More than 100 “handmaids” marched silently down the Denver sidewalk in rows of two last night. As the temperature dropped, their bright red robes billowed in the wind and their white-bonnets bowed in mock submission. The uniformed protest—modeled after Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian tale, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which most women are property of the state—awaited the arrival of Vice President Mike Pence for a Republican fundraiser at the Marriott Tech Center in Cherry Creek.
The demonstration was emblematic of a national rise in women’s political activism after the 2016 election. From the January Women’s March to a viral #MeToo movement on social media unveiling widespread sexual harassment, American women are making their voices heard. This weekend, the Women’s March group kicks off its first national conference in Detroit, while locally, March on Colorado organizers will hold a sister summit headlined by Democratic Party State Chair Morgan Carroll and State Senator and Minority Leader Lucia Guzman.“We have to translate this activism into political action,” says Lisa Cutter, a board member for March on Colorado, which is planning a one-year anniversary Women’s March in January.
Cutter is also one of the many women across the U.S. inspired to run for election after Trump’s win. She’s campaigning as a Democrat to represent House District 25, which includes much of Jefferson County. “I never wanted to be one of those people who complained and didn’t do anything about it,” she says. “You have to have confidence that your voice matters.”
Nothing is more emblematic of the rise in women’s activism than the bright red outfits inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale, recently adapted by Hulu, in which the government forces fertile women to bear children for the wealthy. Atwood wrote the dystopian tale in response to the 1984 election of President Ronald Reagan and the rise of religious conservatives in the Republican Party.
Many women fear that Atwood’s warning tale is merging with reality under the administration of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. “I don’t think the future that the novel was positing is so off-base from where this current president would like us to be,” says Jessica Zender, who leads the Steering Committee for Indivisible Denver, a progressive grassroots organization.
Just this week, a Federal Appeals Court overruled the Trump Administration’s attempt to block Jane Doe, a 17-year-old immigrant, from having a court-approved abortion. “In essence, blocking her from having a legal medical procedure, which would lead to a forced birth, is what The Handmaids Tale is about,” says Zender. “That’s really resonating with women.”
Pence’s first trip to the Centennial State as Vice president was to visit Colorado Springs in June, where he spoke at the 40th anniversary of Focus on the Family—one of the leaders of the Christian right political movement that emerged under Reagan, and inspired Atwood’s tale. Throughout his political career, Pence spoke out against working mothers, women in the military, and the LGBTQ community. He also led the charge to defund Planned Parenthood, voted to limit federal funding of abortions, and removed protections for the nation’s Title X family planning program.
Pence received a much cooler reception in Denver, where state Republicans struggled to sell tickets to the event he headlined. Even after slashing the lowest-priced tickets nearly in half, from $275 to $150, Republicans only sold about 400 of the 800 available seats. Pence came to Colorado to promise passage of a tax plan before year’s end. “We’re going to pass the largest tax cut in American history,” he told donors. Republicans need the win: After failing to pass healthcare legislation, fundraising is drying-up.
But victory is uncertain. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the tax plan prioritizes tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, may eliminate popular middle class tax breaks like deductions for state and local taxes, and would increase taxes for one in four households.
Outside the fundraiser, the red-robed women, some of whom helped defeat Republican’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, had a different message. “Shame!” the handmaids chanted. Zender said she’s especially proud of Indivisible’s work to help defeat multiple GOP attempts to repeal the ACA. “The power we have is to massage the narrative and make sure that the very real issues that affect very real people today are front and center, and let people know that they are not supported,” she said.
In April, a survey found that the so-called resistance is primarily powered by middle-aged women. Some 86 percent of protesters surveyed were female and two-thirds were over the age of 45, according to Lake Research Partners. The Front Range mirrors that trend: Of the 6,000 members of Indivisible Front Range Resistance (IFRR) and Indivisible Denver, about 70 to 80 percent of members are women, according to data shared by the groups with 5280. Across Colorado, at least 25 Indivisible groups also had a woman as a lead organizer, reports Katie Farnan, lead steering committee member of IFRR.
The majority of Indivisible’s female membersare also middle-class and middle-aged, says Zender—primarily women with grown children who have a wealth of professional and community organizing skills. The women support each other emotionally, she adds: “What keeps you going and invested is that you really care about the people around you and you trust them, and you know that they have your back.”
Ten months after Trump took office, women’s voices are not dying down, says Zender. “After the election happened, something in me changed,” she says. “I feel a sense of urgency and a sense of duty to protest and to organize.”
Before the election, “I had this sense that arc of the moral universe will bend towards justice,” she says. “But I just realized that if we don’t work as hard as we can, it’s quite possible that it bends the other way.”