Editor’s Note: Marianne Schnall is the author of “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations about Women, Leadership and Power” and the founder of Feminist.com and the “What Will It Take” movement. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
2017 has been a turbulent and trying year for women.
Beginning with the inauguration of Donald Trump, the year saw an escalation of the Republican Party’s attacks on women, including efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, undermine women’s legal and reproductive rights and slash essential health benefits.
There were also threats to issues women care about: protections for children, civil rights and the environment, just to name a few. And then came the explosive epidemic of reports of sexual harassment and assault, exposing just how pervasive this problem is for women in all sectors of society.
With all that has happened, it’s been hard for many women – and men – not to feel overwhelmed and discouraged.
And yet… there is an upside: women are rising.
In response to these attempts to diminish our power and silence our voices, women are harnessing their outrage. They are more engaged, energized and resolute than ever. Issues that were long ignored are finally coming to the surface, and women are beginning to speak up and use their voices and influence to demand real change.
As New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, founder of Off the Sidelines, put it to me: “One of the only silver linings of the Trump presidency is that more and more women are feeling emboldened to raise their voices and fight for the issues that matter most to them, from sexual harassment in the workplace to paid leave. We saw that with the Women’s March, and we saw it again on Election Day last month, when women all over the country got off the sidelines, ran for office, and won.” (Editor’s note: the author’s daughter has interned for the senator.)
This fire now burning in women explains why, even after such a rough year, we have reason to hope. I’d like to offer these reasons to be optimistic about what 2018 has in store – to remind us that we are living in a watershed moment in our history, one we can broaden and deepen. A transformative moment.
1. Women everywhere are rising up, taking the women’s movement into the mainstream. Women are protesting, marching, organizing and building power. From the millions who joined the Women’s March to the survivors who have bravely come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault, to the millions participating in the #MeToo movement, it’s become clear that women are not going to stay silent anymore. And these “silence breakers” – named as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” – are not only speaking out, but are being heard.
The “women’s movement” has been swept into the mainstream and become more diverse, and social media has become increasingly effective at mobilizing younger generations of women and girls.
At the same time, men are becoming more vocal and aware of gender issues and finding ways to be active as allies. And, this week, the word “feminism” was named as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year: It was the year’s most-searched word on the dictionary’s website.
As California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has been one of the most outspoken advocates of this new “resistance” told me, “When I spoke at the historic Women’s March in January, I was extremely inspired and encouraged. Following the election of Donald Trump – a man who had defined himself as having no respect for women and who was prepared to use his office to turn back the clock on the progress that had been achieved by the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the LGBTQ movement – a very diverse group of women organized the Women’s March, which brought together thousands of women from all ages, ethnicities, religions, and walks of life, who showed up and gained the type of attention for our concerns that we haven’t seen in many years.
She continued: “Since the march, I have been very pleased by the leadership and participation of younger generations of women, particularly the millennials, who are continuing what was started in January and are running for office at record levels, organizing their communities, and, as we have seen with #MeToo, are boldly speaking truth to power in order to fight for the change we so desperately need in this country. This is what the ‘resistance’ is all about, and these signs help me continue to be hopeful during this very tumultuous and chaotic period in our country.”
2. Women’s political power is growing. Women are running for office in record numbers, there has been a dramatic increase of women donors funding campaigns, and more and more strong women leaders are emerging. Parity for women in politics is being rightfully reframed as an essential component of a reflective democracy, and the need for women’s input and voices in government has never been more clear.
Emily’s List, an organization devoted to electing female candidates, has reported a huge surge in women interested in running for office, with more than 22,000 women contacting the organization since Trump was elected. Other groups offering training programs for women report similar increases and also note the trends of a more diverse and younger cohort of women candidates.
Women's March on Washington
This November, one year out from Election Day 2018, the number of female House and Senate candidates was nearly double the number at the same point in 2016, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. The recent November election results offered promising wins for women and diversity, with cities across the country electing their first women, minority and/or transgender candidates into public office.
Changes to the political landscape are further exemplified by the mobilization of black women voters as a decisive influence in the US Senate race out of Alabama on Tuesday.
Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock encourages all women to get involved politically in any way they can: “My call to everybody is to get engaged now. And the way that we really make it happen, coast to coast, in every state, is by getting involved, whether it’s a local race, whether you’re running or you’re backing somebody up. Democracy is not something you just sit on the sidelines of – you actually have to get involved, roll up your sleeves, and help out your sisters in doing this. We can make this happen.”
3. Powerful men are being held accountable in cases of sexual harassment and assault. The world is watching as some of the most powerful and well-known male public figures topple from their pedestals as they face allegations of abusive behavior. Nearly all are swiftly losing their jobs and their platforms, and facing harsh public backlash.
Corporations and media entities are issuing strong statements and demonstrating zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, and politicians accused of abuse are also being pushed to resign. Reports of Alabama candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual abuse arguably were responsible for his Senate loss this week, and a growing chorus of lawmakers and others are calling for Donald Trump to resign because of his alleged abuses (CNN has reported that both men deny the allegations).
Eve Ensler, founder of the anti-violence group V-Day – and playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” – told me that she recognizes that this moment of reckoning is a good start, but reminds us that we must continue to be proactive: “This could be a tipping point, but a lot has to happen. This tsunami of telling has to translate into concrete irreversible action – from telling to transformation, from revealing to revolution.”
4. And men are a part of this cultural revolution. As #MeToo becomes the story of the year, many men are freshly reflecting on their own and their colleagues’ behavior, and our society appears to be in the beginning of a long-overdue national conversation about the abuse of power and privilege, the socialization of men and boys, the objectification of women and a culture of toxic masculinity.
There is an important reframing underway: these are not “women’s issues” – too long misplaced, trivialized and marginalized as such – they are human issues that we need to address together.
Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men, a group that educates men all over the world on healthy, respectful manhood, shared with me his hopes for the transformation this shift could bring: “We hope that men will start to understand that they are the solution. We have an opportunity to educate men about how our collective socialization results in a culture that devalues women and ultimately allows many forms of violence and discrimination to persist and harms all of us.”
Although 2017 has been full of obstacles, we can’t deny that it has also emboldened women and girls. This is a potential tipping point, if we constructively use it and harness this energy. It requires that we all stay vigilant and address the issues we care about.
Sen. Gillibrand told me: “As we head into the new year, my advice to women is this: Don’t wait for some white knight in Washington to ride up and save us. You will wait forever. It is the grassroots who will create the message, launch the campaigns, and win the elections that finally change our country for the better.”