When Rep. Maxine Waters took to the stage of the inaugural Women’s Convention in Detroit on Saturday, she was met by a boisterous crowd of roughly 4,500 people — the vast majority, women — and marvelled: “I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to be here … to once again tell the world that the women in this country are reclaiming our time!”
Evoking the conference’s slogan — a riff on her own words of procedural pushback during a House committee meeting that became a viral meme — she provoked loud cheers and sustained applause from a hall filled with women alarmed by the election of President Donald Trump and who became activated by the Women’s March this past January. That event was among the largest protests in U.S. history, with over 3 million estimated to have attended — and was organized by the same women who hosted the convention.
Rep. Waters, employing the candid, direct language she has become famous for, railed against President Trump and ended her speech by leading the crowd in the chant: “Impeach 45!”
Attendees’ shared fury over the sexism and racism that pervades America’s politics today was palpable from start to finish. But the organizers were also clearly determined to channel that anger into action — and the growth of a movement.
That drive helped fuel participants as they shuttled between 172 seminars, training sessions and plenary discussions led by legislators, community organizers and activists from all over the United States.
Campaigns and Communities
The Women’s Convention was a decidedly liberal event. Its sponsors included Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and the American Civil Liberties Union, and much of the conference was focused on galvanizing progressive women, in particular, to become more active in politics, whether by running for office or helping other women get elected.
In fact, since November, a rising tide of women has become more interested in electoral politics. On Saturday, Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock announced that more than 20,000 women have registered their interest in running for office since last year’s election. The organization, which raises money for female Democratic candidates, also said that 7,000 women have signed up to help get women candidates elected.
A significant portion of the seminars focused on preparing women for races. Emily’s List offered a half-day training session on Sunday. Two other training organizations, VoteRunLead and Emerge America, also hosted information sessions for would-be candidates. And the Barbara Lee Family Foundation hosted a panel of experts including Erin Vilardi, VoteRunLead’s founder, and Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, which trains Black women candidates.
Speakers in that panel urged would-be female leaders, especially those of color, to take action early, to be their authentic selves, and to stay committed to their principles in the face of inevitable obstacles. Being a woman in politics can spark change in and of itself, Vilardi said, by forcing voters to reconsider previously held beliefs by offering them fresh perspectives.
Carr added that there are many ways to participate beyond being a candidate — recruiters, fundraisers, volunteers and cheerleaders are all needed — and that women should invest time and energy in figuring out what roles to play.
Convention attendees were also exposed to other ways to make change. For example, in Social Justice City, the convention’s open market, female entrepreneurs like Ashley Michele of eyewear seller Alley and Eye and Yvette Jenkins of social enterprise Love Travels Imports argued that business ownership can make a dent in challenging norms in the male-dominated realm of business — a sentiment echoed during the conference’s entrepreneurship panel.
“We need to learn more about giving back to our community — not just through community activism, but also through our business,” Michelle said.
Jenkins said she does just that with her venture, which works with female artisans in poor parts of South Africa. “Doing something that can be impactful [in South Africa] and then bringing something beautiful back to people here” allows business owners and customers to make a difference together, she said.
How attendees chose to get active may have differed, but a spirit of sisterhood and unity could be felt throughout the weekend — in small moments like women snapping selfies together, strangers watching each other’s purses, and when Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory encouraged the Sunday plenary crowd to wish speaker Angela Rye, an attorney, CNN commentator and activist, a happy birthday en masse.
But organizers were also forceful in giving minority women central roles in the conference program, making sure they were in attendance by offering scholarships (one in three attendees got assistance), and in expressing their desire to see a new wave of the feminist movement that is “intersectional,” or aware that people carry multiple identities at once, including gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
“There are some of your neighbors in this audience who cannot separate their womanhood from their blackness, or separate their womanhood from their brownness, or separate their womanhood from being an indigenous person,” Rye said. As such, encouraging the advancement of women who are marginalized by society requires intentional thought and effort, for example, by patronizing businesses owned by Black women.
And once back at home, attendees ought to regularly ask themselves, “Who is at the table?” convention co-chair Linda Sarsour said. “If your spaces aren’t for everybody, then they really aren’t for anybody.”
White women seemed to embrace that call. In fact, one of the most popular seminars of the weekend, “Confronting White Womanhood,” asked them to examine the roles they play, consciously or not, in systems that hold back people of color. It was so popular, organizers had to quickly pull together a second session to accommodate the overflow crowd, despite the fact that it was held in a meeting room that housed hundreds.
Getting — and Staying — Active
The Women’s Convention was not a leisurely gathering. Early mornings, packed days of learning and late nights filled the weekend with activity. On Friday night, Sarsour gleefully warned that no one would be sleeping much — and she was right.
To ensure action was a key part of the conference, an ongoing program offered people the opportunity to make calls and send texts to potential voters in key states like Virginia ahead of Election Day on Nov. 7. That effort was organized by #VoteProChoice, which connects pro-choice voters and down-ballot candidates.
Unbeknownst to most people, “there’s an election happening every single week in the United States of America somewhere,” said cofounder Heidi Sieck. “For some reason, we think, ‘Oh, the election’s in 2018.” Having a phone bank active all weekend was important because it raised awareness about looming state and local elections, she said.
Creativity was part of the convention, too. It could be seen in the art gallery featuring feminist art, in the crafts table and belly dancing lessons offered in Social Justice City, or in artist Emily Jane Steinberg’s live-drawn artistic summaries of keynote speeches. Documentaries screened on Saturday evening examined everything from the life of Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs to the ongoing water crises in Flint, Mich., all ahead of a high-energy concert.
Because of the pace, organizers regularly brought up the importance of self-care — though at the end of the conference, Mallory groaned when she asked the audience who had taken advantage of amenities like yoga classes and massages, and a scant few cheered their assent. This, despite the fact that fatigue had hit many attendees, as evidenced by a coffee line that stretched far further late Saturday afternoon than it had early Friday morning.
Honoring the Past, Engaging in the Present, Marching To the Future
Considering the length and breadth of the fight ahead, organizers and attendees grappled with concerns that their movement’s energy might wane if they became overwhelmed by choice, by the road ahead, or both.
Asked what they should do, Muthoni Wambu Kraal, vice president of training and outreach for Emily’s List, simply advised would-be political activists to “focus on what you’ll stick with.”
Finding a place and purpose in the “resistance” was a priority for many attendees, including event volunteer Gabby Abrego of Detroit. She works with a local nonprofit called Alternatives for Girls, and viewed the Women’s Convention as an opportunity to both help a cause she believes in — protecting homeless girls and women from violence and exploitation — and “glean some knowledge and get motivated to do more organizing and activism.”
That knowledge came from experienced activists who were quick to acknowledge their elders’ influence. History loomed large during the weekend, with names like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Harry Belafonte and Hillary Clinton heard frequently. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand evoked the suffragists, saying: “Just like today, women understood that by working together, by creating a national movement, they could change the world.”
Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan highlighted the importance of getting women in office in order to elevate issues like sexual harassment, saying: “I’m a firm believer that the conversation changes when a woman takes a seat at the table.” She pointed a finger at a rule on Capitol Hill that makes sexual-harassment training optional for employees — a rule she is trying to change through recently proposed legislation.
The event left many women inspired to take action in their own ways. When Sen. Gillibrand asked, “Does everyone in this room have the courage to fight for what they believe in?” the whoops, claps, shouts and defiantly raised fists suggested attendees are, indeed, ready and eager for the battles ahead.
Edited by Riva Richmond.