After the 2016 election, women are motivated to work for change on both sides of the aisle.
When the 2016 presidential election didn’t go the way they had hoped, dozens of Detroit-area Jewish women not only got mad, they got active.
They formed new advocacy organizations including Fems for Change and local affiliates of Indivisible, a national group. They went to work for Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan anti-gerrymandering effort that collected enough signatures to get the measure on the November ballot. Some decided to run for public office.
These women are part of a national phenomenon. The cover story in the Jan. 29 issue of Time magazine was titled “The Avengers” and featured some of the hundreds of women nationwide who are running for office for the first time.
The story noted that four times as many Democratic women are running for House seats as Republican women; twice as many Democrats are running for Senate spots. EMILY’s List, a group that raises money to support female Democratic candidates, said more than 25,000 women have contacted them in the past year about running for office.
Lori Goldman of Bloomfield Township, a member of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, had been politically active since the 2008 election but says last year’s election put her into overdrive.
Goldman, 58, admitted that for most of her adult life she didn’t bother to vote, and when she did, she didn’t give it much thought. “My boyfriend [now her husband] supported the Bushes, so I voted for them,” she said.
Goldman says she was intrigued by Barack Obama and worked for both of his campaigns, making phone calls and ringing doorbells.
She worked even harder on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, starting a group called Fems for Dems. Once a week, she ran a phone bank from her living room; she’s been told it was the largest in Michigan, with 50 women at once making calls to support their candidate.
Fems for Dems is still active. The group sponsored a “candidate speed dating” forum Feb. 7 at The Corners in West Bloomfield that attracted more than a dozen Democratic candidates.
But, after the election, Goldman thought she needed to do more than support the Democratic Party. She started a nonprofit, Fems for Change, that aims to educate citizens about the issues and advocate for liberal social policies rather than for candidates.
The new group held an organizing “Rally for Change” last March that attracted several hundred women. They broke into groups to develop action plans in various areas, including education, science and the environment, immigration, health, anti-gerrymandering and gun violence.
Linda Ross of Huntington Woods chaired the health care group, even though her background was in fine art. Like Goldman, she admitted there were years when she hadn’t voted. But, after the 2016 election, she realized the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was in jeopardy. Family members had struggled with health care costs, and Ross, who owned the Sybaris Gallery in Royal Oak for many years and now works as a consultant to small museums and art collectors, recognized the importance of expanded insurance coverage.
The Fems for Change health care group produced two videos with powerful stories of people who would have suffered without the ACA. They sent a copy to every member of Congress and posted it online. Whenever the ACA was threatened, they mounted postcard-writing campaigns to senators and representatives.
In the fall, they held three town hall forums with state legislators about health care issues and had ACA “navigators” available to help people register.
Marcie Paul of West Bloomfield also became politically active because of health care concerns. A survivor of ovarian cancer, she is advocating for better health care through better public policy.
“Politics is personal,” she said, noting her advocacy efforts on behalf of the Affordable Care Act, early diagnosis and affordable medication.
She recently took a group of women cancer survivors to Capitol Hill. Political novices, many were leery about talking face-to-face with their representatives. Once they did, she said, “they were hooked.”
“They could see that legislators are accessible, and that we are their bosses. This kind of activism will make a difference,” said Paul, a member of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield.
Sheila Kohn of Huntington Woods, who tutors foreign workers in English, said she turned to advocacy to channel the anger she felt watching the daily news. She has focused on immigration issues and has been working on the campaigns of Democratic candidates, including Andy Levin, Dana Nessel and Gretchen Whitmer.
“I’m optimistic that change is coming,” said Kohn, a member of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park. “We need change and we need it now.”
Linda Zlotoff of Bloomfield Hills runs a local affiliate of Indivisible, a national movement to spur national change through local activism.
Indivisible founders Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, a married Jewish couple who work in Washington, D.C., started by creating a guide for organizers. It included advice on how to influence members of Congress, scripts for phone calls to their offices, guidelines for asking questions at town halls, even advice about where to sit at public forums. They put it online; it has garnered more than 2 million views.
After hearing about Indivisible on Rachel Maddow’s TV show, Zlotoff started a group for residents of Congressional Districts 9, 11 and 14, one of 6,000 Indivisible affiliate groups nationwide. She has several hundred people on her mailing list, and she serves as a clearinghouse for advocacy activities in southeastern Michigan.
Zlotoff’s pet project is the fight against political gerrymandering of voting districts. She helped with the effort to collect petition signatures for Voters Not Politicians, which aims to create a citizens’ council to determine the boundaries of state and national districts. Now, boundaries are set by the political party in control in Lansing.
Many petition drives have to hire people to collect signatures. Voters Not Politicians had enough volunteers to handle the task, many engaging in advocacy action for the first time.
Now that Voters Not Politicians secured enough signatures to get on the ballot, Zlotoff will turn her efforts toward educating voters about gerrymandering and encouraging them to vote in November. “We need the voters to be better informed,” she said.
Sharon Schwartz of Bloomfield Hills, a retired Hillel Day School teacher, also saw advocacy as a way to channel her anger after the 2016 election.
“I was so discouraged and despondent,” she said. After reading about “the resistance,” she got involved with Indivisible and started writing postcards to legislators. She concluded that she would be more effective at the state level, so when a friend invited her to join Democrat Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign for Michigan governor, she did.
She circulated petitions to get Whitmer on the primary ballot and looks forward to working on the campaign through Whitmer’s Bloomfield Hills office.
“I never worried about our country the way I do now, but complaining does no good,” said Schwartz, who took part in the Women’s March in Lansing last year and this year. “I truly believe that getting people out to vote will make the difference in 2018.”
Working as a health management consultant and raising three children meant Katie Reiter of Southfield had limited time for political activism. Now that her youngest child is 21, she’s jumping in with both feet, running in the Democratic primary for the Michigan House in District 25 (Southfield, Lathrup Village, Bingham Farms and Franklin).
Reiter, who grew up at the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, felt empowered by last year’s Women’s March in Washington. “We are the people we’ve been waiting for,” she said.
She became involved with a local affiliate of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national organization founded in 2012 after the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. She attends rallies and vigils, including one in Lansing in late February, and said one of her campaign platforms will be common-sense laws to reduce gun violence.
After attending a “boot camp” in Washington, D.C., last summer run by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Reiter came home convinced she could make the biggest impact working at the state level. When she learned her state representative, Jeremy Moss, was leaving his House seat to run for the state senate, she filed to succeed him.
Reiter knows the odds are against her — two other primary candidates have filed and several more are expected to file — but says having many qualified candidates to choose from is a good problem to have.
Younger women are eager to join in the political process as well.
Eleanor Gamalski, 24, of Hamtrack, community organizer for Detroit Jews for Justice and a member of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park, was mentored by Detroit activists while in the urban studies program at University of Michigan.
“They led me to believe that if I wanted to be a part of movements of justice, Detroit was the place I had to be. People are waking up to see all the work we have to do to fight white supremacy and inequality. I have felt a particular responsibility to take advantage of this moment and bring more people into social justice work.”
Marcie Paul said her daughter, 21, a U-M senior, had been “astonishingly apolitical” until the 2016 election.
“After the election, she felt rage at the attacks against women and minorities. She saw how the Michigan legislature makes it difficult for college students to vote — they can’t vote absentee their first time, and they can’t register in the district where they go to school. If they can’t go home on Election Day, they’re effectively disenfranchised,” she said.
Paul said it’s been exciting to see her daughter’s growing awareness. “Finally, she gets it!” she said.
Some Jewish women are becoming activists on the conservative side as well.
Lena Epstein says she’d always been a Republican; she just didn’t realize it till she studied economics at Harvard University. Now she’s serving as a role model to younger women.
Epstein, 36, of Bloomfield Hills is co-owner of the Vesco Oil Company, founded by her paternal grandfather, Eugene Epstein, 70 years ago.
In 2012, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed her to the Michigan Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, and she became a grassroots organizer and fundraiser for the Republican Party.
During the Obama administration, Epstein decided she wanted out from behind the scenes. In 2016, she gained visibility as the Michigan campaign co-chair for Donald Trump. Last year, she decided to run for office, first for the U.S. Senate and then for the U.S. House in District 11, where Rep. Dave Trott is retiring. The district includes Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Commerce, Farmington, Walled Lake and West Bloomfield.
Jordyn Singer, 19, a University of Michigan sociology sophomore from West Bloomfield, had been working on campus to counter sexual misconduct and gender-based violence but felt “disengaged” from politics. That changed when she met Epstein.
“I recognized that Lena was going to contribute many positive things to the GOP community, so I became involved as an intern on her senate campaign over the summer,” Singer said. “I got the chance to attend Michigan Republican conferences and interact with many other GOP members throughout the state. Lena inspired me to want to make great changes in the realms of policy, politics and advocacy.”
Epstein says more women are involved in GOP state politics and in college Republican clubs now than in 2012.