Nearly everyone at the Women’s Convention had a story.
One woman told a packed conference room that she had been abducted and raped as a child, and her parents hadn’t noticed. Another told a group of potential Emily’s List candidates about how she had escaped her abusive husband. A third described being told she was “too pretty” for her corporate job.
The attendees had gathered to discuss immigration, health care, voting rights and racial justice. But the recent wave of allegations of sexual violence against women became the issue that united them all.
“The conversation around sexual assault and violence against women of course puts some new energy into the movement,” says Linda Sarsour, one of the national co-chairs of the Women’s March. “It also allows people to find courage, and when you find courage on an issue like sexual assault, you will find courage to talk about immigration, you will find courage to talk about poverty.”
The Convention offered an element of healing. It featured panels on “self-care” and “safe spaces,” and a free yoga class for anybody who needed a break. Attendees cried easily and often, but without embarrassment: there were few men around to make it awkward.
But the Women’s Convention wasn’t a therapy session. Throughout the three-day weekend in Detroit, the #MeToo campaign and the unfolding series of sexual allegations against high-profile men worked like gasoline on an already roaring fire. Rage over the allegations fueled the political indignation that had brought all these women to Detroit in the first place.
Actress Rose McGowan opened the Convention on Friday morning with a rousing speech about sexual abuse, her first since she first came forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein. “In the face of unspeakable actions from one monster, we look away to another, the head monster of all right now,” she said.
Later that night, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York urged women to run for office, arguing that electing more women is the only way to truly change policies around sexual violence. “Just imagine if Congress was 51% women,” she said. “Do you think it would be so hard to change workplace rules that are stuck in the Mad Men era?” The next day, keynote speaker Rep. Maxine Waters of California pulled no punches: “Keep your nasty comments away from us,” she said. “Keep your hands off our backs and our goddamn bodies. We’re not going to take it anymore.”
And among the ordinary women who assembled to plan a takeover of the 2018 elections, there was a sense that the wave of sexual allegations was the final straw in their frustration.
“These women-led protests and movements and the elevating of discourse about harassment and sexual violence against women are definitely connected,” says Shireen Ghorbani, a 36-year old communications professional who plans to run for Congress in Utah’s 2nd district. “We have to create more space where women are in decision making rooms.”
“I think every woman has a Me Too story,” says Val Montgomery, 45, who works in finance for a telecommunications company. “I wear jackets every day. I try not to put off any sexual orientation at all. I don’t go out with the boys club. When they make jokes about certain situations, I leave the cafeteria.”
Of course, hashtag activism often has questionable impact, and it’s not yet clear whether #MeToo will go the way of #RapeHasNoUniform or #YesAllMen. But even if the hashtag eventually fades, a collective rage has been unleashed—and that rage is propelling women into civic engagement in unprecedented numbers.
“If we can get more people at the table who have been at the receiving end of harassment and sexual violence,” says Ghorbani, “then I think we’re going to see some solutions we haven’t seen before.”