28 Hours at the Women's Convention in Search of Sisterhood

Photos by Ellie Shechet.

This weekend, two intrepid bloggers spent approximately 28 hours at the Women’s Convention in Detroit.

They were not there for the entire convention, and even if they were, they could not physically have attended every important panel or breakout session. Instead, they did the best they could—dipping in and out of panels, wandering the great hall of the Cobo Center looking for conversation, sisterhood, a sandwich, and occasionally, each other. Here are their thoughts.


Ellie: I told several women that I’d be going to the Women’s Convention, and they all reacted the same way: with a very pained look, and an “I’m glad I don’t have to do that.” Which is not… great! I think this was less about people taking issue with the convention itself—who’s mad about the Women’s Convention?—and more that it became synonymous with the controversies that plastered themselves to the event at every turn, most recently over whether Bernie Sanders ought to give opening remarks at the convention. And I think because the moment we’re in is so shitty, it’s sometimes easier to nitpick or to disengage entirely than to take a step back and be like, Oh, this is the first national women’s convention since 1977—cool!

Megan: Yeah, the cynicism feels truly difficult to avoid at this juncture. The news cycle since the inauguration has been a true nightmare—an exhausting mess of sexual assault allegations, the potential end of DACA, possible Russian collusion, the alarming rise of white supremacy, a systematic attempt to eradicate the poor by slashing Obamacare, and various attacks on the rights of sexual assault survivors, transgender individuals, and anyone that is not Donald J. Trump or his inner circle of chinless sons, Ivanka, and her husband, the adenoidal puppet. Mustering up the energy to care about literally anything other than just going home after the workday is done has been hard.

But that’s just me! I’m a member of the media living in liberal New York City. For women who are not, I think the convention was a welcome respite.


Ellie: Agreed. So, the convention itself was huge. I was expecting the worst from the Cobo Center—I really hate convention centers—but it was freaking nice, so much natural light! We arrived around 11 a.m. on Friday, so we missed the opening remarks (though I heard several women rave about Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory’s speech) and ran straight into our respective tasks; I crammed myself into a packed room to hear a panel on public speaking entitled “Belly, Heart, Mouth: Using the body to become a comfortable, confident and compelling public speaker.” It was an extremely comforting experience.


Megan: The Cobo Center is truly a beautiful space, though it is very, very big. When we arrived, the first thing I noticed—aside from the natural light and the shores of Canada, visible just across the Detroit River—was that everyone was so, so nice. I’m not sure why I was expecting anyone to be mean (I wasn’t). After Ellie left to go learn about her belly, heart, and mouth, I was responsible for taking our luggage to the press room. I listened to the woman’s instructions on how to get to the press room at least three times and my brain simply could not process. Finally, she got up and walked me there, and left me with a reassuring pat on the back. I stuck around in the press room for a while until rushing to the panel on “Confronting White Womanhood.” It was sold out! Packed! Doors closed! I returned to the press room and spoke to a woman named Tyra Wright who had the kindness to bring me a turkey sandwich from the lunch table. We talked about the one thing that I asked everyone I spoke to: what did they hope to get from the convention and why were they there? Like just about everyone else, she told me that she wanted community, action, and sisterhood.


While part of me wishes I had made it into the white womanhood panel, I found that the conversation I ended up having was, in itself, gratifying.

Ellie: One of the things about this convention is that there were so many panels and speakers and sessions that one person could have a completely different experience than the next (although intersectionality was a dominant theme). I popped in on a self-care-type session where women were groaning and doing reiki next to a pile of crystals; I listened in on part of a session on organizing in the Native American community; there was a whole series of sessions hosted by the NRDC on women and the environment; there was an Emily’s List training; there was an anti-Semitism panel; there was a panel on Puerto Rico and colonialism… and this is but a tiny, tiny fraction of the full program. You could sort of make it into whatever you wanted it to be.


Based on my own limited experiences, I was really impressed by all of the speakers—everyone was very engaging, which I think was helped by the fact that they were gifted with a very, very engaged audience. Like, I’m not sure Senator Debbie Stabenow is used to getting a screaming standing ovation when she speaks, but she certainly seemed to enjoy it!


Megan: I tried to bop in and out of as many panels as I could, but I found that many of the ones I wanted to attend were full! I did sneak into a panel about dealing with sexual assault on college campuses in the age of Betsy DeVos, which was interesting, but felt a little bit like preaching to the choir. I sat in the back next to a very serious woman in a pantsuit who snapped her fingers instead of clapping and punctuated every frequent burst of applause with a heartfelt “Mmmm.” Also, I was hit on the head with a boom mic not once but twice during that panel—not the panel’s fault, but I did take that as a sign that I should leave.

I truly appreciated the wide range of interests that the organizers tried to represent vis-à-vis the diversity of panels. But with at least six breakout panels scheduled per session, if you wanted to actually indulge the wide range of interests you might have had as a woman looking to organize collectively, you’d have to dart to and fro, stopping in one, absorbing as much as you could, and then running down the long hall of the Cobo Center to another.


Ellie: Yes, there was a lot of darting. I think that when you host a single large event like this, not everyone is going to come away perfectly happy. It will be too expensive and time-consuming for many of the people you’d ideally want to be in attendance; meanwhile, what inspires some is sappy to others, and a speaker who excites one person will piss off someone else. If there were fewer panel options, people would probably complain about that, too.


I spoke to a young woman who pointed out that there were a lot of older white women there, which is true. There were young people, but it was not an overwhelmingly youthful event—which makes sense, because you had to fly to Detroit and get a hotel room and spend an entire weekend sitting and listening to panels. Although there was a fair amount of broad, inspirational talk (“CELEBRATE EACH OTHER!!!!” Congresswoman Debbie Dingell screamed at one point during Friday’s keynote remarks), the organizers were also focused on finding concrete solutions. There were candidate campaign planning sessions, voter turnout strategy sessions, reproductive health campaign sessions. Mobilizing attendees to push for a clean Dream Act was a big theme of the weekend.

“This has really broadened my horizons,” a woman in her 50s from Minnesota shared with me before a packed panel titled “Build Her Up, Don’t Tear Her Down: Avoiding Standing in Our Own Way.” Her friend leaned over and said she’d gone to a workshop called “Being an Effective Ally” that she loved.


“My legs fell asleep, I didn’t care!” she hooted.

Megan: It’s truly impossible to please everyone, and I’d say that for an inaugural event, it worked out pretty well! The emphasis on intersectionality felt refreshing, but I do wish there had been more chances for actual conversation—though I don’t know if that’s the point of a convention, per se? Still, most women that I spoke to over the weekend were very, very willing to talk—all I’d have to do is say hello or just nod in their direction, and five minutes later, we’d be chatting like old friends.


Karen Spencer Magee (“You can call me Mama Peaches,” she said), 53, of Black Lives Matter Memphis, was sitting on a blue couch charging her phone sometime late Friday afternoon. When I asked her why she was attending the event, she said “[For] the connection with women, for getting our daughters ready for the next step and our daughters’ daughters, because they shouldn’t be fighting the same fight. We got old men up in Congress. They probably don’t know what it feels like anymore to have someone making choices about someone else’s body.”

A lot of the women I spoke to shared the same sentiment—attending the convention was important to them because they needed to take whatever they learned back to their communities for the next generation, to ready them for the fight ahead. Every single person I spoke to gave me a hug after we talked. Did I feel cynical about this? No! It was nice.


Ellie: It was hard to feel cynical by the end! Where is my cynicism? I cannot find it!


Here’s what I kept thinking to myself through the convention: six or seven months ago in New York, there were big protests pretty much every weekend. They still happen—there was a massive DACA protest in early September, and there’s been an enormous amount of grassroots activism around the three attempted repeals of the Affordable Care Act. But in general, I think we’re in a pretty dangerous spot right now in terms of our ability to sustain outrage, and our ability to summon the energy for protest.

That’s the idiotic genius of Donald Trump; he floods the zone and he lowers the bar every single day for what is acceptable, and pretty soon you can’t feel anything anymore, because your own bar for fear and anxiety and anger at the news of the day has been substantially raised. You start laughing at the earnest vocabulary of the #resistance warriors, you roll your eyes when you see a knitted pussy hat. So I think it’s important to interrogate our instincts right now, because no matter how smart or how savvy we are, we have all been shaped by this moment and we have all been compromised, in some way, by this moment.


The Women’s March, I think, has provided a really vital framework for continued protest in a time of deep exhaustion, and whether or not it’s perfect is sort of beside the point. Our colleague Stassa has written a lot about the spectacle of the Trump administration, a spectacle that’s morally and ideologically empty at its core. The Women’s March isn’t empty, but it is symbolic, and I think sometimes we underestimate the importance of that—a unified oppositional effort, maintained over time in a highly visible way.

Megan: Since the Women’s March—an event that I felt uneasy about attending partially because I didn’t quite see myself in the movement at that point in time—it seems that the tremendous momentum generated by the sight of women uniting all across the country to march had waned. With the exception of a Day Without a Woman, during which as many women as they could took the day off to demonstrate what life would be like if they simply weren’t there, the pendulum seems to have swung back in the other direction—it turns out protesting was not the new brunch, after all. Brunch is still brunch, and collective political action is something most of us think about in the abstract but rarely actually execute.


That said, the Women’s Convention gave me a little bit of hope for the future. If this convention sets the stage for action on the same level as the Women’s March for the future, then I’d say it was well worth it.

Ahoy! Photo: Megan Reynolds

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About the author

Ellie Shechet

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.