president -- coupled with his incendiary comments about women and his divisive policies on reproductive rights and other issues -- lit a fire under a movement that had failed to excite younger generations of women who benefited from the battles of the last century and saw no need to keep fighting.
They do now.
And so do their mothers and grandmothers.
Inadvertently and singlehandedly, Trump has galvanized women like no president before him.
What's more, he has broadened the women's movement in a way that its leaders had been struggling to do for years. His election -- and the fear that he will roll back rights for women and minorities -- has kindled diversity in a movement long disparaged as a crusade by and for white women.
And more than three decades after conservatives successfully demonized the term “feminist,” a new Republican president has incited a swelling army of women -- and men -- to proudly adopt it once again. Suddenly, feminists seem to be everywhere -- organizing, rallying, joining and donating in what longtime leaders say is record numbers.
“There’s never been anything like this,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a veteran leader of the women’s movement. “I believe the culture has dramatically changed.”
In more than 50 interviews since Inauguration Day, leaders of legacy and upstart women’s groups as well as experienced and newly minted activists have told me about a grassroots effort that could dwarf the crusades -- if not the results -- of earlier years. Previous campaigns garnered huge gains for women, most notably suffrage, employment and reproductive rights. In the age of Trump, the movement is not fixated on one isolated goal, but on a combination of causes that begins, first and foremost, with preventing a Republican president and Congress from curtailing existing rights.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, dismisses the women’s movement as “pro-abortion and anti-male.”
“What are they getting done?” Conway asked me repeatedly during an interview this week. She never directly addressed the movement’s rejuvenation nor the stimulus behind it.
Fear of a backlash and anger over Trump's victory and his continued abasement of women -- epitomized most recently in a tweet demeaning MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski -- have proved exceedingly powerful.
“It’s like a whole new shift,” says EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, “almost a rebirth” of the entire women’s movement.
“This,” Schriock adds, “is an extraordinary moment.”
They started less than 24 hours after Trump took the oath of office, marching by the millions in Washington, in cities large and small, in states red and blue, in every corner of America, on every continent on Earth. With their bright pink “pussyhats” and their caustic handmade signs, they protested what they saw as looming threats to their bodies, their families, their environment, their economic well-being and their very ways of life. They rallied not solely around one issue, as feminists had in the marches of yore, but around just about every liberal issue: abortion rights, gay rights, transgender rights, immigration, reproductive justice, environmental justice, racial justice, the Equal Rights Amendment, equal pay, access to health care, access to the middle class, support for public education, support for the poor, for black lives, for Latinos and on and on.
They had been shaken to the core by the election of a man who once boasted about grabbing women’s genitals, who degraded Mexican immigrants, who mocked a disabled journalist. But now they felt uplifted, even, to some extent, hopeful. They felt power in their unity.
“Getting this many people together lets everybody know that they’re not alone.”
“Getting this many people together lets everybody know that they’re not alone,” Sherri Konick of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, told me while marching in Washington.
At the end of the day, they went home. But they didn't rest. Because now, in addition to being upset -- make that furious -- about the election, throngs of women all over America were energized in a way most of them never had been before. This kind of energy demanded action, immediate action, intense action, exhausting and exhilarating action. This kind of energy was not going to dissipate anytime soon.
So they mobilized. They created local “huddles” and started meeting and plotting. They went to town halls and yelled at those Congress members courageous enough to show up; they plastered on milk cartons the faces of some who were not. They mailed postcards to Washington by the tens of thousands, perhaps the millions, and placed so many calls to the Capitol that the switchboards jammed within two weeks of Trump’s inauguration. They learned how to navigate the halls of government and sank their teeth into local issues. They lobbied city council members and marched on statehouses, carrying some of the same signs they had waved on January 21. They volunteered. They joined. They swarmed conferences on how to run for office, how to finance a campaign, how to unseat an incumbent. They got out their checkbooks and sent money, lots and lots of money, to women’s organizations and advocacy groups.
Nearly six months later, they haven’t let up.
Leaders of the women’s movement are simultaneously gobsmacked and overjoyed by their newfound support. “This is the first time when I talk about a march and I get goosebumps,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations and advocacy for the American Association of University Women, which promotes equity and education for women and girls. “This is the first time where I felt like there was a collective sense of purpose.”
Maatz, who initially was skeptical the march would achieve anything at all, now characterizes it as a “watershed moment” in the entire history of the women’s movement.
“Nobody knew whether you would actually spark serious political possibilities with a big march or if it was just going to be one big party.”
“Nobody knew whether you would actually spark serious political possibilities with a big march or if it was just going to be one big party and everybody goes home and they’re exhausted and they have no more energy to actually do the hard work -- the hard political work -- of changing the political disaster that we are facing,” says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “Quite frankly, this march has sparked an energy that is sustainable.”
The women who marched have become “self-mobilized,” O’Neill tells me. “We just have to give them stuff to do. They are screaming for things to do. …That is the one silver lining of all of this.”
There is no single, driving strategy for this newly empowered women’s movement. That’s true of any opposition, of course, because it must react to the powers that be. It’s particularly true when those powers endeavor to reverse many of the culture-shifting changes that have come before. It’s even more true when a movement widens its focus to include issues that have not always been central to its core mission -- causes such as voting rights that affect women, but not all women and not only women.
But while expanding ambitions certainly have boosted the size of the women’s movement, it remains to be seen whether such a shift will make it more powerful or whether it will decentralize it so much that it becomes amorphous.
“I’m not sure even how to define the women’s movement anymore.”
“I’m not sure even how to define the women’s movement anymore,” says Elisabeth Griffith, an independent scholar who was inspired by the march to write a book about the past century of the movement. “It was easier in the ’60s and the ’70s. You had single goals.”
In 2017, there are many goals. Several are defensive: prevent the President and Congress from cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood, from reducing women’s access to health and reproductive care, from rolling back LGBTQ rights, from filling the Supreme Court with justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Others are proactive and, in many cases, evergreen: ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, enact paid family and medical leave, expand quality child care, achieve pay equity, improve education for women and girls, stop domestic and campus sexual abuse, fight for reproductive rights and make sure they’re accessible to women of every race, ethnicity and economic circumstance. (Trump’s budget proposal does include paid leave for parents of newborns, but it falls short of what advocates say is needed.)
Then there's this goal: elect more women to get all this stuff done.
After failing, twice, to capture the highest office in the land, Hillary Clinton has demonstrated just how hard that can be. The former secretary of state and first lady who famously linked women’s rights and human rights has blamed her latest loss, in part, on misogyny and sexism. Beyond lamenting her own defeat, she has continued to press for equality, most recently telling CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that women's rights are “the unfinished business of the 21st century.”
It would appear that more and more Americans agree with her. Since the election, feminist organizations have reported historic levels of donations and involvement.
Take EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. For more than 30 years, its leaders have had to beat the bushes to convince women to run for office, Schriock, the president, tells me. Not anymore. “This has turned it upside down for us,” she says. “We now have women coming to us and saying, ‘Tell me what I can do.’”
From November 9 to early July, about 15,000 women signed up for EMILY’s List seminars on how to run for office. That’s 16 times the 920 women who participated the previous two years, Schriock says. The influx prompted the organization to triple its staffs in Washington and around the country and to launch a new program, Run to Win, to recruit and train women candidates. In preparation for the 2018 elections, EMILY’s List is working to help women vie for seats considered competitive in the US House of Representatives, for at least 15 governorships and for countless other state and local offices.
Similarly, the abortion-rights group Naral Pro-Choice America gained 400,000 new members since Trump was elected – a 40% growth rate -- and a whopping 500% increase in contributions, according to President Ilyse Hogue.
Planned Parenthood, a favorite target of Republicans, has been inundated with more than 115,000 volunteers and 1 million new supporters since the election. The number of people who donate monthly has quintupled. The organization is training new activists and clinic defenders -- who help patients traverse anti-abortion protests -- across the nation.
“I just don’t think anything compares.”
It’s a new experience for the century-old organization. “There isn’t a comparison; I just don’t think anything compares,” says Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards.
Perhaps equally telling is what has happened at Planned Parenthood’s 650 clinics, which provide health care to millions of women a year in every state except North Dakota. Beginning the morning after the election, there has been a surge of women scrambling to make appointments and a mad dash to obtain pricey birth-control methods that many fear will no longer be covered by insurance.
“There was this realization among millions of women that they might lose their birth-control benefit or they might lose their access to Planned Parenthood, and we saw this extraordinary spike, a 900% increase of women trying to get into Planned Parenthood to get an IUD (intrauterine device),” Richards tells me.
In fact, the Trump administration is drafting a rule that would greatly expand the number of employers who can assert moral or religious objections to circumvent an Obama-era mandate that they cover birth control in their insurance plans.
Other changes target Planned Parenthood directly. In April, Trump signed legislation permitting states to withhold federal medical payments from Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortion services, even though the government does not subsidize abortions. In May, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a health care bill that would prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving federal money for a year. In June, Senate Republicans revealed their health care bill, which includes the same provision. More than 1.5 million of Planned Parenthood’s 2.5 million annual patients get their health care through Medicaid or other federal programs, Richards says. That money allows them to get birth control, cancer screenings and preventive health care at Planned Parenthood clinics.
Women who get their health care through private insurers also could lose abortion coverage. Though they have slightly different approaches, both the House and Senate bills would make it considerably more difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to buy insurance plans that cover abortion. (The Senate bill, which has splintered the Republican caucus and still awaits a vote, also permits states to opt out of a requirement that insurance offer maternity care.)
For decades, feminist leaders have warned women that they had a tentative hold on abortion rights, that legislatures in many states were chipping away at access and that electing the “wrong” president could eventually shift the balance of power on the Supreme Court and upend the guarantees established in 1973 by Roe v. Wade. For the most part, that message did not resonate. As the years went by, fewer women -- and virtually none who are currently of child-bearing age -- ever experienced a time when they did not have a constitutional right to abortion.
The election of a president who pledged to nominate justices who would overturn Roe, coupled with Republican control of Congress, has awakened many women to the possibility that rights they have come to expect might not be permanent after all. (Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has been vague when it comes to abortion rights, but conservatives have taken heart in his earlier writings against assisted suicide and in his adherence to originalism. He also ruled in favor of a business owner who, for religious reasons, did not want to provide birth control to employees, as required under Obamacare.)
“People are starting to see their role in society differently at this point in time.”
“People are starting to see their role in society differently at this point in time,” says Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood’s deputy national organizing director. Noting that scores of Planned Parenthood patients have volunteered to publicly tell their personal stories in order to put a human face on reproductive issues, she says: “It’s not enough to be a silent supporter.”
Meanwhile, with both his policies and his personal behavior, Trump continues to provide feminists with fresh ammunition. In June, he lashed out at Brzezinski, insulting her intelligence and suggesting that, at one point, she had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” (The MSNBC anchor says she never underwent the procedure, but that’s not the point.)
Trump’s latest tweets were reminiscent of shots he took at women during the presidential campaign, such as his backhanded quip about opponent Carly Fiorina’s face or his declaration in 2015 that then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” Those bits of invective didn’t go over well, but neither did they carry a lot of weight. After all, they were uttered months before the first primary by a candidate who was, at the time, viewed as a long shot. Now, Trump is sitting in the Oval Office, and his conduct has spurred condemnation not only from critics on the left, but from leaders within his own party.
It also has fueled the women's movement.
This flood of activism is something of a throwback to another time when America was deeply divided and millions took to the streets, an era that predates cell phones and millennials.
“Post the 2016 election, the morning after, we had a moment of concern about whether women would crawl under the covers and hibernate,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But no one seems to be holing up.
“It feels like more activism than I’ve seen for years.”
“There is a quest for how to have some agency in this moment when I think people are feeling a bit powerless,” Walsh says. “It feels like more activism than I’ve seen for years.”
It feels, she says, much like it did during the Vietnam War.
“I have been in a state of shock since the election, and every day that I turn on the television, I’m just more and more in shock,” says Jurdene Coleman, a 30-year-old marriage and family therapist in the northeast Kansas town of Manhattan. “Even though I vote, that is not enough -- obviously, because that’s all I’ve been doing. I want to be some kind of agent of change….
“When I heard about the huddle in Manhattan, I knew that it was something I had to be a part of. I’m just hoping I can make a small difference.”
Following the Women’s March, the leaders promoted activities, called collective actions, that supporters could do to keep the momentum going. The first action, the day after the march, was to send postcards to Congress. The second, in February, was to create huddles, defined as small groups holding informal conversations. According to womensmarch.com, 5,448 huddles have been formed from Longview, Washington, to Hollywood, Florida.
Ann Root did not know Jurdene Coleman, though they live in the same small town. But like Coleman, she was dismayed by Trump’s election. “My husband said, ‘I guess we just keep our heads down for the next four years,’” Root recalls. “I thought, ‘No we don’t!’”
First Root attended the Women’s March in Kansas’ capital, Topeka, about 60 miles from Manhattan (nickname: “The Little Apple”).
“I don’t enjoy crowds, but I was just blown away by the positive energy radiating out of that group.”
"I don't enjoy crowds, but I was just blown away by the positive energy radiating out of that group," she says.
Then Root searched for a huddle in Manhattan, home to Kansas State University. Nobody had started one, so she did it herself. “In normal times, you just let other people do it,” says Root, 47, a marketer for a cattle reproduction company. “This is not normal times anymore. I can’t just let other people do it anymore.”
The Women’s March MHK (the airport code for Manhattan, Kansas) meets monthly at Auntie Mae’s Parlor, a former speakeasy named for the widow who established it in the basement of her family’s plumbing company during Prohibition. About 25 people are regular attendees and 190 follow the group on Facebook.
“Probably 75- to 80% of the members have never been involved in activism, who are all just terrified or angry and feel like they have to do something,” Root says.
Root herself has supported environmental causes in the past, but -- like so many others -- sat on the sidelines when it came to the women’s movement.
“I’ve always considered myself a feminist but I haven’t honestly given the women’s movement much thought before.”
“I’ve always considered myself a feminist but I haven’t honestly given the women’s movement much thought before,” she acknowledges. “I have never thought of myself as being marginalized….But now I’m starting to question that when the leader of the free world can get elected despite being caught on tape being sexist and degrading women. Then I realize there is still a problem in this country. Even though I don’t personally feel it, this is still happening.”
Root feels so strongly about the threat to women that, shortly after the election, she plopped down $100 for two boxes of Plan B emergency contraception "not because I would need them, but somebody would need them someday."
Notwithstanding her assertiveness, Root considers herself an introvert, and she didn't want to run the group that she created. At the first gathering, she met Coleman, and the two became a team.
“Throughout the entire campaign, all I saw was bigotry and racism and Islamophobia and homophobia and all of the -isms that you can imagine,” says Coleman, who is African American. “I just kept seeing that in Donald Trump’s campaign.”
Members of the Manhattan group have attended a Riley County commission meeting -- where they pushed reluctant officials to apply for family planning money -- met with state legislators and organized around the issues of equal rights, politics, health care and the environment. They marched in the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade and have waged repeated postcard-writing campaigns to tell Congress members their views on health care, birth control and even the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential race.
Coleman has taken her own activities a step or two further. She tells me she has become passionate about getting women to run for office, starting with herself. She has launched a campaign for school board.
Her opponents? Three other women.
March organizers made a key decision that could forever change the women's movement and become crucial to its long-term success.
They threw the doors open to women who had felt sidelined before and infused the entire movement with a sense of “intersectionality.” Younger leaders and women of color had long been clamoring for a shift toward intersectional feminism, which empowers women who are members of racial, ethnic, religious, gender and other minorities by acknowledging that their overlapping identities make them subject to a level of discrimination -- even oppression -- that white women don’t face.
“We are not monolithic as women.”
“We are not monolithic as women,” one of the march’s leaders, treasurer Carmen Perez, tells me. “I’m a Latina woman who works and whose family has been affected by incarceration and who has family who are undocumented.”
It is no accident, she says, that three of the march’s four leaders are women of color, all of them steeped in feminism as well as in civil rights movements. The new generation of feminist leaders is diverse, and they demand that the rest of the movement follow suit, Perez adds. Gone are the days when black women were forced to march behind their white sisters as most did in the famed suffragist march of 1913, or to subjugate their needs to those of the majority, she says. “I’m very hopeful about the direction that feminism is moving.”
Cassady Fendlay, head of communications for the Women’s March, says the leaders deliberately put intersectionality front and center because they consider it “the biggest call of this moment.”
“I don’t want to see us repeat the sins of the past.”
“This is where the women’s movement can shine and gain traction,” she says. “It was something that I put the majority of my energy into -- making sure that this didn’t have the shortcomings of the women’s movement of the past….I didn’t want to see us repeat the sins of the past.”
A glance at the march’s speakers and partner organizations illustrates how the leaders went about their task. Among the 43 speakers in Washington, 41 were women and 32 were women of color, according to organizers. And the long list of sponsors and partners included organizations that advocate on behalf of women, workers, teachers, nurses, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Dreamers, Latinos, African Americans, students, Christians, Jews, Muslims, convicts, the environment and many, many more.
“I think people are understanding that we have to be in it together,” says Monica Simpson, executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re in a ‘kumbaya’ moment. I think there are still conversations to have.”
Simpson notes that while most women of color supported Clinton for president, 53% of white women backed Trump. That dichotomy illustrates the divisions that remain among women, particularly white women, says Simpson, whose Atlanta-based organization links reproductive rights and social justice.
Ironically, she says Trump’s election could help unite women of all races and ethnicities. “All of our lives are under attack,” Simpson says. “Women of color are at greater risk, sure, but that doesn’t mean that all women aren’t going to be impacted.”
Jessica Gonzáles-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, offers one vivid example of how some women’s lives have changed in recent months. Since the Trump administration stepped up deportations, many undocumented women have stopped going to health clinics because federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been known to park outside, Gonzáles-Rojas says. The women’s movement must speak for them and for all women who feel marginalized, she says.
“It’s about us standing arm in arm, at the same table, and allowing the women of color to speak their own truths,” Gonzáles-Rojas says. “We’ve been around since the beginning, but our story and history has been silenced. We have a lot to add.”
Like Coleman, of Manhattan, Kansas, a number of women of color tell me they have felt moved to participate in the women's movement for the first time.
In her 51 years, Marsha Mayo never attended a march, though she has had plenty of opportunities as a resident of Washington, DC. That changed with Trump’s election. “I’ve never seen such disrespect for women,” Mayo says.
So on January 21, she gathered up her five daughters and two granddaughters and took them to the march. It was a chance, she says, for her African-American family to stake its claim on the women's movement.
A month and a half later, Mayo joined protesters in Lafayette Square across from the White House as part of A Day Without a Woman, a follow-up to the Women's March. At lunchtime on an uncharacteristically warm March day, Mayo stood in her school crossing-guard uniform listening to speakers decry Trump's decision to reinstate the so-called global gag rule, which strips federal funding from international groups that so much as discuss abortion.
“I just feel like women’s rights are so important,” Mayo tells me.
Nearby, Jessica Cooper stood with colleagues from a federal technology office. She wore pants of bright red in solidarity with A Day Without a Woman.
“With the attacks on abortion and the attacks on my body, I thought it was necessary to take a stand,” says Cooper, 29 and a resident of nearby Hyattsville, Maryland. “It’s my turn to take the torch to stand up for other women.”
As a black woman, Cooper says she previously viewed the women’s movement as too divided, as if its leaders thought the struggles of white women and women of color were separate.
“Now, we’re really coming together and realizing how important it is to fight together,” she says.
Meanwhile, some white women tell me they are learning that they have to do a better job of uniting with -- not just reaching out to -- women of color.
Gloria Everson took it upon herself to organize eight buses to drive her and fellow Minnesotans to the Women’s March in Washington. “I had stopped by quite a few community centers to try to get under-represented populations to come along to Washington. We even had scholarships.
“We still had very little success,” says Everson, 49, who is white and lives in St. Paul.
After the march, the anthropologist says one woman of color told her: “We’re always invited to gatherings by white women…Yet they never show up at our events.”
Recently, Everson says she attended a conference of Islamic women. “Out of 200 people, I was one of maybe a half dozen not wearing a hijab. And, yeah, I did feel out of place,” she says. “When I talked to people, I said, ‘This is me showing up.’”
Everson now is working with an Islamic women’s group to organize regular coffees where women can meet people “who they may feel is not like them.”
Veteran feminists fully credit the march's leaders for appealing to women who neither embraced the cause nor felt that it embraced them before now.
“White women have so disproportionately benefited from the women’s movement. It’s obvious to me that we’ve lost race and class too much as a movement.”
“White women have so disproportionately benefited from the women’s movement. It’s obvious to me that we’ve lost race and class too much as a movement,” says NOW’s president, O’Neill, who is white. “I think we’re at a moment where you have a lot of women willing to say that’s not good enough.”
O’Neill says that NOW put intersectionality into its bylaws two years ago, but that the march gave the concept a much-needed jolt. She and every leader I interviewed at a legacy organization say intersectionality was the way forward, the only way forward for feminism in the 21st century.
“I believe there’s been a great coming together of women’s groups and civil rights groups and labor groups and LGBT groups,” says Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a former president of NOW. “People are trying to be intersectional, not that we always succeed. Our goals are to have equality for everyone.”
The women's movement never represented all women, not then, not now. For the past half century, it was a woman, Phyllis Schlafly, who personified the opposition to what used to be called women's lib. Schlafly, the big-haired lawyer, author and political powerhouse who championed stay-at-home wives and mothers, led the successful fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s and battled abortion rights, same-sex marriage, unisex bathrooms, sex education, Title IX rules and a military draft for women. She died last September, six months after endorsing Trump.
It's safe to say that Schlafly would not have marched on January 21.
“I didn’t see the Women’s March did anything other than march around.”
“I didn’t see that the Women’s March did anything other than march around,” her daughter, Anne Schlafly Cori, tells me. Her biting remarks remind me of the many times I interviewed her sharp-tongued mother, whose 1950s physical appearance masked her political savvy and take-no-prisoners style. Cori now chairs the Eagle Forum, the conservative organization that Sclafly founded in 1972. “What was the purpose of that march?” Cori asks me, before answering herself: “It’s just a leftist march, it’s not a women’s march.”
While the march organizers did widen the tent, the flaps did not open so far as to welcome people such as Cori, who takes significant comfort in Trump’s presidency. It’s not surprising, as the Eagle Forum’s website claims to expose what it calls “radical feminists” by standing firm against same-sex marriage, women serving in combat and “the feminist goals of stereotyping men as a constant danger to women.”
The very mission of the march included a panoply of positions that conservative men and women like Cori tend to oppose, including -- 35 years after its defeat -- the ERA. But the real dividing line, even among some self-described feminists, was reproductive rights. Initially, an anti-abortion group called New Wave Feminists was listed as an official partner of the march. But following a dust-up, the Texas-based organization was dropped from the list. It's possible that some abortion opponents were on hand, but they were not obvious amid a sea of signs supporting reproductive freedom.
“Pro-life women were not invited or welcomed at that march. ...If they wanted to call it pro-choice women, fine. But we find it offensive that there’s this pretense that they speak for all women. They don’t.”
“Our members have a hard time with the idea that they call it a Women’s March,” says Penny Young Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization that opposes abortion rights. “Women are not monolithic,” she says, echoing what march leader Perez tells me. “Pro-life women were not invited or welcomed at that march….If they wanted to call it pro-choice women, fine. But we find it offensive that there’s this pretense that they speak for all women. They don’t.”
Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager and current senior adviser, says a strict adherence to abortion rights undercuts the entire women’s movement.
“It has to go beyond abortion and pink hats,” she tells me. “As long as the feminist movement anchors itself to that issue and primarily that issue alone, it will continue to be a failure that agitates much and produces little.”
Conway asserts that the women’s movement does not represent most American women. “What do women do each week? They fill the grocery cart and the gas tank. They don't get an abortion,” she says. “The Democratic-feminist disconnect with America's women is widening.”
There is one thing on which conservative and feminist leaders agree: President Trump has electrified women. Women on the left and, Nance says, women on the right.
“Who knew Trump would bring more members to both groups?” she says. Nance says donations to her group have increased 75% in 2017 and that Facebook followers have nearly quintupled.
Why? “We smell success.”
“On January 20, I was a voter and on January 21, I became a political activist,” Kristen Duncan declares.
That's exactly what march organizers hoped would happen when they expanded their reach to women who had never engaged with politics, young women like Duncan chief among them.
The leaders of the march also are relatively young -- younger, anyway, than the women who have been at the forefront of the movement since the 1960s and 1970s. So it stands to reason that they would find ways to attract the youngest adult women, millennials, who have grown up at a time when women have had more rights and opportunities than ever before.
I first met Duncan, a 32-year-old customer relationship manager from Topeka, Kansas, as she stood alongside her mother, Janet Newton, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Along with more than 200 other Kansans, Duncan and Newton had boarded one of a coterie of buses at 10:30 a.m. on Trump's inauguration day for a 20-plus hour ride from Lawrence to the march in Washington. As the largest one-day march in US history drew to a close, Newton and Duncan paused to reflect.
Newton, 57 and an early childhood consultant from Alma, Kansas, felt upbeat following her first political rally. She always had been involved in politics, going so far as to attend state Democratic conventions, but the march took her participation "to a higher level."
The whole thing was new to her daughter. Duncan, exhilarated by the day, spent the long bus ride home preparing for her next move. She went online and downloaded "Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda," a 26-page roadmap to grassroots advocacy. Back in Topeka, she joined an Indivisible group and quickly became one of three organizers. Within weeks, the brand-new group was a few hundred strong, and had met with congressional staff members, written countless letters to lawmakers and campaigned for a Democrat in a special election to replace former Rep. Mike Pompeo, now Trump's CIA director. (In April, the Democrat, James Thompson, lost, but he was remarkably competitive in a solidly Republican district.)
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more inspired by anything,” Duncan tells me when I catch up with her this spring. “I do feel passionate about all of the things that we’re doing to fight in Washington.”
Jordan Brooks, who runs a new organization called the United State of Women, says the election served to rouse young women to the possibility that some of the rights they grew up with could be "chipped away." That prospect "has really awakened a new generation of women to think about gender equity in a way that we didn't previously," says Brooks who, at 30, is a millennial herself.
“We want to just make sure we’re getting to all of the new audience of women who are really engaged for the first time,” says Brooks, whose organization works to get the word out on the policies advocated by larger women’s organizations. “We have the opportunity now to bring the generations of women together.”
Toward that end, the United State of Women recently launched The Galvanize Program, which aims to turn some of this newfound passion into action in communities nationwide. It will hold summits to help women organize where they live, starting in mid-July in Chicago.
Although six in 10 women between the ages of 18 and 29 support the feminist movement, a minority -- 37% -- identify as feminists, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics poll conducted in March and April 2016. That sounds low, but millennial women actually call themselves feminists in greater proportions than do older women, other polling shows. And both millennial women and men support equal rights.
Until now, though, millennials have not fully engaged with the movement itself, according to several leaders.
“Young feminists and younger people in general tend to resist the organization-type structure,” says Janaye Ingram, head of logistics for the Women’s March. “They may consider themselves feminists or activists, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they plug in. Because we started this off with a march, it was a way for people to plug in.”
Cindy Simon Rosenthal, who spends a lot of time with students as director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, says many millennial women don't call themselves feminists because they "were socialized in an era in which that was a dirty word." That doesn't mean they don't support the goals of feminism, she says.
In fact, Simon Rosenthal says that since the election, she has witnessed a burst of energy among millennials, aimed primarily at community service rather than politics.
“The question is whether or not this is going to be a moment that motivates younger people to move beyond reservations that they have about partisan politics.”
“The question” she says, “is whether or not this is going to be a moment that motivates younger people to move beyond reservations that they have about partisan politics.”
Duncan, of Topeka, is convinced she and fellow millennials will remain engaged, politically and civically.
“The leaders of tomorrow,” she says, “are going to come from these resistance groups.”
“I have eight posters in the back of my trunk so I’m ready for any rally,” Beth Wakefield says when I call to see if she has kept up her involvement after the march. Indeed, the elementary school teacher from Apple Valley, Minnesota, says she had been to several rallies since she left Washington and has more on her calendar.
She has attended town hall meetings, huddles and a half-day training on how to be an effective activist.
“Every day, I try to get a postcard in the mail,” she says, though she had to pause briefly this spring for a death in the family. She adds that she lobbies state legislators and Congress members and writes notes of praise to those who support progressive causes.
“We don’t have time to be complacent,” insists Wakefield, 56.
This is exactly what the march organizers had in mind from the start, they tell me. They were counting on people like Beth Wakefield to pick up the baton and keep running.
“What happened on January 21 wasn’t that people woke up and said, ‘Now I care about issues.’ I think people always cared about issues, but didn’t necessarily know how to plug in,” says Ingram, a veteran civil rights organizer. “Because we came together under the banner of the Women’s March -- if you are a woman, you belong here -- women across the world felt their voices were being heard.”
Now, she says, “Go home and shift the power structure.”
Whether -- or how rapidly -- they can do that is another issue. It's been 94 years since Alice Paul drafted the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment and it's not in the Constitution yet. And a quarter century after the Year of the Woman, when they were elected to the House and Senate in record numbers, women still hold just one-fifth of congressional seats, one-quarter of state legislative seats and one-eighth of governorships. Nonetheless, supporters of the ERA continue to map out its revival, and more and more groups are trying to elect women to local, state and federal office.
Feminist leaders are working feverishly to give first- and long-time activists the tools they need to keep fighting battles old and new. But they are doing so with clear eyes.
“We’re being very honest,” says Hogue of Naral Pro-Choice America. “There is no silver bullet. There’s no one action you can take that will make this all right.
“We need people,” she says, “who are in this for the long haul.”
Cover video by Contessa Gayles.
Story video by Brenna Williams.
Photography by Ben Rasmussen.