To say Susan Harden was moved by last year’s Women’s March in Washington may be an understatement.
“The enormity of what I experienced had a pretty profound impact on me,” says Harden, 50. “I was very inspired.”
So much so that Harden, who teaches education at UNC Charlotte, plans to launch her bid for Mecklenburg County commissioner at Saturday’s anniversary march in Charlotte.
She’s one of thousands of women across the country who have translated last year’s passion into activism, even candidacies. For many women in Charlotte and across the country, the march has become a movement.
So far, nearly 600 women have declared their intent to run for Congress or statewide offices, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That’s twice the number who’d announced by this time in recent elections.
Emily’s List, which helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, has heard from 26,000 women interested in running for office this year across the country. Two years ago the number was about 900.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before in our history, this is truly a sea change,” says spokeswoman Alexandra DeLuca. “It’s going to be a historic year.”
In North Carolina, several Democratic women have announced campaigns for the General Assembly, and party officials expect more by the time filing closes in February. Women now make up 43 of 170 lawmakers. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, at least 390 women already are running for Congress. Eighty percent are Democrats.
“I don’t accept the premise that there is a whole bunch more Democratic women than Republican women (running),” says Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. GOP. “I guess it’s good that Democrats woke up and decided women would be good candidates. We’ve known it for a long time.”
Fueled by Trump and #metoo
Charlotte’s march will be one of at least seven in North Carolina and one of scores across the country with the theme “Power to the Polls.” National organizers will hold a rally in Las Vegas, where they’ll launch a national voter registration drive.
Last year’s marches in Charlotte, Washington and around the country happened largely as a result of the 2016 presidential election. The movement continues to lean Democratic.
“The Women’s March, even if it said it wasn’t a Trump march, was basically aimed at Donald Trump,” says Susan Roberts, a Davidson College political scientist.
Many of the women who marched a year ago have found their energy fueled by Trump’s stormy first year as well as by the sexual harassment revelations that have rocked Hollywood, the media and politics.
“The momentum has been sustained in large part because Donald Trump continues to say and do things that make the women … just as angry and worried about the future,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute. “Part of the reason the #metoo movement has taken off the way it has is because the infrastructure has been built by the Women’s March.”
A May survey of more than 2,000 college-educated adults by American and Loyola Marymount universities and Politico found Trump evoked negative, visceral reactions from Democrats, especially women.
“It’s hard to overstate Democratic women’s dismay with the president,” the report said. “When asked whether they’d rather have a colonoscopy or a private lunch with Trump, more than half of female Democrats chose the colonoscopy.”
The reaction to the flood of sexual harassment claims also appears to be favoring Democrats.
A poll for Time Magazine last month found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe female accusers, 93 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Republicans. Time said Republicans are also twice as likely as Democrats to think the media treat men accused of harassment unfairly.
Charlotte’s Laura Meier is a former educator who marched last January. Later she was among 250 women who met at the McColl Center to map the steps ahead. She wound up co-chairing what became the Charlotte Women’s March Social Justice Group. She says women are angrier now than they were then.
“Things haven’t gotten better,” says Meier, 48. “The #metoo movement has spurred anger. And it’s not just women’s issues. There’s been an attack on the media that angers us.”
No longer on the sidelines
The anger is spurring a lot of women to run for office.
“I’ve heard a number of women say things like ‘I’ve been on the sidelines and I realize I can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,’ or “I can’t wait my turn’,” says Jean Sinzdak, the Center for American Women and Politics’ associate director. “We haven’t seen this many women who have never been involved in politics before get involved in this way.”
That description fits Charlotte lawyer Leigh Altman. For her the marches were “a wake-up call.” After the march she started working with the county Democratic Party and began a chapter of Indivisible, a progressive movement started in the wake of Trump’s election. Now she’s running for county commissioner and says, “The motivation to continue is very easy.”
In some ways, the new women’s movement is not unlike the tea party. A mirror-opposite philosophically, that movement energized conservatives across the country after Democrat Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. It started not with a march but an appeal on national TV that invoked the American Revolution and called for a new tea party.
“It has similar dynamics in the sense that both of them had a very strong grassroots component,” says political scientist Eric Heberlig of UNC Charlotte. “What is different about the tea party is they also had strong funding from the Koch brothers and other conservatives and had Fox News very much promoting the movement.”
Jan Anderson, president of the Charlotte Women’s March, says she believes the movement will be sustained.
“It’s getting the right people elected to office who will recognize our values and treat women with respect,” says Anderson, 68, a former engineering company executive. “We’re not going back. We’ve made progress but we need to make a lot more.”