At Women’s Convention in Detroit, a Test of Momentum and Focus

October 28, 2017

The New York Times: At Women’s Convention in Detroit, a Test of Momentum and Focus

By Monica Davey

 Nearly everyone here had a story about where they were in January, the day after President Trump was inaugurated. Some packed into the streets of Washington, in a defiant demonstration against the new leadership and what it would mean for women. Others recalled marching beside grandmothers and daughters in Los Angeles; New York; Tulsa, Okla.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and elsewhere.

Nine months after the Women’s March, about 4,000 people, mostly women, gathered in Detroit this weekend for the Women’s Convention, which was seen as an extension — and also a test — of the movement that grew out of those marches.

In the halls of this convention, which at times had the mood of a raucous campaign rally, women were tackling a broad and sprawling list of issues, including Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, threats to the environment, mass incarceration, reproductive rights, workplace rules, the accessibility of child care, treatment of immigrants, protections for transgender people and more.

But with sexual harassment and assault, from Hollywood to state legislatures, a focus of national discussion, those issues emerged again and again in meeting rooms here. Women shared personal stories and urged one another to speak out, and they booed mentions of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, who rescinded Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault.

Describing the issue as “the gorilla in the room,” Representative Brenda Lawrence, Democrat of Michigan, told a cheering crowd: “What you’re watching is an awakening of women — an awakening that says we will not tolerate sexual harassment.” Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, urged women to keep coming forward, declaring to a crowded hall: “We’re not going to take it anymore!”

Yet for all the disparate topics at this meeting, one thread ran through them all: opposition to the Trump administration and a pointed focus on elections next year. In small rooms, speakers led detailed training sessions for candidates at all levels: how to get the vote out, how to give a campaign speech, how to register voters, how to run for office.

No one knows how many women will ultimately seek elected office next year, but the leaders of Emily’s List, a national organization dedicated to advancing Democratic women in politics, said that since the day Mr. Trump was elected more than 20,000 women have contacted the group to say they want to run for office. By comparison, the group had heard from only 920 such women in the two years before the election, and that number had been a record high for Emily’s List.

“The goal here is for people to go back to their local communities and prepare for 2018 and to build power, register voters, engage more people, organize on a very hyper level,” said Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March and of this convention, which leaders here view as the first of its kind since women met in Houston in 1977. “We’re excited to see what happens in 2018.”

After the Women’s March in Washington and the demonstrations around the country, some have questioned whether those efforts could keep up steam, particularly given the wide range of issues being raised. In the months since the marches, smaller groups, known as “huddles,” have met around the country. Organizers said more than 5,600 such meetings had occurred, and pointed to the turnout at the weekend convention, as well as the number of potential female candidates, as more evidence that a sustained movement had emerged.

“For the folks that say, ‘O.K., you had this march and what’s going on with the energy?’: When I go out there, it’s everywhere,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, which helped sponsor the convention. Of the women voicing interest in running, she said, “We really see this as the next decade of candidates for office.”

Somewhat murkier, though, was precisely what would mark success — for the 2018 elections and for this meeting. Some here said the essential goal was seeing Democrats win control of Congress next year. Others said a main aim was that women turn out to vote in far larger numbers or that women win local and state races in unprecedented numbers, building a deep bench of future candidates for national slots.

“What I know is this: It will be tough to wake up the day after the 2018 election if we don’t have a good showing, maybe even harder than it was to wake up the day after the 2016 election,” said Alannah Boyle, 21, a student from New York City who rode nearly 12 hours with seven others to attend the Detroit convention. “We are doing so many small acts of resistance, and it’d be hard if there aren’t the results.”

The convention, held in the vast downtown Cobo Center and titled “Reclaiming Our Time” (a play on remarks by Ms. Waters at a House committee meeting), drew a wide range of women: old and young, and of different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds and hometowns. Some people paid $295 to attend the conference, though many said they had been granted scholarships to come. The gathering included a lineup of female Democratic senators, but also local activists, would-be candidates and ordinary voters. Some men also attended, although Senator Bernie Sanders, who had been expected to speak, did not.

Before the weekend began, critics complained that Mr. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, ought not to be offered a high-profile speaking slot, given that it was a convention for and about women. The debate created a split among some here, creating tension during some events; panelists on one stage noted that some convention participants had threatened on social media not to come (or even to throw a separate convention) if Mr. Sanders appeared.

Ultimately, Mr. Sanders announced that he would instead spend the weekend in Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from Hurricane Maria. Ms. Sarsour, one of the organizers, said the convention had no regrets for having invited him. “We think he’s been a champion of women,” she said. “We are a women-led movement. We are the ones who set the strategy but we believe men are part of the fight.”

The convention was held in Detroit, organizers said, because the region had suffered many of the problems people were facing around the country: economic struggles; questions about police conduct and race relations; a crisis, in nearby Flint, over a poisoned water supply.

Women here said it was essential not to judge progress too quickly; change, they said, took time and could head in different directions, not a single line.

“One of the things I was concerned about early on was maybe we’d get numb to this environment we’re in and we haven’t at all,” said Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat running for governor of Michigan, who spoke at a January march in Lansing, Mich. “This is not just a one-weekend event. This is about giving people tools to stay active and to grow our grass-roots effort.”

Rita Smith, 63, of Denver, said she was unsure whether the movement would produce results in the next election. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure. I feel like people are committed to that right now. I guess we’re not going to know until November 2018 for sure if the commitment is long-term and the commitment is real. I hope it is.”