For the last four years, millions of women have lived in a perpetual state of rage.
In November 2016, they watched reality TV star Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, even after the public heard him admit that he assaults women he finds attractive. “Grab ’em by the pussy,” he said on the Access Hollywood tape, bragging about treating women however he pleased.
Since that moment, many liberal and moderate women have been horrified, then galvanized, by one trauma after the next.
From the widespread disclosure of sexual abuse and assault that gave rise to the #MeToo movement, to abortion bans that threatened to effectively eliminate access in several states, to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the separation of immigrant parents from their children at the border, to the Senate hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, to the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to the coronavirus pandemic, women who opposed Trump and his administration’s values faced an exhausting battle on every front.
Now these women are ready to prove that their fury — and preparation — will transform American politics.
“Women have been waiting for the last four years for this Election Day.”
“Women have been waiting for the last four years for this Election Day,” says Amanda Brown Lierman, managing director politics and organizing at Supermajority, a membership-based organization founded in 2019 that helps women advocate for themselves and their communities.
Those women certainly want Trump gone from the White House, but they’re aiming for a bigger prize. The goal is to use the November election to “translate all of the rage and activism right now into real political power” so that politicians feel they’re accountable to the women who put them in office, says Brown Lierman.
The path since 2016 has been long and painful, but it began with conversations amongst women who, upon watching Trump’s ascendancy, wanted more from American politics than they’d ever been given. They may have fought for their values in the past, but the prospect of a Trump administration — and the reality of one — supercharged their convictions.
Black women, who’d led the way on racial and gender equality with a track record of voting for progressive candidates and issues, successfully insisted that they and other women of color deserved to lead the movement. Many white women felt it was divisive to discuss how racial and ethnic identity shape experiences, causing ruptures in freshly-minted coalitions.
Yet the deaths of Floyd and Taylor seemed to further clarify the terms of the debate for many white women: Systemic racism is real and leads to wildly different outcomes for those it targets. Suddenly, white women were in the streets this summer, demanding justice for Floyd and Taylor. Their presence ignited some controversy, particularly in Portland, Oregon, where critics of the “Wall of Moms” movement said it ignored local Black activists. Despite such failures, the fact that white women are showing up specifically for racial justice signaled an important change.
The sustained momentum since 2016 is the result of women telling their stories and gaining confidence, learning how to become activists, advocates, and organizers, if they weren’t already. And they refuse to go back to the way things once were.
Pantsuit Nation grows up
A few weeks before the 2016 election, a grassroots Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation went viral as a safe place for female Clinton voters to voice their enthusiasm. The group’s privacy was key. Many supporters felt like they couldn’t talk about Clinton without being criticized or shamed by her critics or Trump backers. After the election, Pantsuit Nation quickly gained a few million members, many of whom were devastated by Clinton’s lost.
What made the group a community instead of a temporary town square was its emphasis on storytelling. Women of diverse backgrounds shared their deepest secrets about experiences like dealing with racism, being rejected by family after coming out, having an abortion, and becoming a refugee in America. Confessional, defiant posts meant to elicit empathy and prompt political organizing often received hundreds of comments and thousands of Facebook reactions.
Libby Chamberlain, founder of Pantsuit Nation, has watched this dynamic evolve over the past few years.
“I think it’s a mix of both comfort — knowing they are not alone and so speaking out feels less risky than it used to — and urgency,” Chamberlain wrote in an email. “[T]hey know how high the stakes are and, for those who want to, sharing their story can have a real and visible impact on the world.”
Pantsuit Nation, whose membership now stands at more than 3 million people, became a part of Supermajority this year. Chamberlain says the partnership allows moderators to provide members with information about how to “engage with politics on a much deeper level,” something early skeptics of the group said it didn’t do often enough, mistaking cathartic storytelling for actual change.
In the run-up to the election, Pantsuit Nation x Supermajority (the group’s official name now) members have been phone banking to get out the vote in Michigan, pledging to cast a ballot in Justice Ginsburg’s honor, and participating in virtual organizing events. Supermajority resources shared with the group include a and access to the nonprofit’s leadership development programs.
Why talking matters
Tresa Undem, co-founder of the public opinion polling firm PerryUndem, says the conversations that happened amongst women in the wake of Trump’s election are critical to understanding the significant cultural and political shift that’s taken place.
In the polling she’s conducted since Trump’s election, Undem has seen a clear trend. Women aren’t just thinking about sexism and equality, they’re actually having conversations with their friends and family about those subjects. In her surveys, those discussions are linked to changing attitudes.
Between December 2016 and November 2017, the share of people she surveyed about whether they discussed gender equality with friends and family jumped from 49 percent to 72 percent. During that same time period, the percentage of respondents who said sexism is a big problem in American society and that the country would be better off with more women in office spiked by 14 and 17 points, respectively.
“We never see these big of shifts in opinion in a 12-month span,” says Undem.
She credits “consecutive huge moments” in culture and politics, like the Access Hollywood tape, the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the outcry over abortion bans. Based on her anecdotal observations, three days of national, sustained media attention on a topic drives new conversations and awareness. Investigative reporting, along with the Trump administration’s policies, have produced several of these news events.
At a time when public trust is low and “fake news” is a right-wing rallying cry, Undem says women have wielded profound influence through their conversations.
“People trust their loved ones…,” she says. “That’s where opinion changes.”
When women see themselves differently
Of course, women didn’t just talk — they poured into the streets. The first-ever Women’s March, in January 2017, drew millions of people and became the largest single-day demonstration in American history.
Rachel O’Leary Carmona, the executive director of the Women’s March, says that mass protests across issue areas, including gun control, climate change, and racial justice, helped transform the fight for gender equality.
The mainstream feminist movement, often dominated by white heterosexual leaders, became much more expansive, reflecting the fact that sexism touches every aspect of American life. The movement could no longer be reduced in popular culture to single go-to topics like abortion rights or equal pay. At the same time, women with little experience in activism and politics began organizing in their communities.
“Women all across the country are engaging in a different type of civic imagination,” says O’Leary Carmona. “They see themselves differently within the context of the last four years.”
“Women all across the country are engaging in a different type of civic imagination.”
Mónica Ramírez, founder and president of the nonprofit organization Justice for Migrant Women, noticed this evolution when the public learned about the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border, which involved the separation of immigrant children from their families.
She describes the crisis as leading to “a breakthrough in terms of reaching everyday people.” That included “soccer moms” who didn’t previously feel connected to immigrant rights.
“People who never saw themselves marching or organizing or speaking — they found their voices in activism and they became engaged,” says Ramírez.
Brown Lierman, of Supermajority, says this was evident in the 2018 midterm elections. Hundreds of women ran for a major elected office, and the number of victories set a record for representation in Congress. Women also donated more than $159 million to Democratic female congressional candidates in 2018.
The so-called blue wave was the product of “women coming into their power as voters and for people running for office,” says Brown Lierman, who believes that helping women develop confidence has been critical to their success.
Supporting women, however, isn’t about boosting their self-esteem. Rather, Brown Lierman says Supermajority and other feminist organizations have focused on demystifying activism and organizing so that women feel equipped to take action in their own communities. Based on Brown Lierman’s anecdotal observations, the so-called confidence gap for women interested in politics fades with preparation.
The decline of “white feminism”
Though the movement has succeeded in turning everyday women into informed activists, the process of confronting racism and colorblindness within its ranks has been much more painful.
Pantsuit Nation struggled as its white members accused Black women posting about racism of being divisive. Posts in the group can still become a lightning rod when commenters disapprove of how a Black woman or woman of color has framed her experiences. The Women’s March, with its signature pink “pussy” hats, drew criticism for its whiteness. (Some of its past leaders were also accused of holding, or supporting by association, anti-Semitic views. Those leaders said they condemned anti-Semitism.)
Both O’Leary Carmona and Chamberlain say they’ve seen personal growth among some women who were once resistant to the idea of talking about racism and focusing on the experiences of the most marginalized women.
“While there has also always been a small percentage of folks in the community who have clung to outdated and harmful tropes like ‘I don’t see color,’ this percentage has dropped dramatically in the last four years with people transforming their language and approach sometimes in front of our eyes in the comments,” wrote Chamberlain in an email.
She added that members have also become increasingly aware of the “intersections of race and gender” to the point of advocating specifically for trans women of color, for example.
O’Leary Carmona says that while the habit of defaulting to “white feminism” has shifted, more work remains to ensure that full representation in the movement is authentic and inclusive of diverse identities.
“We are creating this road we’re walking on, laying each brick before we take steps,” she says.
Movements prepared to meet the moment
If white women, in particular, still felt reticent to embrace racial justice as a feminist cause, that seemed to change for some of them following the deaths of Floyd and Taylor.
Undem saw signs of the reckoning in focus groups conducted this summer. Many participants favored a “wholly intersectional, systemic approach to politics,” a trend she’d never before observed. They were interested in a range of issues like bail reform, equal pay, and affordable child care, connecting injustice to systemic failures that disproportionately affect Black people and people of color.
“They’re systemic voters,” says Undem.
A similar theme emerged in recent polling of 20,000 Supermajority members. When asked to rank their top four concerns, respondents collectively put quality, affordable health care first, followed by short-term economic relief during the pandemic, racial justice, and protecting people’s right to vote. Racial justice was the third top concern amongst all demographic groups, including white women.
“I don’t think our movements have ever been more prepared to meet the moment”
Brown Lierman says that while Trump is trying to frighten suburban white women into voting for him by appealing to law and order, “the truth is a lot of those suburban moms are in the BLM marches right now.”
The female volunteers and organizers involved in Supermajority are “ready to throw their bodies into the fire to save our democracy,” says Brown Lierman.
That passion appears to be matched by relentless organizing.
The Women’s March has numerous efforts planned in advance of the election. It’s mobilizing supporters to stop the Senate confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ginsburg; trying to help flip the Senate by phone banking on behalf of Democrat Jaime Harrison in his race against Republican Lindsey Graham in South Carolina; texting millions of women in swing states; and, readying physical and logistical support for voters standing in long lines or encountering problems casting their vote.
Though women are weary, some more than others as they’ve suffered disproportionately as a result of Trump’s policies, O’Leary Carmona is optimistic about their odds of prevailing.
“While the threat to our country is great, and our actual democracy is at risk, I don’t think our movements have ever been more prepared to meet the moment as well.”