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Awakening A 'Sleeping Giantess': Grass Roots Women's Groups Spring Up

On a recent Friday evening at the Herb Eaton Gallery, Sara Quah stepped onto a stage to do what loves and feels most comfortable doing - singing the songs she composes.

Since the election last fall of Donald Trump as president, Quah has stretched her comfort zone. She writes letters to her representatives, marches and makes protest signs, all the while still writing songs, doing the laundry and shuttling her teenage children to events.

“I’m also not somebody who would go to rallies and write my senator unless something really terrible struck me. And now I feel if not us, then who?”

Women across the country are galvanized in ways perhaps not seen since the debate over Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. In Bloomington-Normal, those who’ve never been politically active are jumping into the fray, engaging in a wide variety of grass roots efforts. 

They range from working women to stay-at-home moms and from middle school students to grandmothers.

Last fall, Quah co-founded a group called Voices of Reasons with Jodie Slothower, a friend whose children went to the same Sunday School as hers at Wesley United Methodist Church. Slothower says the two women saw a need and sought to fill it.

“So many times when we were starting this group, people have said, I didn’t know there were other progressives in McLean County. That’s been very frustrating because there have been lots of progressives. McLean County is what you might call a purple state, about half Republican, half Democrats and there are lots of independents, of course,” Slothower said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

Voices of Reason is a Facebook group with 1,400 members currently. It encourages women to run for office and mobilizes its members to contact elected officials in support of such causes as women’s health care, the environment, immigration reform, racial justice and LGBTQ rights.

“We’re interested in local issues, state issues and congressional issues,” Slothower said.

Voices of Reason is just one of several grass roots groups -- led or co-led by women -- that have sprung up in recent months.  One Congresswoman likened the phenomenon to “awakening a sleeping giantess.” 

Quah said until recently she spent most of her energy being a “home school Mom.”

“I go to some of these events and people say, 'Oh, you’ve started this group with Jodie, I’ve never seen you before,' and they’re right.”

Political activism is now the norm for many women. Slothower is a first-time candidate for a local office, and Quah is a regular at rallies. She recently performed at an International Women’s Day event at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

“Obviously people need to speak out, regular people, good people, decent people that maybe don’t know everything about politics and don’t know everything about government, but they have a moral compass and they know the difference between telling the truth and not telling the truth, speaking up for the victims of injustice and staying silent," Quah said.

Alexis Shpall Wolstein is the women and gender studies librarian at Illinois State University. She helped organize the Women’s Day rally. She said the event started with a discussion over a glass of wine, and was pulled together in 10 days. It drew nearly 400 women on a Wednesday night.

The theme was “Empowered Women Empower Women.”

Wolstein believes some women had grown complacent during the Obama years.

“But now you have this upsurge of people who want to be involved and see an urgency to be involved that you might not have seen six months ago,” she said. “There is a real want and need and desire to be active, so when these opportunities arise, if you get the word out to one woman all of a suddenly you have fifty women.”

The surge in activism has drawn young women especially. Rebecca Gearhart Mafazy, an anthropology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, traveled to the Women’s March in Chicago last January with 17 Wesleyan students.

“The students I talked to on the train were very excited about being in a group of inter-generational women. They were looking around and seeing elderly women and little girls," Gearhard Mafazy said.

"And I feel like one of the things this generation is really eager to create is a sense of community.They long for a sense of physical community with each other because I don’t think they get that they have Facebook and their virtual communities, but they really want to belong to a community beyond the virtual world,” she added.

Cindy Basilio, a mathematics major at Wesleyan, said fear almost kept her from attending the march, which drew about 250,000 people in Chicago – and an estimated three million people nationwide. It turned out to be a life-changing event.

“I felt empowered and that there could be change, there is hope for our country, as diverse as we are.”

Basilio says that after she graduates, she wants to become involved in local politics in her hometown of Streamwood, Illinois in the Chicago suburbs.

Amanda Breeden, an IWU senior, created a Google document with the contact information of every member of Congress to share with her friends. She’s been busy herself  contacting elected officials.

“I want to have a face to face discussion with more of my representatives and Congress people so they can truly see where I am coming from and how invested in these issues I am,” she said.

And what are those issues?

“Everything is interconnected, once I get concerned with LGBT issues, I’m also concerned with economic issues and women’s issues and racial problems, so it all comes full circle, if that makes sense.”

Wolstein, of the Empower Women group, said the strength of the new grassroots groups lies in their inter-connectedness with many different causes, and with other groups like Not In Our Town and Black Lives Matter.

“If we're fighting for women’s rights, we’re fighting for human rights, we’re fighting for LGBTQ rights and transgender rights, we’re fighting for equality among the races and socio-economic backgrounds,” she said.

One group of women, however, has said it feels left out by many of the new groups. They are women opposed to abortion.

Gearhart Mafazy of IWU said  there are bound to be differences on some issues.

“I don’t think that should keep you from coming and joining in conversation and even having conversations about reproductive rights and what that means,” she added.

The co-founders of Voices of Reason are a case in point. They disagree on this hot-button issue: Quah opposes abortion, but Slothower is pro-choice.

“We both would agree women’s health care is very important but we have lots of friends who have different, varied views on abortion, and I think we reflect how you can come together we may not agree on the abortion issue, but we can agree women’s education is important, family education,” Slothower sadi.

“I’ve talked a lot about we (women) need to be progressive and the Democrats need to be the party of the 21rst century American family.”

Local grass roots activism is also becoming inter-generational. Sapphire Campbell studies at Heartland Community College and is the granddaughter of longtime community volunteer Mary Campbell, who works with Habitat for Humanity and Labyrinth House for women transitioning from prison.

Since taking a bus with her grandmother to attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., Sapphire Campbell says she has been trying to engage others her age in a political dialogue  on line.

“If I ever see something I know is incorrect and see someone’s belief is different from mine, I mean, I’m not rude or anything, but I usually kind of correct them or tell them here is a thing to consider and show them some articles or whatever and give them my own opinion,” Sapphire Campbell said.

“I don’t expect to change anybody’s opinion, but I also know there are a lot of people out there who are close- minded because they haven’t seen the other side of anything,” she added.

The shoots of activism have also reached as far as the middle school level. Thirteen-year-old Madison Helms is an eight-grader at Tri-Valley Middle School.

“I’ve always felt it was very important to speak up for people that can’t speak for themselves, so I felt very fortunate to be able to go to this march, and share my opinions, because I know there are women in other countries not as fortunate as me," Helms said.

As aspiring artist, Helms was struck by the crowd of women wearing pink pussy hats – hats with cat ears they wore as a sign of protest -- and with the message on one particular poster. 

“I have always liked to draw my entire life and when I got home I wanted to portray all my feelings into my art …The prominent sign I really that I really liked is the ‘Hate Makes Us Weak’ sign. I thought that is really the truth, that hate does make us weak.”

Helms’ drawing soon too off.

I  usually just like to draw for fun, it’s not something I wanted to sell or anything. But once I drew it, my Mom really liked it and decided to put it on the Women’s March Facebook page and it received some attention."

How much attention? About 2,500 people “liked” the image on Facebook in a matter of days.

“It was really surprising.  I at first didn’t like the picture, I thought it didn’t really do the march justice, but having all those people say it was good really made me feel good inside.” Helms said.

Now you can buy the image on redbubble.com -- as a poster, sticker, even a tote bag. Helms said she is donating the proceeds she earns to Planned Parenthood because the organization "helps women less fortunate than I am.”

A big question is whether the women’s groups will remain active and engaged. Alexis Holstein of Empowered Women thinks they will.

“Gosh, I hope it doesn’t fizzle out,” she said. “I think we should have this type of energetic engagement with our political and social systems no matter who is president, not matter what party is in the majority.”