More than 70 women attended the standing-room-only kickoff of a brand new Women’s Caucus at Rhode Island Democratic Party headquarters in Warwick last night. The 2-hour meeting brought together political leaders, activisists, educators, entrepreneurs, and a wide range of other professionals from 21 RI cities and towns to organize this new women’s-issue-focused group within the state party.
Co-chairs Rep. Lauren Carson (D-75), Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-3), and activist Kate Monteiro led the group through an agenda that included talks by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and June Speakman on behalf of the RI Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs. (Co-chair Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-34) was stuck at the State House and unable to attend.)
The first order of business was introductions — giving everyone the chance to speak, talk about what they did every day, and offer one word to describe why they were there. It was a powerful exercise, one that prompted many exclamations of support from the group. A sampling of the words they used: Hope, momentum, fired up, effective, curious, firewall, anger, gun control, together, emboldened, organize, impatience, grassroots, partnership, persevere, future, truth, fight, intersectionality, activist, let’s go, it’s time, inspired, involved, action, respect, resistance.
Some attendees had local political experience — serving on boards, committees, or elected office — but just as many had none, and a few talked about this being the first time they had ever attended this kind of meeting. Themes of overcoming isolation and the desire to take action emerged in the comments: “I feel like I’m the only Democrat in Coventry,” “I’m here because I was yelling back at the TV,” “I’m feeling motivated and changed.” Several spoke about the larger political climate as an impetus: one same-sex parent described raising their kids in a “blue bubble” and said, “I don’t want them to hear or know the rhetoric of the current administration.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea spoke to the group and offered a powerful, personal message of the power and possibility of involvement. “I was you,” she told them, recounting how she got involved in politics. “It took hearing elected women say, ‘You can do it.” And, she noted, the state’s size is an advantage for organizing: “What’s wonderful about Rhode Island is that you meet people really quickly.”
Activist Kate Monteiro spoke about the importance of involvement at the local level, stressing the role of Democratic Town Committees in identifying and endorsing local candidates. Acknowledging the likely impact of incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, she said, “If we’re going to protect public education, we need to be on school boards.” And the assembled group, she stressed, were just the ones to do it: “You represent the women’s majority of the Democratic Party.”
RWU professor June Speakman spoke on behalf of Democratic city and town chairs, and stressed the importance of moving women into positions of leadership there. Citing the writing of Jay Newton-Small, whose book Broad Influence: How Women are Changing the Way Washington Works describes the tipping point when women reach 20% of leadership roles, Speakman noted that of the 37 chairs, women now hold 10 seats. “That gets us above 20%, which means that the Democratic Party will start to change.”
Sen. Gayle Goldin then led the group through the final exercise of the evening, brainstorming action steps. Among the suggestions: developing communications tools and a shared calendar, organizing conversations with elected officials, creating a mission statement or “platform” for the Women’s Caucus that fits with the state party platform but articulates certain issues in greater depth, organizing training for talking with legislators and getting involved politically. Attendees signed up for teams that are to begin working on actions to report back to the group at the next meeting on Monday, March 6 at 6:30pm at RI Democratic HQ, 200 Metro Center Blvd, Warwick.
Kate Monteiro reminded participants of the emergent nature of their efforts. “This is not an engine that’s already built,” she said. “You are, by being here today, members. What the Caucus is and stands for is what you build.”
One of the groups represented at the meeting was a new effort, Emerge RI, local branch of a national entity that supports women candidates. “It’s an organization that seeks to hone women who are interested in running for political office, support them, and train them,” Donna Personeus of Barrington, the co-chair of the Emerge Rhode Island Organizing Committee told a reporter. “We’re Looking to bring an official affiliate here to the state. We will be searching for Democratic women who want to run for political office and supporting their training.”
Organizers and participants were very positive about how this first meeting went. “This is a very energizing moment for the Democratic Party,” Gorbea told a reporter. “It was excellent,” said newly elected Middletown Town Committee chair Linda Finn. “With all the energy that was in this room today, I hope that a lot of women start going to those [town] committee meetings and getting involved.”
“It was amazing to see so many people,” said Goldin, “And a broad base of women from across the state. I’m really happy to have this group of people energized and ready to go.”
“Women seem to be taking this Republican presidency very seriously,” said Carson, “And Democratic women are looking to their party to respond. They’re looking to their party to protect their civil rights. I’m thrilled with the number of people who turned out, and I’m optimistic that we’ll build a very successful caucus.”
Said Kate Monteiro, “The silver lining in the mess that is happening in this country right now is that average, everyday, non-political people have suddenly realized that they are political. We used to say in the women’s movement, ‘the personal is political,’ and I think this administration is teaching a whole lot of women that’s absolutely true. It is the sleeping giant of our democracy. And once awoken, people don’t go back to sleep.”