• Politics

‘If Not Me, Who?’ Thousands of Women Plan Their Political Takeover

5 minute read

The women were making to-do lists: Call your neighbor and ask her for money. Open a campaign bank account. Get the party’s voter file. Find the right doors in your district. Knock on them. They sat cross-legged on the floor in overpacked rooms, listened quietly, took notes in neat handwriting, then closed their notebooks and stowed them in their purses. When they got back to Illinois or New York or Utah or Indiana, they’d unpack their notebooks, open the lists and start crossing things off.

“I look at my list that I gotta do, if it’s make 10 phone calls, fill out four forms, start a campaign bank account, notify seven people,” says Val Montgomery, 45, who works in finance at a telecom company and plans to run for Illinois state representative next year. “My goal every single day is to do two items.”

“This election made me feel like obviously anyone can hold elected office, literally anyone!” says Shireen Ghorbani, 36, who works in communications and is running for Congress against Republican Chris Stewart in Utah’s 2nd district. “I think women have a right to be pissed off right now.”

Ten months after the Women’s March mobilized the largest protest in U.S. history, the Resistance is getting down to brass tacks. When more than 4,000 women gathered in Detroit’s Cobo Convention Center for a three-day Women’s Convention, many of them were there to learn how to run for office themselves. The convention is an attempt to transform the woman’s movement’s momentum into votes, seats and majorities.

“Marching is just not enough,” says Linda Sarsour, one of the national co-chairs of the Women’s March, in an interview. “In the short term, we have to win in 2018.”

Women are rising to the challenge. More than 20,000 have approached Emily’s List about running for office in the year since Trump’s election; normally the group has fewer than 1,000 requests at this point in the cycle. The Convention had so many panels on the practical logistics of political organizing that it was impossible to attend them all: they were scheduled at the same time, sometimes in rooms too small to accommodate the lines of women waiting outside to get in. The panelists gave practical advice: which technological tools to use (ActBlue and GroundGame were two suggestions), how much money to raise (more than you think), what works (direct text messaging) and what doesn’t (boring social media posts).

At nearly every political organizing panel, the moderators asked for a show of hands to see who was considering running. It was usually about half the room. Women who didn’t raise their hands looked sheepish. Some women who started the weekend not sure if they would run were giving interviews about their likely candidacy just hours later.

Some of the women planning to give it a shot describe their candidacy as a duty, not an aspiration. “I almost feel like it’s a little bit selfish not to run,” says Charlesetta Wilson, 39, who is strongly considering running for Michigan House of Representatives from her Detroit district. “Even though I may have to sacrifice my privacy and things like that, it’s for the better of the whole, it’s for the better of the community.”

Still, desire to run is one thing: practical guidance is another. Some of the advice they got was obvious: be yourself, watch out for embarrassing social media posts, ask your friends and family for money.

Other tips were specifically aimed at women who had no political experience and may not be able to hire paid staff. Jessica Morales Rocketto, a Clinton campaign veteran who recently became the political director of the Domestic Worker’s Alliance, had some good advice: learn Excel, because voter files will be useless without it. Master peer-to-peer texting, since many people don’t have landlines anymore. If you don’t want to run, call city council and ask if there are any appointed positions you can fill. “People are way too focused on social media as a tool,” Rocketto said, adding that candidates too often use social media for boring posts like “Happy Pacific Islander Day” instead of actual commentary on the issues. Facebook is worthwhile, she says, but Snapchat is probably a waste of time.

Some experts emphasized the importance of appropriate physical contact (handshakes, shoulder grabs) in connecting with voters. Others reminded women that time, not money, was their most important political resource. There was advice on how to vet themselves to pre-empt surprises from their opponents (check your taxes!) and how to manage family life during a mudslinging campaign.

“The biggest problem is that your spouse or partner’s gonna get really mad,” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock told a crowd of would-be candidates. “You’ll be fine, you’re tough as nails. They’re gonna freak out.”

For some women, the nuts-and-bolts approach helped them think of electoral politics as something tangible, a process they could actually participate in. “I’ve always had vague political aspirations,” says Michele Oberholtzer, a housing advocate who is considering a run for Michigan State House. “But I didn’t have the tools to even know where to start.”

For others, the Convention provided a step-by-step guide to achieving what now seemed to be almost a calling. “If not me, who?” says Maureen Martin, 60, who plans to run for county commission in her rural county in southeastern Michigan. “How would someone else have more ability than I have right now? It’s an obligation, it’s a responsibility.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter/Detroit at charlotte.alter@time.com