When 61-year-old former federal government worker Annie Williams retired in 2013, taking on a proto-fascist president wasn’t exactly part of her retirement fantasy. Knitting hats was.
“My plan was to take classes at my local community college, learn how to knit and make hats and scarves for my nieces and nephews,” Williams says.
Nov. 9, 2016 changed all of that. Williams, who was working as an election judge the night Hillary Clinton lost, was “devastated” by Donald Trump’s victory. She remembers meeting a voter who had carried an “I voted” sticker in her wallet from the time she voted for Barack Obama, and the feeling that America was about to make history, again.
Well, history was made — just in an, uh, incredibly bad way. Instead of giving into the chaos, however, Williams decided to “DO SOMETHING” about it (caps lock all hers) by taking over a chapter of grassroots activist group Indivisible. She joined the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged women who helped lead the resistance to Trump in 2017 — making calls, staging protests, and, yes, knitting hats.
In less than a year, President Trump has assembled the most male-dominated government in decades, with 80 percent of nominations for top jobs going to men.
On the ground, that ratio is almost perfectly reversed. In newly founded grassroots activist groups like Swing Left and Daily Action, women appear to make up the vast majority of members — and in some places, do a disproportionate share of the work. And while most of the critical attention has been focused on millennials — given both their power and our culture’s youth focus — it’s middle-aged women who exerted the most symbolic influence and grassroots muscle this year.
Retirement will have to wait.
Middle-aged women aren’t afraid to call people on the phone
Organized in response to Trump’s election, Daily Action is a service that helps reach out to their representatives as part of targeted campaigns. In March, Daily Action polled 28,320 of its most active users and reported some jaw-dropping demographic data. Eighty-six percent of Daily Action users polled were women, and of those, 50 percent were between 46 and 65 years of age.
This kind of work isn’t glamorous. It requires emotional labor, and nobody gives awards for “Best Original Speech Delivered to a Republican Congressional Aide over the Phone.” But calling representatives is nonetheless the kind of crummy grunt work necessary for grassroots activism to be successful. An unprecedented number of calls were made to Washington to save the ACA this summer, for example, and senators repeatedly cited their impact.
And the gender divide isn’t specific to Daily Action. Swing Left, which was organized post-Trump to turn battleground districts blue, found a similar pattern when they polled more than 7,000 of their members several months ago.
The poll, which wasn’t able to capture the full range of members, did find that 68 percent of Swing Left participants were women and just 32 percent are men, according to Aaron Huertas, marketing manager for Swing Left. Middle-aged folks made up a slightly smaller share than millennials here, though, with just 32 percent of those surveyed between the ages of of 45 and 65 years old.
Indivisible doesn’t currently collect data about the gender composition of its group, but members have anecdotally reported a similar trends. Indivisible leader Karen D’Or of Sonoma County, for example, has noticed a meaningful gender divide and age distribution in her own local group:
“I estimate that the folks attending I-SoCo general meetings, and our meetings with Members of Congress, are 85 percent women who are 50+ years old. The other 15 percent are primarily men (of the same demographic) and a few younger women. At resistance rallies and marches we see a younger and more diverse crowd — which makes sense as those actions occur on weekends,” D’or told Mashable.
So too has Indivisible Illinois’ Annie Williams:
“This is definitely a woman-led movement,” Williams confirmed. “If you look at pictures of our events, it is mostly female. Women are pissed off, and we are showing up and showing out.”
And Indivisible Southern Arizona’s Carol Fiore:
“The majority of this is group is women and the demographic I just said [middle-aged],” Fiore said, while noting that five of the group’s seven original members were under 35. “Hillary’s lost just drove it home for me. We don’t have equal rights in this country.”
There are multiple explanations for these kind of distributions, some of them cultural, others merely logistical. While women have been largely isolated from elected office, they’ve been socialized to do the grunt work of organizing. When governments or corporations collapse, it’s typically female leaders (think Theresa May and Ellen Pao) who come in to sweep up the pieces, a phenomenon sociologists call “the glass cliff.”
It’s also possible that middle-aged women, who are further along in their careers than millennials, might just have more free time on their hands than other age groups.
“The reality is that volunteering during the week is not an option for many folks who are struggling to make ends meet, who are raising young kids, or caring for elderly relatives, or who are undocumented,” D’or told Mashable. “People like me who are are self-employed, and have supportive spouses (and frankly are in a somewhat privileged phase of life) have more time, more access to information, and are able to adapt to the wild world of resistance activism.”
A middle-aged woman may not have won the presidency last year, but middle-aged women are still there, whether to call their dumb senators or map their own private path to power.
They are running for office, and, hey, they’re even winning
The United States is 104th in the world when it comes to gender representation in government, a figure that is well known and perpetually embarrassing.
2017 should still give women and other decent humans some scraps of hope. She Should Run, an organization that helps female candidates from across the political spectrum, saw 15,000 women join their community since Election Day 2016, an increase of approximately 1600 percent. On Nov. 7, 2017, the last day many of us remember as good, women won a record-high number of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, knocking out eight male Republican incumbents.
Charlotte, North Carolina voted in its first black female mayor. And 81 percent of Virginia Democratic and 61 percent of New Jersey candidates were women.
The largest surge in political enthusiasm does appear to come from millennials and particularly millennial women, CEO Erin Loos Cutraro of She Should Run told Mashable. That doesn’t mean that middle-aged women are being left out of the picture. At higher levels of government, they seem to be packing a more powerful punch.
Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic candidates, found that of the 32 women who won on Nov. 17, 16 of them were middle-aged (between 45 and 65 years old). Of their endorsed candidates on a Congressional level, 14 out of 17 are middle-aged. Ten of the 11 women they’ve endorsed for senate are middle-aged. Seven out of eight of their gubernatorial candidates also fall in that age range.
Middle-aged women are pushing against their history and the regressive cultural scripts they’ve been given.
There are plenty of structural explanations for this disparity. For one, Congress isn’t exactly known for its, cough cough, youth. Positions that require more experience tend to be attractive to people with more experience, who, basically by default, are likely to be middle aged.
Running for office is sometimes a harder emotional lift for this group, CEO Erin Loos Curtraro from She Should Run, told Mashable.
“Younger women that we see stepping into our community benefit so much from this conversation about being brave and not being perfect,” Cortraro says.
More than millennial women, middle-aged women are pushing against their history and the regressive cultural scripts they’ve been given.
“The women leaders in our group have stepped up for a variety of reasons: some are just so angry that they are compelled to do something, others are former elected officials who use their savvy to move us forward, others are moms who care so much about their children’s future,” Karen D’Or of Indivisible Sonoma County explains. “As I identify people with leadership capacity or interest, I have nicely pushed them, or nudged them, or cajoled them into leadership roles. Muscles are being built as we speak!“
Middle-aged women are pushing up — and thankfully, there are a few long-limbed female politicians willing to pull them to the top.
Now SHE’s my president. And SHE’s my president. And SHE’s also my president.
Middle-aged female politicians became borderline celebrities this year, at least in online feminist dork communities. Just think of all the names you probably didn’t know before 2017 and don’t give you tremendous despair when you think of them.
There’s 50-year-old New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who became famous for voting against more of Trump’s nominees than any other senator. Elizabeth Warren, age 68, who inspired some of corniest tattoos of the year when she stood up to Mitch McConnell and #NeverthelessShePersisted on Facebook Live. Fifty-three-year-old Kamala Harris, who made Jeff Sessions squirm in his little chair. And of course, 57-year-old acting Attorney General Sally Yates who did this to Ted Cruz on live television:
Remember when Cruz got slammed by Sally Yates? pic.twitter.com/MM68KYvpPz
— Shomeo (@SassBaller) October 13, 2017
God, that was great.
Outside of Washington, 54-year-old San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is currently being recruited for TIME‘s Person of the Year, became famous for standing up to Trump and FEMA when she accused the administration of “killing us with inefficiency.”
“I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct. I am mad as hell,” Yulín Cruz said at the time.
On the conservative side, there was also a period of time when the #Resistance claimed fellow middle-aged women Lisa Murkowski (60) and Susan Collins (64), but that era quickly passed, leaving a series of embarrassing hot takes in its wake.
The quality that once made middle-aged women “untouchable” is now turning them into stars.
It’s their outrage, underlined by their politics, that coheres this loud group of leaders and grassroots activists together. The quality that once made middle-aged women “untouchable” is now turning them into stars. #NastyWoman was the hashtag for 2016 as well as 2017. As a (just over) middle-aged woman herself, Hillary Clinton’s loss — even to Indivisible leader Carol Fiore, who didn’t vote for her in the primaries — cut so deeply and so personally to this group. Like so many women, Clinton lost her job to a man who, as a Vox headline once put it, “has no idea what he’s talking about.”
The feeling was familiar.
Fiore knows how to fight. She’s a former fighter pilot, or at least she tried to be until the army told her she couldn’t because of her gender. She remembers what it was like to feel that loss, see things improve for women, and then feel the world retract so viciously on Election Day 2016.
“You took somebody like me who was very center and pushed me way far to the left,” Fiore says. “I’m not going to tell my grandkids I did nothing while democracy fell apart.”
She’s loading her fight into the family car and driving it all the way to the next chapter meeting.