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The silver lining for progressives following Trump’s victory

Millions of people are taking action.

Demonstrators march up 5th Avenue during a women’s march, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Demonstrators march up 5th Avenue during a women’s march, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

On January 20th, 2017, about 250,000 Trump supporters gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to watch President Donald Trump take the oath of office. They were drastically outnumbered the next day by the 2.5 million people who marched in cities around the world to protest against Trump and stand for a decidedly different vision of America.

It’s the latest data point showing that, despite the serious blow Trump’s election dealt to the progressive cause, Americans are mobilizing.

For people concerned about women’s safety and equality, the 2016 campaign was particularly painful. From the beginning, Trump had a long history of making sexist remarks and attacks on women. Then, in October 2016, the Washington Post leaked tapes in which he bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. After that, even more women came forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment committed by Trump.

Still, millions of Americans voted for him. Still, he was elected over Hillary Clinton, who has been one of feminism’s most visible faces for decades, and who appeared poised to become our country’s first female leader.

Trump’s victory had immediate, emotional consequences. According to a nationally representative poll conducted by the nonpartisan research and polling firm PerryUndem shortly after the election, 42 percent of the women surveyed reported feeling unsafe because Trump won. Forty-one percent of respondents also said that his victory made it more likely that men and boys would feel entitled to treat women as objects. About a third thought that his victory would lead to more acts of sexism and sexual assault.

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For some people, this all started to feel a lot like the death of feminism and social progress. But for many Americans, it was also a big wake up call.

According to the same poll, 67 percent of Americans said they will take at least one political action following Trump’s win.

Twenty-one percent said they were donating to an organization. (There’s evidence they’re following through: after the election, non-profit organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood reported soaring contributions.) Twenty-three percent said they were thinking about how to get more women into political office, and the same number said they were working on getting more involved in political issues. Fifty-two percent said they were now paying more attention to elected officials’ actions.

And while Trump’s comments about women were devastating and triggering for many Americans, they were also directly related to this motivation to get involved.

Researchers at PerryUndem found that the number one predictor of whether people planned to take action following the election — of paying more attention to politics, donating, and getting involved — was their reaction toward Trump’s comments. The more upset people were about the way Trump talked about women, the more likely they were to take action. The second predictor of taking action was the belief that the country would be better off with more women in office.

Political ideology was the third predictor, but it was 3–4 times weaker. And party ID wasn’t even correlated.

On top of that, researchers measured some shifts in attitudes about issues related to sexism, gender, and assault. Thirty-two percent of people polled reported feeling less tolerant of the sexism in their own lives after Trump’s campaign. Forty-four percent said they were speaking up about this issue when they didn’t used to do so. And 43 percent of parents said they were going to teach their children about consent and sexual assault.

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Although Trump’s actions and words towards women may not have sunk his candidacy, this polling suggests they still had an effect on a lot of people. And they are now the primary driving force to the backlash against him.

His comments helped drive the women’s march itself, a massive movement that came together in mere months. Its power isn’t to be dismissed: It brought people together from all over the country and the world, and will likely bind them together after they go home. For many participants, the march represented their first step in being an active citizen.

Rallying in the streets is just one part of the outcry. Women are also getting politically involved in other ways. After the presidential election, organizations that seek to help women run for office — such as She Should Run and Ready To Run — saw a dramatic spike in interest. Following Trump’s victory, more than 5,000 women signed up for She Should Run’s candidate incubator, designed to give women tools for entering politics.

It’s perhaps disappointing that it took a presidential candidate winning the White House after bragging about sexual assault for this particular backlash to begin, for more people to pay closer attention to politics, and for more women to prepare runs for office. But it still represents an opportunity.

And we’ve seen this sequence of events play out before.

“For me, November 8, 2016, felt like an unwelcome flashback to October 1991 — another sadly missed opportunity to affirm basic notions of decency and equity,” Anita Hill wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published on January 20th, the day that Trump was sworn in as the country’s 45th president.

Images from Women’s Marches around the country on Saturday CREDIT: AP Photos
Images from Women’s Marches around the country on Saturday CREDIT: AP Photos

Back in 1991, Anita Hill, a lone black woman, testified before an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary committee about the persistent, pernicious sexual harassment she endured at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The committee questioned Hill’s every word and incited a media circus that questioned her motivations. Thomas was still confirmed.

Her testimony, though, set off a watershed moment in politics. The following year became known as the “Year of the Woman” as a record-breaking number of female candidates sought public office. Four more women were elected to the Senate (bringing the total to six out of 100). The number of women in the House rose from 28 to 47.

Hill also helped set off a national conversation about the nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. After her testimony, reports of sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than doubled. From Hill’s bravery — and the pain and frustration of watching her being ignored — women learned that what they took as normal was unacceptable and that they weren’t alone. They found their voices.

Hill, for one, has hopes that the election of Donald Trump will be remembered not as a defeat, but as another such watershed moment.

“What I witnessed after the hearing, when thousands of women demanded that our leadership in Washington reflect their experiences, gives me hope. I’m convinced that those who expect women to recede quietly will soon be disappointed,” she writes. “Yes, women are moving past the election, but not as spectators, as participants in our democracy — as patriots. That is cause for celebration.”