Women have been inspired to get involved in politics since the 2016 election
Emerge America, founded in 2002 to train women to run for office, says more than 400 women are in its classes
Alyson Leahy remembers sobbing as election results came in. The 30-year-old graphic designer is a lifelong liberal who grew up in a small, conservative town in southwestern Wisconsin. She’s voted in every national election since she was able to, and considers herself an informed voter.
“I felt that Trump’s win was the quintessential example of an unqualified man winning over an incredibly qualified woman,” Leahy says. “And the idea that people I knew, that I was related to, voted for that man … it made me sick.”
While the result of the election infuriated her, it also sparked something much greater inside her.
“It also made me realize that everyday involvement is key, and that I couldn’t afford to sit around anymore sharing Facebook posts and avoiding real work,” Leahy says.
She attended the March on Washington and realized she was not alone in how she felt.
That moment was the springboard for Leahy to engage in politics for the first time, in Wausau, Wisconsin.
For Leahy, and many other women, it is an incredibly personal choice after the election, says Erin Forrest, executive director at Emerge Wisconsin. The group is part of Emerge America, founded in 2002 to identify female community leaders and train them to run for office.
“This isn’t just, ‘I’m going to get involved in my community,’” Forrest says of why women are flocking to the training. “It’s watching the most qualified person, watching a woman get so close to becoming president, watching what she went through, and losing, to arguably the least qualified person to run for president. [It is] deeply personal.”
Leahy plans to run for a seat on the Marathon County Board, where she lives, and is just one of more than 400 women in the United States this year who Emerge America says are going through its six month, 70-hour training program.
The group operates in 18 states and says 400 alumnae currently hold an elected office or are appointed to boards and commissions throughout the United States.
In Wisconsin, of the 13 women who ran for office after attending the training, nine won.
Readying for an uphill battle for mayor
Charisse Daniels knows the importance of community. As an early childhood-community liaison she trains professionals and advocates for Head Start, which promotes child development and education beginning at a young age.
The election was an “absolute kick in the gut” for the 29-year-old.
“I knew the world looked different when I walked out that door,” the mother of four from Watertown, Wisconsin, recalls. “This isn’t what I thought the world would look like. … It changed everything.”
She marched in Madison, Wisconsin, and realized she cared about the same things her Republican neighbors care about: manufacturing jobs disappearing, wages stagnating, communities like Watertown disappearing.
“We care about the same issues,” Daniels says. “We can fix them together.”
So she made a decision. She’d like to run for mayor of Watertown. Daniels knows it’s an uphill climb as a young woman of color in a conservative district.
When Daniels shows up for a workshop on a frigid day in Madison, she is attentive and engaged throughout the class. But she learns a tough lesson while practicing door-knock drills to prepare her for canvassing for votes in her mayoral run.
The “actor” she meets plays an angry Republican, who is disgusted at the tax rate and blames it on Democrats. Daniels is unsure what to say. She’s unsuccessful at dealing with the actor. It has taught her some people can’t be swayed, and as a candidate she should focus on those who connect with her ideas.
Some of those crossover issues, she believes, would be tackling Watertown’s opiate addiction problem and funding STEM programs for children. Even if Daniels fails to win public office, she’s determined to try.
‘I realized, why not me?’
Petra DeJesus, 60, is one of the older women in the Emerge Los Angeles workshop.
DeJesus is an attorney, with extensive experience working for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. She has worked in rural legal defense and currently works as a public interest attorney for workers exposed to asbestos.
She joined the San Francisco Police Commission when it expanded to include citizens because she felt the commission didn’t represent the Latino perspective. But it wasn’t until Donald Trump became President that she was fearful of the future of her country and inspired to run for higher office.
“[I was] scared, scared for the future and wondering what can I do,” DeJesus says. “Can I get more involved? Who can I support? And then I realized, why not me? Why not me? I know what I want and what my community wants … so I need to do something more.”
DeJesus’ only experience running for local office was running for a spot on the San Francisco County Central Committee, a local county board.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” she says of the experience.
So she signed up for Emerge California to learn more about how to prepare and effectively run for a statewide or national office. After watching Trump win, DeJesus refuses to be a woman sitting on the local sidelines anymore.
Emerge America hopes many more women do the same.
“Women are more than half the population and only a quarter of elected officials. That’s a problem,” says Emerge’s Forrest. “It’s not breaking into the old boys’ club, it’s creating the new girls’ club.