The 'Good Girls Revolt' is the Untold Political Story of 2017
Esther Gordon, a 65-year-old retired French teacher who lives in Newtown Square, will never forget that feeling when she woke up on November 9 and it sunk in that Donald Trump had really won the presidential election.
She said it felt like somebody had died.
On Monday, at a few minutes past noon, as Arctic winds buffed the granite walls of the state capitol in Harrisburg, Gordon learned that there's such a thing as death after death.
Her lingering anger and depression over Trump's claim on the White House had compelled her to drive with a friend to the capital city and spend Sunday night at a motel. They rose early to plead for Pennsylvania's 20 presidential electors -- fat-cat Republicans and party insiders -- to somehow abandon their GOP candidate who got 44,000 more votes in the Keystone State, but whom Gordon and hundreds of other protesters saw as uniquely unqualified to sit in the Oval Office.
Needless to say, that didn't happen.
"I am very deflated, very sad," Gordon told me late in the afternoon by phone, back in Delaware County while retrieving her dog from the kennel. She recounted how she'd made it inside the capitol gallery in time to watch the largely pro forma midday vote, capped by loud applause when Trump's unanimous tally was announced. As the electors turned to the equally automatic vote for Mike Pence for vice president, an exasperated young man near Gordon finally screamed out in frustration, "DE-BATE!!" -- before turning toward an approaching security guard, "I know, I'm leaving..." and escorting himself out.
Then a woman screamed, "Vote your conscience! It's the American way!" -- before security showed her the door.
Monday was the 58th time that the Electoral College has officially selected the American president -- and it's safe to say that it never went down quite like what just happened this afternoon, December 19, 2016. In 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia, thousands of citizens showed up to protest Trump's inevitable victory. Still, there were more "faithless electors" who defected from the official major-party candidates -- Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton -- than in any election in more than two centuries. A Native American activist named Faith Spotted Eagle even got one vote.
There are two ways to look at it.
On one hand, you could call these protests the ultimate lost cause, a massive time sink, a primal scream into the great void of American politics, and -- as many critics, a few on the left and many on the right, pointed out -- a slap to the American republican-with-a-small-'r' tradition that the candidate who gets the most votes in a state wins that state ... period.
But while I agree that trying to flip the Electoral College was something of a fool's errand, the naysayers are also missing the bigger picture here. What happened today was the incompletion of a crazy "hail Mary" pass -- but also the launch of a movement that nobody saw coming. In the six weeks since, Trump's election, an uprising has been brewing that's heavily anchored and often led by women -- women who for the most part cared nothing for politics before the short-fingered vulgarian of Manhattan real estate launched into his orbit.
Call it the "good girls revolt," in honor of 2016's short-lived Amazon TV drama about women magazine writers rising up against their misogynistic culture in the early 1970s. The show may have been canceled, but the spirit lives on in places like Philadelphia's western suburbs. Suddenly, women whose involvement in civic affairs once rarely extended beyond Parent-Teacher Night are now running political Facebook groups, trading the phone numbers of their local congressman (because in Pennsylvania, they're all men), and looking for places to bunk in January when they march on the White House.
In the wake of Trump's victory, all of the focus has been on the rise of the white working class in the American Rust Belt, and how Trump appealed in "forgotten" places such as Pennsylvania's Potter County to voters who'd stayed home for decades. But there was another side of that coin. The only reason that Clinton kept Pennsylvania as close as she did was a remarkable surge of votes in mostly affluent communities.
A fascinating analysis of the Philadelphia-area presidential vote published earlier this month on the Down with Tyranny blog showed a dramatic swing toward Clinton in some of Philadelphia's more upscale suburbs. Compared to how President Obama ran against Mitt Romney in 2012, townships that had been close four years ago or even tilted GOP now went for Clinton in a landslide. Compared to 2012, Hillary gained a whopping 7,700 votes (!) in Lower Merion, picked up 3,500 votes in Radnor, and scored 3,100 extra votes in Lower Makefield. Chester County, which Romney won in 2012, was captured by Clinton by a whopping 25,000 votes.
Some of that surge was probably due to the chance for electing America's first female president. But dig deeper -- especially among this new breed of female activists -- and what you tend to find is extreme revulsion over even the idea of Donald Trump within 5 miles of the White House. These are women who focused so much of their lives on the importance of education and who tried to teach their children to play by the rules, tell the truth, respect the opposite sex and never to speak crudely in public. For them, Trump didn't just win an election. He grabbed their worldview and shattered it on the kitchen tiles like it was a cheap globe made by Chinese prison labor.
That is certainly how it went down for Esther Gordon. A teacher in Lower Merion schools for 35 years, she describes herself as "apolitical" most of her life, recalling how her dad had to browbeat her into voting when she turned 18. That suddenly changed during the fall of 2015, as she watched Trump dominate the early GOP primary debates. "I said there was no way this man could win," she recalled, a vision she clung to even after Trump claimed 306 electoral votes on November 8.
What doesn't she like about The Donald?
"There's everything," she said. "How he lies, how he treats people, how he interrupted people during some of the debates, how he didn't show respect for anybody, especially women..."
On Monday afternoon, momentarily crushed, she said she wandered outside the capitol and ran into some more experienced organizers who were handing out food and water.
"What do we do now?" Gordon asked.
"Now get out and pick a cause," one responded. And so she did, making plans to volunteer with Planned Parenthood. In fact, she emailed tonight to confirm that she called them as soon as she got home...and her dog settled down. She's hardly alone in looking to hold onto the despair of November 9 and to try to spin it into something positive.
When Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey was re-elected, after waiting until 6:45 on Election Day to vote for Trump and tell people about it, a local woman named Sarah Stone joined with others to create a group called Tuesdays with Toomey that now shows up once at week at his Philadelphia office to tell their stories and raise awareness, at least among his staffers. They started with 5 people and by Week 4 had more than 50; they'll be back this Tuesday at 12:30 to urge the Republican senator to cancel his punitive legislation against so-called "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants.
And of course, this is hardly a Philadelphia phenomenon. Within hours of Trump's victory, a call went out for a massive, female-led demonstration on the day after the inauguration that's now being called the Women's March on Washington. Based on a massive show of support on social media, organizers now expect as many as 200,000 participants from around the nation, with smaller marches and rallies in Philadelphia and many other locations on January 21. This feels like a kind of uprising we've never seen before, the great untold story of 2017 even before the year gets started.
Neither organizing nor sustaining a movement will be easy. Organizers of the bigger events like the D.C. march insist they're aware that suburban women activists need to do a much better job than in the past of building alliances and sharing leadership with women of color and others. It's impossible to say whether the fact that Republicans' crushing control soon to extend to all three branches of government will rapidly discourage some movement pioneers who seem so gung-ho right now before Trump is sworn in.
But it doesn't feel that way to Gordon, not even on the lowest day of her new life as an activist. "Now," she had told me as she neared home in Newtown Square, dog safely in tow, "I am political."
© 2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer