“Trump repeats an election lie,” read the New York Times headline after the president told congressional leaders that illegal ballots deprived him of a popular vote victory.
Trump “repeats unsupported claim,” read the Wall Street Journal headline. That’s no surprise, as its editor recently announced the paper would never call Trump a liar.
But what even Trump would be hard-pressed to lie about is that his swearing-in produced the largest inaugural protest in American history, perhaps the biggest mass protest of any kind.
Two political scientists researching that question said the post-inauguration women’s marches drew between 3.2 and 5.2 million worldwide. The day was hailed by some as the emergence of a “tea party” of the left, a grass-roots outpouring that exceeded organizers’ wildest aspirations.
Might the protests represent a boiling point in which women (and many men) thrust themselves en masse into political activism, furious about Trump’s core vulgarity, his diminishment of their gender and his dangerous policies?
Republicans are clearly worried, or should be. In a New York Times op-ed, a GOP author and strategist advised his party to combat the “falsehood” of its “war on women.” He suggested that state legislatures controlled by Republicans should “seek to make feminine hygiene products, such as tampons, exempt from sales tax.”
Right, it’s not about decades of gender discrimination and attacks on women’s reproductive prerogatives; it’s about saving a few cents on tampons. Who said the GOP is out of touch?
So how much impact will the protests have in Wisconsin?
State Democratic chairwoman Martha Laning sees huge potential. In particular, she sees the protest turnout as happy evidence that women are motivated instead of what they could well be — disgusted and turned off.
“The highlight was not just the number of women who showed up, but their attitudes,” she told me in an interview. “I talked to hundreds of women (in Madison) and took tons of pictures, chatted with them and they’re all wanting to do something to make their lives better and the lives of their neighbors better.”
She disputed my suggestion that the Madison protest was dominated by Dane County women. Women in out-state communities dominated by Republicans are perhaps even more frustrated than those in the Madison area, Laning said: “We had busloads of people coming to this march from Green Bay, and it is because they are so deeply concerned.”
Laning said the state party is focused on adding regional directors — it announced the hiring of an organizing director last week — and extending infrastructure to help local activists communicate how the GOP is driving the economy to benefit big manufacturers, not small businesses. She pointed to Emerge Wisconsin, the state affiliate of a group that promotes Democratic women candidates, as having doubled its latest class size.
Still, politics has long been what Debbie Walsh calls “gendered space,” and its growing toxicity has made it more inhospitable. Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“I think this is a moment to pause and recognize the enormity of what these women across the country and the world pulled off in a very short period of time,” she said in a telephone interview.
“Those of us who are doing work in this space … are seeing a tremendous surge in interest on the part of women, not just to run for office, but to figure out how they can continue to have a voice.
“I think that there was a real risk coming out of the last election of women being very discouraged. They saw somebody who by any definition was superbly qualified to be president and how the hurdles women face are different than for men. I think this election proves that. Women really have to prove their credibility.
“I think women are very fearful that they will be marginalized now,” she added.
“I think women want to run. I think they want to have a voice. I think they’re ready. I think they’re prepared. I think they’re out there. I think party leaders need to look outside of the usual suspects when they’re thinking about who are potential candidates. Not just the people who have been active in the party for years and years, but some of the women who may be more on the periphery.”
Research shows that when men and women legislators are asked what first prompted them to run, Walsh said, men tend to cite a long-standing interest in politics, while women point to an issue. “It can be something as local as a dangerous intersection in their community to something as global as climate change,” she said.
There are also practical barriers to be overcome, Walsh said. A male businessman, a banker or lawyer, can typically more easily afford the time and expense of running than, say, a school teacher.
And there is a challenge for some women that might be called a “failure of imagination,” the notion that some may be unlikely to envision themselves winning a big election, Walsh said.
Laning agreed: “I have met incredible women that when I look at them, and I see that they’re organizing an event, and that they’re up there talking to the crowd and getting the crowd’s attention, and that they’re trusted by that crowd, I have walked up to more than a few of those women and said, ‘Have you ever thought about running for office?’ ”
Frequently, Laning said, they had not.
“As a little girl, I was a very good math student, and it always seemed like the teachers asked the boys before me, and it didn’t matter that I had better grades than some of those boys, but it always seemed like the teachers just innately would think the boys were smarter in math,” Laning said.
“I need to be sure that we’re getting out there and telling women ‘you would be an outstanding representative of your community,’ because women really get in there and they talk to the people, they listen to people.”
My guess is that the post-inaugural protests made many Republican politicians nervous, recognizing the potential for a tea party in reverse.
We can only hope that women, here and everywhere, will help the GOP’s worst political fears be realized.