Women Might Save America Yet

Oct 29, 2018 by

The New York Times

By Michelle Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

Erin Gabriel in her home in Clinton, Pennsylvania. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Erin Gabriel was already pretty busy before Donald Trump was elected president. All three of her children are autistic, and her youngest, an 8-year-old girl named Abby, is also deaf, blind and nonverbal, and suffers from seizures. “She has like 17 specialists,” Gabriel, 39, told me. “She does multiple therapies every week.” Gabriel’s husband is a pilot, and until a few years ago he had a job that took him away from home as many as 20 days a month.

Gabriel’s family, who live in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, have private health insurance but rely on Medicaid to pay for treatments for Abby that her insurance doesn’t cover. “A lot of our life is dependent on policy, Medicaid policy in particular,” she said. So she’s always paid close attention to politics, but her involvement was necessarily limited.

Then came Nov. 8, 2016. “It was terrifying,” Gabriel said of Trump’s victory. She worried about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the return of insurance discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions. Her older daughter, who is 11, had been excited to see a woman president, but was picked on by her classmates in their largely conservative area for supporting Hillary Clinton. “It was awful to have to tell her the morning after,” Gabriel said. She let her stay home from school Nov. 9.

Since that day, as Trump’s presidency has confirmed many of her fears, Gabriel has transformed her life. She used to be at home most nights, watching TV. Now she goes to political meetings three or four evenings a week, sometimes with Abby in tow. “I could go every night — there’s always something going on,” she told me. Besides volunteering on local Democratic campaigns, she’s working to coordinate volunteers across campaigns, to make sure they’re deployed to the candidates who most need help.

“Mostly my interest was just getting rid of the people who were hurting my kids, who just happened to be Republicans,” Gabriel, a gun-owning Catholic, told me. (Thanks to her state’s recent redistricting, her representative, Republican Keith Rothfus, will face Democratic congressman Conor Lamb in November.)

It’s too soon to tell whether America will survive Trump in any recognizable form. But if it does, it will be because women like Gabriel have realized that no one is coming to save democracy for us, and they have set out to rescue it themselves. It’s no secret that American women dislike Trump; a recent poll showed that 57 percent of all female voters disapprove of him, 43 percent strongly. But polls can’t capture the way gut-churning revulsion toward Trump is changing some women’s whole way of being in the world. You see it in the large number of women running for political office and winning. But you also see it in the women, many of them suburban, middle-aged and not particularly radical, who are making political activism the center of their lives.

Eighteen years ago, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone,” a seminal book about the fraying of America’s civic fabric. It’s cheering that his daughter, Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, is now studying how these new grass-roots movements are weaving civil society back together. “People have stepped in to rebuild the local infrastructure of face-to-face political life in ways that have been super striking to observe,” she said.

Linda Bishop, a former Republican school board member and activist with Progress PA, at her home in Mars, Pennsylvania. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

It’s hard to observe from far away. Shortly after Trump was elected, worried citizens confronted their representatives at raucous town halls all over the country. But as it became clear that Republicans didn’t want to listen to anti-Trump constituents, grass-roots activism has turned from protesting Republicans to the quieter work of replacing them.

Linda Bishop, 66, is a retired banker and onetime Republican school board member who is now a board member of Progress PA, a Resistance group in the state’s southwest. “I was mad at myself,” she said of the aftermath of the 2016 election, in which Trump, to her shock, carried her state. “I felt like I hadn’t done enough.”

Now Bishop is doing all she can. Early in the Trump administration, Progress PA tried to reach Rothfus, the congressman who serves Bishop’s district, to gauge his willingness to stand up to Trump. The activists wanted him to have a town hall, but he refused. Bishop said that despite the group’s pleas, Rothfus voted for the House bill to repeal Obamacare, then joined Trump in the Rose Garden to celebrate. “That’s when we knew that we weren’t going to get anywhere with him, and that what had to happen was that we needed a different congressman,” Bishop said.

But it’s not just Congress. The Resistance has burrowed deep into electoral politics at every level, from school board on up. These days, both Gabriel and her husband are Democratic committee persons, the party’s elected neighborhood representatives. She’s involved in her community in a way she never had been before. Her social life revolves around political organizing, which is what makes that organizing sustainable amid the outrage fatigue of Trump’s presidency.

“My husband and I always joke, Donald Trump really is making America great again, just not the way he thought,” she said. “Because I’ve never seen this many people mobilized to be part of anything.”

I invite you to follow me on Twitter (@michelleinbklyn) and join me on Facebook.

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