The right to control our own fates is at stake in 2022. Can suburban women save it?

The progressive political organization Red Wine & Blue offers “Troublemaker Training” sessions for suburban women and a logo with a cartoon wine bottle that, intentionally or not, brings to mind mommy wine culture. I fled the suburbs where I grew up and was struggling to relate to this group until Gisele Fetterman started talking about “impostor syndrome” – self-doubt and insecurity that make people, often women, wonder if they belong in certain roles or careers.

You are all smarter than many of these people in politics,” Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, told hundreds of women in a troublemaker Zoom session. “You have to just get in the mirror and talk to yourself. ... Do you not lift your kids up all day long and tell them they’re amazing? … Why do we talk our children up but we talk ourselves down?”

Been there, done that, got past it and tried to help others fight it – as a young woman reporting on politics decades ago, a columnist learning to trust my voice, and an editor urging women to use theirs to write op-eds.

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Red Wine & Blue is aiming to put an army of suburban women – more than 400,000 and growing – on that same trajectory. And their mission is far more consequential than troublemaking. “We’re worried about political violence and the future of our rights and of our democracy,” founder Katie Paris said recently.

Abortion bans make organizing easy

The goal of the training, and the group, is to help women ease into political conversations with friends, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances and, if they're interested, persuade them to vote against "extremists" who don't care about them and their families, as Paris put it. Participants are encouraged to focus on elections in their own states as well as aid efforts in this year's targeted states of Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Can this possibly work? It’s called relational organizing, and experienced organizers say it is the best kind.

Congress of Industrial Organizations pamphlet from 1944.
Congress of Industrial Organizations pamphlet from 1944.

“I love what you just described,” former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal said after I told him about Red Wine & Blue. Rosenthal, founder and president of The Organizing Group, says it’s all about neighborhood communication and getting to know people. And it’s not new. He’s still guided by a Congress of Industrial Organizations organizing manual published in a 1944 book.

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Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, said relational organizing through personal networks is “particularly powerful right now because people are so distrusting of sources of information and the media.”

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It’s also particularly easy to do right now, Lake told me, with the repeal of Roe vs. Wade and “the choice issue on the table. Women who may have avoided conflictual conversations about Donald Trump or immigration or other issues, they’re emboldened and energized around the abortion issue. Women are not at all intimidated to say this is absolutely beyond the pale.” They see it affects their daughters, she said, or they’re old enough to remember “the way it was.”

There’s evidence of that across political divides, from Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (the “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom” in Michigan who went viral with a fierce response to a Republican colleague’s absurd claim that she’s a “groomer” who wants to sexualize children) to nine Republican and formerly Republican women from Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania (they all voted for Trump in 2016, abandoned him in 2020 and don’t want him back in 2024).

At a recent training session, Paris asked McMorrow – aka “the Head Troublemaker in Charge” – what she’d tell women wondering how to start difficult conversations over coffee, in carpool pickup lines or on the soccer field sidelines. Carefully and gradually, don't push it if someone's unreceptive, and try tapping into news that everyone’s talking about, McMorrow advised. Her topics have included “hateful” GOP targeting of LGBTQ children and opposition to teaching kids about racism and slavery, along with Trump, democracy threats and, especially, reproductive rights.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman and his wife, Gisele, at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., on Sept. 17, 2022.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman and his wife, Gisele, at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., on Sept. 17, 2022.

Michigan residents will be voting Nov. 8 on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a new “individual right to reproductive freedom,” including abortion. During the petition drive to get it on the ballot, McMorrow said, a constituent texted her and told her "this petition was circulating in his Catholic church in one of the most conservative parts of my district. And this wasn't circulated by the people who were at all the rallies. ... These are women talking to women, especially women who remember what it was like before Roe.”

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Across the spectrum from McMorrow are the nine former Trump voters in a Sept. 3 episode of "The Focus Group" podcast produced by Sarah Longwell, publisher of the Never Trump website The Bulwark. Their comments on abortion are startlingly personal. One woman said her 18-year-old daughter “told me a very scary thing” just before she dropped her off at college – that she had gotten rid of a phone app that tracked her period. “She definitely needs to get rid of that,” another woman interrupted. A third said she had heard people were afraid their phones would get subpoenaed if they were planning an abortion.

Self-determination at stake in 2022

Some women talked about control and freedom. “I’m very much pro-choice with the vaccinations, you can’t tell me what to do. (On) abortion, you can’t tell me what to do. I’m in control,” said one. Another said that she was conservative in many ways, but that “I don’t want anyone telling me what I can or cannot do with my body and I don’t want to judge anyone else who makes the choices that are right for their lives.”

That is where abortion bans and threats to democracy intersect, historian Heather Cox Richardson told a Troublemaker Training session. “The whole point of American democracy is human self-determination. This is really about whether or not people – my neighbors, my friends, people I don’t like, myself – get to determine our own fate,” she said. “It’s very hard … to think of anything that’s more important."

Heather Cox Richardson writes the newsletter “Letters from an American,” where she ties the day’s news to the events of the past.
Heather Cox Richardson writes the newsletter “Letters from an American,” where she ties the day’s news to the events of the past.

Richardson is a Boston College professor and the author of “Letters from an American,” a newsletter about "the history behind today’s politics” that has tens of thousands of paid subscribers. The points she made to Red Wine & Blue were somber and powerful. And she was making them in a pink framed video topped by a cartoonish 1940s sketch of a winking woman next to a “Troublemaker Training” headline in curly old-fashioned font.

The juxtaposition jarred me for a while. I’m not into cute in politics unless kissing babies is involved. But after watching three training sessions, I'm over it. I can't argue with an approach that has inspired hundreds of thousands of women to fight for themselves and their country in yet another election that's the most important of our lives.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Midterm elections 2022: How suburban voters can save women's rights