When I was in high school, I took a bus trip with my Mom and 40 or so women from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C. The trip was sponsored by the RI Democratic Committee. I recall joining women’s Democratic committees from all over the country at the White House. There was no “formal” purpose for the trip, no actual work was expected or accomplished. The trip was simply a junket to “keep the women happy and engaged.”
At one point, the lights in the East room went dark. In one of the most powerful places in the world we, all women, were in darkness. Looking back, it seems to me that RI Democratic women were kept in the dark in 1977, and unfortunately, those in power continue to leave us in the dark in 2019.
The latest effort to keep women in the dark comes to us from the stale pale male leadership of the RI State Democratic Party, in the form of by-law revisions. Rhode Island has an incredible Democratic woman governor but make no mistake: the governor does not control the party. The RI Democratic women’s caucus, its leaders and members were not included in the process that resulted in the revision of the by-laws. Surprising exactly no one, the women’s caucus was kept in the dark. A quick glance through the document that will be voted on by the entire party membership on November 18 illustrates the outcome – limited (if any) power for caucuses, control concentrated in the hands of the male leadership.
During the 2016 election cycle, Democrats in the RI Party’s leadership (read: men) recruited and assisted the campaign of a Trump supporter against an incumbent Democratic woman. Also, during that time, several female Democratic incumbents were denied access to voter data that is typically provided by the Party to all endorsed Democrats. These two incidents and countless others gave rise to a reinvigorated Democratic Women’s Caucus, that now boasts over 500 members, but continues to confront barrier after barrier from “colleagues” in the party.
Let me be clear: The Democratic Party with all its flaws is still the best vehicle for us to make the change our neighbors and families need: affordable accessible health care, world class education, fair wages for fair work, protection of our glorious coasts and oceans. I am not suggesting women leave the party, I am simply saying that it’s time we
the party. I mean really LEAD. Not the window dressing we are afforded now-but honest leadership roles written into the by-laws and opportunities seized for decision making rather than blindly following directives from men. I remember when I was growing up, women would whisper of change, but only to each other. With a knowing smile, they’d quote, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
If Democratic women in Rhode Island truly desire voice and opportunity for impact, we need to step up and work together, not wait to be asked by the men who have overstayed their welcome. This requires the support and commitment of both men and women. It requires us all to champion programs that invest in girls and women in areas such as healthcare, education and training. It requires us to demand that businesses examine their structures, policies, marketing, investments and culture. Lastly, it requires a commitment to diversity, not just gender diversity, but a diversity of all intersectional identities. It requires our leadership.
History clearly demonstrates that the way to increase the numbers of women serving in elected office is through primaries and challenges to incumbents. I understand that frightens some. In my experience it invigorates and improves the quality of leadership and increases the attention to the issues important to families. I am hopeful that the RI Democratic Women’s caucus will continue their success and blow through the barriers created by men from both in and outside the party.
I have devoted my career to electing pro-choice, Democratic women to federal, state and local office. I have trained over 9,000 candidates and staff and worked in 44 states. I am motivated by my daughter and my four grandchildren who deserve a Democratic party dramatically different from the darkness my Mom and I experienced. This country is going to hell and I believe it is women in positions of power that can and will save us.
Kate Coyne-McCoy is a political consultant working across the USA to elect progressives to local state and federal office.