Jan 02, 2018

Women’s Marchers Seek Signs the Movement Has Staying Power

Reporting Texas

Supporters at the Jan. 21, 2017, Womens March on Austin, where an estimated  50,000 people marched downtown to support women’s rights and protest the election of President Trump. Shelby Knowles/Reporting Texas

Glenn Scott is no newcomer to political action. A self-described socialist feminist, Scott, 69, has been active in politics since 1974. Last year, she helped organize the Women’s March on Austin, one of hundreds of sister marches held across the country on Jan. 21, the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

But soon after the event’s intensity died down, Scott faced a challenge.

“After the march, we all tried to figure out how to keep things moving forward,” she said.

For many of the tens of thousands of participants spanning generations, races, gender expressions and political affiliations, the Women’s Marches in Washington, Austin and across the country were ways to express their anger about Trump’s election. For others, they also were a wake-up call to activism.

But as the historic events’ anniversary approaches, some Texas women wonder whether the marches were the start of a movement, or just a powerful moment.

Scott expected to see a sustained push by women to fight for issues that affect them. And protesting and lobbying for feminist causes such as reproductive justice and LBGTQ rights did happen during the legislative session.

“There are all these vile, vile attacks on women’s reproductive rights, and the bathroom bill and on LGBTQ rights,” Scott said. “And so, we kept organizing, trying to build on the excitement of the Women’s March.”

But the calls to action didn’t come from the nonprofit Women’s March Inc., which organized the Washington march. In fact, communication from organizers was infrequent, Scott said, and she realized her affiliation with the march “wasn’t the best way to keep people mobilized and engaged.”

For Drew Kotlarczyk, 23, taking part in the Austin march meant being surrounded by those who shared her values.

Searching for a way to remain involved, Kotlarczyk called her representatives and sent them postcards on issues such as health care and immigration. But she said she could have done more amid “this constant barrage of things that are really unpalatable and dangerous.”

“At least [lawmakers] would know that a large crowd of people are becoming energized and politicized,” she said. “You know, these are your constituents — they’re not going to shut up.”

Supporters of the women’s movement see assaults on women’s rights that intersect with issues from reproductive health to immigration to the environment. Some view the feminist movement as budding, or trying to get its bearings, while others believe it’s moving backward.

Fresh from the march, Theresa Mullins, who teaches social studies at Austin’s Wayside School, tried to harness the energy and enthusiasm from the marches by organizing events at the Nomad Bar, where participants would write postcards to state and local leaders, telling them their views on various issues.

Women’s March Inc. had included the “postcard storms” on its website as one of 10 events that participants could use keep the momentum going.

Mullins said the events she organized gave people “a chance to dip their toes in social activism.” But she said they didn’t motivate people to become more engaged in politics, and she ended them in March.

“After a while, I stopped doing them because I started thinking, are we just saying the same thing over and over again?” she asked. “How can we be productive and be heard?”

Mullins has since joined Indivisible, a broader interest group that’s “all about resisting Trump’s agenda,” she said.

With weekly calls to action and a commitment to inclusivity, the group offers more to Mullins and others who want to effect change. Indivisible posts actions to its website, ranging from scripts to use when calling legislators about providing help to undcocumented young people brought to the U.S. by their parents to a list of local events, such as a community forum on the Austin Police Department contract.

With no direction from Women’s March Inc., Scott soon turned her attention to the Democratic Socialists of America’s Feminist Action Committee, which she and two other women started a couple of years ago. Along with fundraising drives for Planned Parenthood, the Lilith Fund and other organizations, the group educates people about reproductive justice and organizes call-in and postcard events to lobby Texas legislators to support pro-choice legislation.

State Rep. Donna Howard, right, and her family stood outside the state Capitol after the march. “I think it took a lot of people by surprise that (the march) was so large,” she said. Photo Courtesy of Donna Howard

Texas State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who has long been active on women’s issues, attended the march with her family. But she says the follow-through from organizers was weak.

In October, Women’s March Inc. held a national convention in Detroit. Asked whether she had heard about it, Howard had a quizzical look, then laughed. “No,” she said.

Howard said the lack of social media communication from march organizers was a missed opportunity. Her chief of staff, Scott Daigle, said he signed up for text alerts from the local organizing group.

“To my recollection, I don’t think I ever got an alert,” he said.

Women’s March Inc. declined several requests for interviews from Reporting Texas. But in October, leaders of the group told The New York Times that the momentum had continued, citing 5,600 “huddles,” or local meetings, and the 4,000 attendees at the convention.

But the event generated controversy over the choice of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as the keynote speaker. At the last minute, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, took his place.

“The organizers had taken the saying ‘Reclaiming Our Time,’ which signified to women we have as important a voice as men do,” said Karen Teegarden, co-founder of UniteWomen.org, one of several sponsors of the Washington march. “But to have him as opening night speaker just didn’t sit right with me.”

From its inception, Teegarden said she witnessed the Women’s March founders face “negativity” from fellow feminist groups, as her organization did when it started in 2012.

There also are ideological divides within the movement. Women’s March Inc. has called into question whether conservative women, and those who are anti-abortion but not conservative, are welcome to a seat at the table.

Last January, Women’s March Inc. organizers dropped Dallas-based New Wave Feminists, which is anti-abortion, from its list of sponsors, due to social media backlash from march supporters who questioned their place at the event.

New Wave Feminists went to Washington anyway.

“We had big signs that said: ‘I am a pro-life feminist,’” founder Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa said. “So many women [came] up to us, holding Planned Parenthood signs, saying, ‘We don’t agree on this issue, but you deserve to be here; your voice is so important.’”

For her, feminism is more than reproductive rights.

“I care about a lot more than the baby in the womb,” Herndon-De La Rosa said. “I am actually activating a lot of pro-life women to care about issues beyond just abortion.” Except for the anti-abortion issue, the New Wave Feminists’ agenda aligns with that of the broader feminist movement.

Anne Costain, a women’s and gender studies professor emerita at University of Colorado at Boulder, said pushback from feminists on anti-abortion issues is part of the ebb and flow of the women’s movement over time.

“Eventually, pro-life women and male candidates will become part of the bigger movement,” she said.

Howard said the women’s movement needs to be more inclusive and posed a question for its organizers: “How open is your tent – what are you really willing to let in?”

Although women “fall on multiple sides of issues,” if more women served in the Legislature, Howard said, a different set of priorities would rise to the top of the legislative list. That means electing more women – both Democrats and Republicans.

The women’s marches have been credited with helping to spur a surge of women interested in or actively seeking public office, from seats in city government to the U.S. Congress. Emily’s List, a national organization that trains women to run for office and promotes Democratic female candidates, reported that 22,000 women have contacted the organization since the election, up from 1,000 in 2016 before the election.

Melissa Caballo Havdra, right, with Bonnie Weed, at an event in San Antonio. Caballo Havdra was a close second in a race for City Council, part of a national surge of female political candidates. Emree Weaver/Reporting Texas

Melissa Cabello Havrda already had decided to run for the San Antonio City Council by the time she took part in her city’s Women’s March. Buoyed by what she saw as a wave of support by women in her community, and the only female candidate for the city’s District 6 race, she broke away from an eight-person primary to become one of two candidates in a runoff last June. She lost by 435 votes to Greg Brockhouse.

“There were a lot of women out there supporting me – even some Republican women that didn’t like the way the [presidential] election went,” Cabello Havrda said. “I firmly believe that I would not have made the runoff if it weren’t for the current women’s movement.”

Cabello Havrda said women often saw her as a role model. At the polls one day, a woman brought her Latina granddaughter up to the candidate, then explained to the girl that here was a woman who looked like her and was running for public office.

“I cried,” said Cabello Havrda. “It was very moving.”

Austin-based Annie’s List, a Democratically-aligned organization that coaches women to seek office in Texas, sponsored Cabello Havrda’s campaign and the Women’s March on Austin. In the last year, Annie’s List reported that it trained 691 women to run for public office, the most ever for the organization.

In the months following her political run, Cabello Havrda said she’s been “astounded” by almost every decision President Trump makes. She worries that the country is moving backward and that the momentum following the Women’s March is waning. But she remains determined and hasn’t ruled out another run.

“I have to keep pushing, because we’re the ones that are the momentum,” Cabello Havrda said. “We can’t be discouraged by what’s going on. Then the movement’s gone.”