Women’s Convention zeros in on upcoming elections
Trump, sexual harassment are major focus
DETROIT — Nearly everyone here had a story about where they were in January, the day after President Donald 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stories and urged one another to speak out, and they booed mentions of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, who rescinded Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault.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,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., told a cheering crowd: “What you’re watching is an awakening of women — an awakening that says we will not tolerate sexual harassment.” Rep. Maxine Waters, DCalif., urged women to keep coming forward, declaring to a crowded hall: “We’re not going to take it anymore!” Training candidates
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 out the vote, 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 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.” ‘Grass-roots effort’
The convention, held in the vast downtown Cobo Center and titled “Reclaiming Our Time” (a play on remarks by 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 Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had been expected to speak, did not.
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 oneweekend event,” Whitmer said. “This is about giving people tools to stay active and to grow our grassroots effort.”
Melanie Witthoft, center, cheers as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., addresses the Women’s Convention at the Cobo Center in Detroit.