Three days after Election Day in 2016, I got a message on Twitter from a new friend. She was having a handful of people over, mostly women, to sit and talk and process and — most importantly — make some plans to “try to stop the human rights apocalypse.” Did I want to join?
Soon after, I was packed into her living room with about a dozen other women and a couple of men. (This was a time when being packed into a living room with other unmasked humans didn’t feel out of the ordinary.) There was a buzz in that room (and plenty of good snacks), an energy born of grief that was palpable. A few drinks and many more tears later, this informal group of close friends and strangers became something more solid, with regularly scheduled meetings, a fundraising arm and a name, Women To The Front.
A tiny political action group had been born over the course of a few hours. Four years later, it’s still going strong, and I have watched as my friends furiously organize text banks and phone banks and get-out-the-vote campaigns from their laptops in the midst of a pandemic.
What I didn’t know when I first got that Twitter DM was that this sort of thing was happening all over the country and would continue in waves over the following four years: groups of people, many of them women, organizing in big and small ways around an incredibly diverse slate of issues that impact their respective communities.
The story of the last four years isn’t about him. Not really. It’s about us. It’s about American women.
The man in the White House loves nothing more than to be at the center of a big story. But the story of the last four years isn’t about him. Not really. It’s about us. It’s about American women.
“American women across race, across geography, across issues, have been mobilized in a way I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said Cecile Richards, co-founder of Supermajority and former president of Planned Parenthood, who added that since Election Day 2016 you haven’t been able to “throw a rock without hitting a new women’s group.” (Supermajority, which Richards launched in April 2019 with Alicia Garza and Ai-jen Poo, is one of those organizations.)
The story of the last four years is not a reductive story of “women’s empowerment,” a term that has steadily lost all meaning, along with “girl boss” and “badass.” It’s also not about “silver linings,” a term that Richards pointed out feels off when talking about an administration under which so many have suffered deeply. It’s a story about desperate, uncertain, unsafe, harrowing, exhausting times, in which a wider swath of people — and specifically of women — across age, socioeconomic status, race and locale have begun taking responsibility for the mess of a nation they live in.
It’s about the 16,000 women who reached out to EMILY’s List about running for office after Hillary Clinton’s loss. It’s about the record number of women who won elected office in 2018. It’s about the power of “The Squad.” It’s about the middle-aged suburban white women who started regularly calling their senators. It’s about the women who continued to say “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter.” It’s about the teenage girls who were involved in the March for Our Lives and climate strikes. It’s about a drive for representation that pushed former vice president Joe Biden to commit to naming a woman as his running mate before he even secured the Democratic nomination. It’s about record-shattering voter turnout. It’s about hope.
In the runup to 2016, I thought Donald Trump was the story. A buffoon-like, sexist white supremacist, straight out of a bygone era, was a predictable reaction to eight years of a Black man leading the nation and stood in stark contrast to the first female presidential nominee from a major party.
Between January and October of that year, I wrote and published more than 10 essays on Trump’s misogyny. It was so obvious. So grotesque. It needed to be painstakingly documented. Of course people would care. Right?
“Donald Trump Is Giving America Permission To Hate Women,” I declared in January, after he went after then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, labeling her a “bimbo” and spurring his supporters to call Kelly much worse. Two months later, I wrote that “the tagline for the 2016 GOP race might as well be, ‘Make America Misogynist Again.’” (Looking back, I realize it would have been more accurate to say “keep America misogynist” or “make America more explicitly misogynist.”) I wrote ‘about’ his obsession with critiquing women’s bodies, his continued attacks on female journalists, the tape where he brazenly bragged about sexual assault, and the ways in which he denigrated the women who came forward to say that he was, in fact, a person who serially committed sexual assault.
How many ways are there to say that a powerful man doesn’t see women as fully human? And this was all before he got elected.
We know that the president’s overt misogyny did not stop him from getting elected. It didn’t even stop a significant percentage of white female voters from voting for him (though the oft-repeated 52% number, which came from exit polls, has been disputed). However, as Me Too founder Tarana Burke said, it did act as “jet fuel” to fire up American women across the board.
“One of the largest marches in the history of the country happen[ed] on the heels of this person being inaugurated,” Burke said. “Whatever that jet fuel is, we keep being provided it. Jetting us right to the polls.”
The man in the White House has caused real, lasting harm over the past four years, from separating children from their parents at the border, possibly permanently, to refusing to denounce white supremacy, to banning transgender people from serving openly in the military, to rolling back 125 environmental safeguards, to brazenly lying about the coronavirus pandemic, to withholding U.S. aid from organizations abroad that provide or advocate for comprehensive sexual health care and access to abortion, to trying repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to stripping food stamps from American families in need.
He has taken up space in all of our brains, regardless of political affiliation, to an extent that is difficult to comprehend. He has, in all of his malignant narcissism, “bent American culture toward him,” as Michelle Goldberg put it in The New York Times.
Could we be on the precipice of wrenching what remains of that culture away from him? Maybe, maybe not. Ahead of Election Day, polls show that American voters have never been more starkly divided by gender, with Biden leading with women nationally by an average of 25 percentage points. And the president’s unhinged desperation for American women to need him, approve of him, show up for him, submit to him, has only increased as they have mobilized against him in greater numbers.
“Do me a favor, suburban women, would you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?” he begged women in Pennsylvania during a recent rally, echoing his frequent refrain that a Biden presidency will “destroy” the suburbs for the “Housewives of America.” As hundreds of thousands of women are being forced out of the workforce because of COVID-19, rolling back the hard-earned, conditional inroads that women had made over the course of the last 100 years, the president’s big pitch is that he will get their “husbands back to work.”
But those aforementioned “suburban housewives” are not the terrified white mass, desperate to return to the 1950s, that the president imagines them to be. Some of them have been politically engaged for decades. Some of them have run for office. Some of them have had family members die from the coronavirus, a public health crisis that this administration has catastrophically mismanaged. Some of them have had political awakenings and started groups to push their swing states blue, like the women featured on The Daily podcast’s recent episode about white women in Ohio.
“The candidates didn’t change, I changed,” said one of those women, a former lifelong anti-abortion Republican who voted for Gary Johnson in 2016.
Of course, women are not a monolith, nor have they uniformly moved left. That story would be too simplistic and plainly untrue. Just take a glimpse at one of the president’s many rallies, and you’ll see many women, overwhelmingly white, who cling to a brand of masculinity and whiteness that is taking its last dying, gasping breaths. (As New York Magazine put it, it is not white suburban housewives who now make up Trump’s base, but “tradwives” — women who have a deep investment in traditional gender roles.)
On the flip side, progressive social movements have always been led by Black and brown women — and 2020 is no exception to that rule.
Tiana Day had just started high school in the suburbs of San Francisco when the 2016 presidential election happened. She’d never really tuned in to politics — the whole thing just felt separate from her life. But when Trump won, it shook her. Four years later, after a senior year ended in quarantine and a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, Day has found a place as a budding organizer and youth-focused nonprofit co-founder.
“I turned 18 under this presidency, I went all through high school,” Day said, “and those are such influential years of your life. It has made me step back and realize how messed up our political system is and how crazy it is that it got to this point. It made me want to get out there and do something about it.” And she has.
She teamed up with another teenager via Instagram to organize a Black Lives Matter march across the Golden Gate Bridge. They thought a handful of people would show up. It drew a crowd of thousands. Since then, Day has launched her nonprofit, Youth Advocates for Change, and just this past weekend led another protest in San Francisco.
“We don’t have time to joke around anymore,” she said. “My sister is involved in politics and she’s in fifth grade! We’ve had such a terrible run with Trump and it’s really woken people up. We need to save our democracy.”
That tension is serious. It’s 200k people dead, it’s the children in cages, it’s the knee of the officer on the Black man’s neck. But I feel hopeful. … If we can get through this, the rest of us are about to go forward.
Tarana Burke, Me Too founder
If women drive change in this country through their ballots, it will be because a diverse cross-section of American women, organizing in small pockets around racial justice and gun control and abortion access and climate action and voting rights and health care and child care and paid family leave and sexual violence and immigration reform, have all gotten on, as Burke put it to me, “the same frequency.” The last four years did not cause women to “find their voices.” They’ve always had those.
“We have been raising our voices for decades and decades,” Burke said. “The last three or four years might have just found a frequency that you all can hear us on. We should be hoarse now from how much we raise our voices.”
The man in the White House thrives on fear: Fear of the other. Fear of ceding even an ounce of power. Fear that nothing matters. Fear of change.
But where Trump and his ilk stoke fear, women like Richards and Burke and Day are counting on hope. Burke likened this uncertain political moment — a moment that was perhaps sped up by Trump, but not created by him — to a slingshot, where the tension rises and rises as the slingshot is pulled back, only to eventually propel a rock far ahead of where it started.
“That tension is serious,” she said. “It’s 200k people dead, it’s the children in cages, it’s the knee of the officer on the Black man’s neck. But I feel hopeful. I want to focus on the path that we’re forging as opposed to how tight the slingshot is right now. They gotta let go at some point. If we can get through this, the rest of us are about to go forward.”
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