Rhode Island Women Are Taking a Stand

How the Democratic Women’s Caucus is using its voice to create political change in the Ocean State


“Do I want to surround myself with people who are unhappy and angry or not?” Wendy LaPlante recalls asking herself after the November 2016 election. The answer came quickly: “I do, if they are more pragmatic and action-oriented.”

Wendy has been attending monthly women’s caucuses run by the RI Democratic Party since March. As the meetings rotate around the state, some women stick to attending the ones near where they live; Wendy, however, goes every month. The caucus’s co-chairs are four current state legislators – Sen. Gayle Goldin, Rep. Lauren Carson, Rep. Grace Diaz and Rep. Shelby Maldonado. A primary goal, says LaPlante, is to “help women have a voice in the Democratic Party.” Others are “to get more women running for office, working on campaigns, talking to their legislators about issues that are important to them and advancing legislation that advances gender equality.”

According to the RIDems’ website, more than 380 women have caucused thus far, and LaPlante estimates that between 50 and 100 women attend each meeting. “Prior to this I had not been very active politically,” she says. “I love reading and talking about politics, but, like many people after the election, I realized that doesn’t mean I’ve been politically involved.” She volunteered with the Rhode Island Women’s March and soon after started to attend the caucuses, realizing she could learn from the Dems’ preexisting infrastructure, including trainings on how to do phone banks and run campaigns. It’s been inspiring, she says, “to be around the other participants. Some of them have been very politically involved for decades. Others are more new to it.”

And the group itself seems to be shaping itself intentionally to the needs of participants; new attendees arrive at each meeting, so each session begins with participants articulating their reasons for being there and what they want to get out of it. Various speakers have come to educate attendees: Governor Raimondo has spoken at a meeting and Secretary of State Gorbea showed up at another to explain how to register people to vote. Eventually, the plan is for the caucus to be chaired by members, rather than the legislators, whose time is limited.
“We’re trying to lay the groundwork quickly,” LaPlante says; if the group is successful, by the 2018 election there will already be more women running and doing campaign work behind the scenes.

Kelly Nevins, executive director of the Women’s Fund of RI, points to the women’s caucuses and to groups like Resist Hate RI as examples of groups that have started or grown post-election, “that are coming together to say, ‘Something’s not right, we need to do something about it.’” Her organization collaborated with VoteRunLead to hold a training session for women interested in getting involved in politics: “We weren’t expressly saying, ‘We want to address the fact that President Trump got elected,’” she explains. “It was just a lot of people recognizing that more women need to be in positions of leadership, so we wanted to capitalize on it.”

State Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Dist. 5) recalls that women without political experience turned out in large numbers to volunteer with her short but successful campaign in 2016. “Over 85% of the people that knocked on doors with me were women,” she recalls. “I had women that said they had never knocked for someone ever.” As her central campaign message expanded beyond gun control to include a $15/hour minimum wage and addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, women, Ranglin-Vassell says, could clearly connect to it. Women “know how gun violence impacts them or their community,” she says. “When it comes to economics, women are the ones going shopping, paying the bills. The fact that women are running our households, we recognize that we have to be that leading voice.”

The recent spate of wins by progressive and female political novices may have juiced women’s involvement this year just as much as the national election. Last August, progressive activist Dawn Euer (Dist. 13) won M. Teresa Paiva Weed’s senate seat and progressive Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3) won Kevin Jackson’s seat on the city council. In 2016, State Rep. Moira Walsh and State Senator Jeanine Calkin rode their experience in grassroots activism all the way to the State House. “A lot of people realized that a regular person can run,” Ranglin-Vassell says. Women are rising up and realizing that we’re powerful when we’re together.”

Wendy LaPlante recalls that some criticized the Women’s March as simply a mass complaint about the state of things. On the contrary, she says, the march was intended as a warning. “It’s to remind the people in power that people are watching,” she says.