How Suburban Women Are Remaking the Democratic Party – The Atlantic

To say that Susan Polakoff Shaw is a delight is to say nothing particularly controversial. The 61-year-old Ohioan’s charm is an objective fact, like snow being cold or a square having four equal sides. She laughs loudly and swears often. Her strawberry-blond curls are piled on the top of her head, like Ms. Frizzle, and she wears jean jackets, chunky jewelry, and blue plastic-framed glasses, like the kooky aunt you wish you had. She is also, importantly, a woman of action—“a mover and a shaker,” as one of her friends put it to me. Her one-woman communications firm, which she founded in 1991, has been hired by the International Olympic Committee to work press operations for 15 Olympic Games.

So naturally, when Shaw attended her first meeting of a local Democratic club in 2018, she saw it as her next big project. The gathering was fairly dull, a handful of older people seated around tables in an echoey ballroom on Cleveland’s west side. There was pizza, sure, and a lineup of local speakers. But there was no attendance-taking, no callouts for volunteers, no planning for weekend projects—even though the midterm-primary season was under way. Things have got to change if we’re going to beat Donald Trump, Shaw thought to herself as the meeting wrapped. And things did.

Under the stewardship of Shaw and a handful of allies, the sleepy Ward 17 Democratic Club has been revitalized. In less than two years, the group has doubled its membership, from 25 to 50; built a brand-new website; and developed a witty social-media presence. Every weekend, the club holds voter-registration drives and literature drops, drawing from a pool of 90 volunteers—most of them women.

Americans know the bigger story well by now: how an all-consuming hatred of Trump has spurred women, especially suburban women like Susan, to campaign and vote for Democrats all across the country. But the piece often missing from that narrative is that these women aren’t just expressing their outrage by voting in high-stakes national elections; they’re funneling their energy toward a collection of smaller targets, including statehouse races, local party organizations, and school boards. And all of this activism has the potential to shape American politics in a much more significant way than their biennial votes. “It’s a renaissance of a very long-standing form of American civic engagement,” Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist and political scientist, told me. The question now is whether these women will sustain their zealous engagement no matter which party is in power. Is America entering a new age of activism—or is all of this just a Trump-era blip?

Despite the fact that most Democrats are concentrated in urban areas, Resistance groups have sprung up all over the country, from the Arizona desert to rural Pennsylvania.

Before Trump’s election, Shaw read the news. Like any good Democrat, she voted in general elections, and she sometimes wrote checks to Planned Parenthood and NARAL. But she never volunteered to knock on doors or lick envelopes for Hillary Clinton, let alone for any local candidates. She’d never once attended a local Democratic Party function—hell, she wasn’t entirely sure what a “ward club” did. She was, in other words, exactly like a lot of other Democrats. And like a lot of other Democrats, Trump’s victory took her completely by surprise. The day after his win, she gathered with a few friends to mourn. We “just started bawling and drinking wine,” Shaw told me. One woman announced to the group: “I feel like I’ve been asleep.” Actually, they all felt that way.

They decided to start meeting regularly, but they didn’t want it to just be a “white suburban book club,” Shaw told me. They are women of action; they wanted to do something. Things came together quickly after “The Indivisible Guide”—a handbook for grassroots activism—was released in December 2016. The women began meeting on the second Monday of every month, first at members’ homes, and later at a local coffee shop owned by a member. They called themselves the GrassRoots Resistance, or “GRR,” an onomatopoeic representation of their feelings toward the president. Shaw, an avid swimmer, began stopping female acquaintances in the lap pool and after workout classes to invite them to GRR meetings.

By January 2017, GRR had settled on a few targets for their activism. Their anger was national, but their action would be local, the thinking went. The women, who were mostly white and ranged in age from 35 to 65, studied up on the inner workings of the Cleveland city council and the Ohio legislature and on the quotidian operations of state-level campaigns. They subscribed to state-politics newsletters, figured out who their state representatives were, and began researching those lawmakers’ past votes. Over the past three years, the group has grown to 150 members. They’ve channeled their energies toward fundraising and door-knocking for candidates, and they’ve given themselves hand cramps writing hundreds upon hundreds of get-out-the-vote postcards.

For many of the GRR women, the group served as a kind of gateway drug, introducing them to other political projects of varying magnitude: A handful of members joined—and remade—the Ward 17 club; others signed up for the League of Women Voters. Nora Katzenberger, a stay-at-home mother of two, led the ultimately successful charge for a new school levy to recruit more teachers and expand mental-health services for students. Shaw, GRR’s leader, became a paid organizer for Red Wine and Blue, an Ohio-based organization working to activate suburban women. (She recently starred in a video for the group in which she’s dressed as Mrs. Claus and reads a poem about a corruption scandal involving the state’s Republican speaker of the House.) And Misty Elek, who runs communications for a real-estate company, signed on to manage former Cleveland councilwoman Monique Smith’s campaign. Smith has a chance to become the first Democrat to represent the Sixteenth State House District in more than a decade.

Women in GRR have volunteered nearly every weekend this summer and fall for Monique Smith, who could be the first Democrat to represent Ohio’s Sixteenth State House District in more than a decade.

“Nobody’s coming to save us,” says Heather Tuck-Macalla, a children’s librarian and GRR member who helped lead a statewide anti-gerrymandering campaign in 2017. “We have to save ourselves.”

GRR was one of roughly 2,500 women-led groups that whirred into action following the 2016 election, according to Skocpol’s research. Many of these women live in the suburbs of major cities, places that have traditionally been Republican but are rapidly turning blue as college-educated white women grow more and more repulsed by Trump and as neighborhoods become more and more diverse. Some are former Republicans, while others were simply inactive Democrats, as Shaw was. These so-called Resistance groups are always somewhere between 75 and 100 percent women, and they generally operate independently of national bodies. Many of the women in these groups are middle- and upper-middle-class, well educated, and used to running or working on teams and planning big events. The level of organization this work requires, Skocpol says, is already something they’re good at.

Some on the political left have dismissed these women, many of them white, as “wine moms” or “MSNBC moms”—silly, unprincipled newcomers to the political scene who are more interested in watching Rachel Maddow with a glass of pinot in hand than agitating for systemic change. Black women in particular have been organizing for decades, forming the backbone of the Democratic Party. Where were the wine moms in 2016, leftists wonder, when 53 percent of white women supported Donald Trump? These critics argue, too, that the “Resistance” can’t be counted on to stay politically involved. And their concern is entirely legitimate, given that Trump’s election was the catalyst for these women’s activism.

What the critics may be missing, though, is the scope of these women’s influence—and their role in strengthening the Democratic Party’s infrastructure. Despite the fact that most Democrats are concentrated in urban areas, Resistance groups have sprung up all over the country, from the Arizona desert to rural Pennsylvania. “You do not win elections in the United States if you don’t have a presence outside of college towns and big liberal metropolises,” Skocpol told me. “The Resistance has been just as geographically widespread—if not more so—than the Tea Party, and that is an enormous achievement.” Skocpol, who recently edited a book comparing the two movements, noted that they are alike in their grassroots focus. But rather than acting as party antagonizers, Resistance groups “give backbone” to elected officials and reinvigorate local institutions.

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Americans’ civic involvement declined massively from the 1960s to the 2000s; there was a kind of “falling-away of regularly meeting groups,” as Skocpol put it. That loss has been felt by both political parties, but especially by Democrats, as their membership in two key groups has declined. Liberals no longer attend church or join local labor unions at the rates they once did, depriving them of crucial forums for community and political engagement. This means that today’s widespread, women-led activism represents a fundamental shift in American politics, says Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the anti-Trump movement. In many areas around the country where the Democratic Party has lost power or even gone extinct, the women of the Resistance have replaced it. They’re registering voters, raising money, and establishing formal databases of volunteers. They’re boosting federal candidates and learning how to run—and win—state political campaigns. “They went to be troops fighting this battle for democracy and found no one there,” Putnam told me. “So they basically rebuilt those structures.”

When Skocpol has shared her research on Resistance groups with Democratic Party consultants, some of the men have rolled their eyes. The groups aren’t usually big fundraisers, and their ranks don’t include many young people or people of color, two cohorts on the left who have a longer history of activism, which tends to be more visible, she told me. “But what they are is a crucial missing piece of a center-left coalition for a strong public sector in this country.”

GRR was one of roughly 2,500 women-led groups that whirred into action following the 2016 election.

Curious about the durability of their activism, I began attending GRR meetings in June, three months after the pandemic had forced the group to move their gatherings to Zoom. Every other Monday, all summer, I sat at my desk in Washington, D.C., and watched as 30 to 35 regular attendees logged on from their kitchens and living rooms in suburban Cleveland (“Georgene, you’re still on mute!”). The members would spend the first 30 minutes of each meeting chitchatting: cracking jokes about the usual firehose of news and scandal erupting from the White House; showing off their new Resistance-themed face masks (But Her Emails! one read); and execrating whoever stole the Biden sign from Susan Streitel’s yard—again! But when 7 o’clock hit, they got down to business.

Over the past six months, GRR’s two biggest projects have been educating Ohioans about how to vote by mail in the general election and campaigning for Smith, the state-House candidate. So each meeting is basically a series of assignments and requests: Who has some time to write a few hundred postcards encouraging swing voters to vote for Monique? Which ladies can help spread the word about her through peer-to-peer texting? Would anyone be willing to help the Ward 17 club create vote-by-mail packets to send to local Democratic voters? The work has seemed endless but, then again, so has their enthusiasm.

That could change if Biden wins the election next month. White House scandals and nonsensical Trump tweets have been the focus of so many of their conversations, sustaining their outrage. If Trump leaves office, it stands to reason that at least some of their motivation may disappear right along with him. A Biden presidency could mean a chance to relax, to take some time off, to bond as friends rather than as political warriors. “They may maintain an interest in politics that is much higher than it was previously,” Jessica Trounstine, a professor at UC Merced who focuses on local politics, told me. “But they’re gonna have a limited amount of energy they’re gonna put toward [it].”

Organizations working to channel suburban women’s political power are already worried about a potential slump. Katie Paris, the founder of Red Wine and Blue and the former CEO of the left-wing media company Shareblue, believes the path to turning both Ohio and the rest of the country Democratic runs through these women’s neighborhoods. “If we drop out, and don’t continue to be part of this coalition that presses for real change, then it will be a blip,” Paris told me. A blip could mean that the Democratic Party can no longer rely on their enthusiasm. It could mean that the Resisters slip back into the apolitical routines of their pre-2016 lives, powering down the organizations they’ve created and letting the institutions they’ve reinvigorated go to seed. This possibility, Paris says, “gives me anxiety.”

It probably should. Midterm-election turnout is typically abysmal for Democrats, whose voting base turns out much less reliably than Republicans’. The GOP has, on average, a three-point turnout advantage over Democrats in midterm elections, according to FiveThirtyEight, and Democrats were dominated by Republicans in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. In 2018, that changed: The work of these Resistance groups contributed to the highest turnout for a nonpresidential election in U.S. history, and helped deliver the House majority to Democrats. But the party can’t assume that 2018 is the new normal. It’s possible—even likely—that in 2022, Democrats, under a President Biden, would return to their pre-Trump voting levels.

When I asked Shaw about all this in mid-September, she acknowledged the appeal of spending a day thinking about something—anything—other than politics. She’d gotten a taste of how good that would feel just the other day while winding through aisles of Halloween decorations at Target, she told me. How nice it would be to focus on running errands or visiting with friends without being “constantly engaged in a state of chaos.” Shaw is hopeful that a Biden presidency would actually make her and other GRR members more effective in their political work. Maybe, she says, they wouldn’t be “as frantic and depressed and emotionally exhausted” as they are now.

“Nobody’s coming to save us,” says Heather Tuck-Macalla, a children’s librarian and GRR member. “We have to save ourselves.”

Many of the GRR members I spoke with, including Shaw, are adamant that there’s no turning back. After all, they’ve already done the hard part. “People have developed the networks, the skills, the tools to do this work,” said Nora Kelley, a 44-year-old lawyer and a leader in the group. “The faucet’s on, and it’s not getting turned off.”

The sisterly intimacy and grassroots nature of these groups could ultimately be what carry them forward. Democratic organizing is different now than it was in the Obama years, experts told me—when, after Barack Obama won the presidency, the massive organization that he and his team had built was handed over to the Democratic National Committee and subsequently fell apart. “Picture a sprawling tomato plant which had the advantage of a structure around it that it grew up within,” Putnam told me. “When you pull out the metal structure, it collapses.” The Resistance movement, on the other hand, is like “a tomato plant that has grown as a volunteer seedling and sprawled its own way. It supported its own weight.”

Last week, with just three weeks to go until the November election, Shaw and two dozen other women—some from GRR, some not—gathered in a parking lot in the northwest suburb of Bay Village. Armed with markers and sheets of cardboard, they decorated their cars with BYE DON signs and discussed their planned driving route through BIDEN 2020 face masks. It felt like the climax of a heist movie whose central characters are a band of exasperated, middle-aged women.

By late afternoon, the group hit the road in a caravan of 16 vehicles and sped across Highway 90 toward the city’s downtown. On the way, they honked loudly at the home of a man with a JOE DEMENTIA sign in his yard. Then they drove, one after another, by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections’ drop box on Euclid Avenue and cast their ballots for Joe Biden. “Oh my god, here it is!” Shaw shrieked happily as she reached out her window and shoved her envelope through the slot.

It was a meaningful moment—one that Shaw had been desperate for since she woke up on the morning of November 9, 2016, to discover that Donald Trump was America’s president-elect. But it was just a moment. A few days later, she and the other GRR women were back on the streets, passing out hundreds of door hangers to remind Clevelanders to vote early, by mail or in person. On Monday night, Shaw and the other members of GRR logged back on to Zoom for their last meeting before Election Day. On the agenda: planning two more literature drops for Monique Smith. But first, a red-haired woman I did not recognize introduced herself. “It took me so long to realize you all existed!” she told the group. “Sorry to come to the very last meeting!”

Some of the women laughed. “Oh, don’t worry, there’ll be more,” Shaw told her. “We’re not going anywhere.”