While Congress filed into the Capitol last night for Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, just blocks away Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, and other activists—some of whom you spotted on the Golden Globes red carpet—gathered for an event with a very different kind of energy: Guests were greeted with free Planned Parenthood T-shirts and buttons, while a DJ played dance-floor classics like “Respect” in the room over. Attendees donned attire emblazoned with messages like “Nasty Women Vote” and “Shirley Chisholm for President.” The rest of Washington may have been waiting on President Trump, but this particular group willfully tuned him out, focusing instead on pushing forward their own, female-first agenda for 2018.
Dubbed “The State of Our Union,” the night was a collaborative effort by organizations including Planned Parenthood, Color of Change, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Girls for Gender Equality, Moms Rising, Caring Across Generations, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, intended as an alternative to Donald Trump’s address. It came together—and sold out—in under two weeks. Like the star-studded People’s State of the Union that was hosted in New York the night before, the State of Our Union speakers called for new ways to resist the Trump administration’s policies regarding issues that affect women in particular, including immigration, reproductive rights, and racial equity.
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Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and one of the organizers of the event, delivered a powerful speech, addressing this particular political moment but recognizing that gender inequity and sexual violence are by no means new issues: “American women are fed up with the inequity we deal with solely based on the gender we were assigned at birth,” she said. “We have been raising our voices, talking about issues that plague us in our communities for decades. The real difference now is our renewed commitment to working collectively across industries and across issues.”
To resounding applause, Burke told audiences that, to her, #MeToo is as much about triumph as it is about pain. “The healing journey is about collective joy and love,” she said. “The Me Too movement is not just about sadness. It’s about the joy of survival. This is what a survivor looks like.”
Other speeches touched on sexual violence, workers’ rights, and healthcare, but they shared a common call to action: Vote. There was a sense that all of the activists in attendance had their eyes on the 2018 midterms, with Democrats hoping to take back the house, and a record number of women running for office. Some women at the event pledged to run for office themselves, including indigenous public health activist Ruth Anna Buffalo. Other audience members and speakers made political strides in the past year, such as Ilhan Omar, who was elected to a Minnesota house seat in 2016, and is the country’s first Somali-American lawmaker. Others, including Monica Ramirez, president of the National Farmworker Women's Alliance, urged people to use their voices as citizens. “It's important not just to talk about the problem, but talk about the solution,” she said.
At one point, Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, asked guests to take out their phones and post selfies of themselves with the people seated next to them, using the hashtag #StateOfOurUnion.
There were also several lawmakers in attendance who decided to skip out on the president’s speech, including Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. “He has been using the office of the White House to fuel hatred and racism,” Jayapal said of Trump. Speaking with InStyle, the congresswoman described the president’s latest reported comments about “sh*thole countries” as “absolutely untenable,” and that she refused to normalize such rhetoric by attending the State of the Union address.
Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards closed out the night alongside Color of Change's Arisha Hatch and Ai-Jen Poo, the director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. Richards, who will step down from her position after 12 years of leadership, fighting to provide women with access to birth control and reproductive health services. Richards said she had the sense that, this year, "folks are finally listening."
By this time, a line of women waiting to speak with Burke had formed in the hallway. The serious tone of the evening lightened, which, for some of these women, was another reason to tune out of the State of the Union and into this event. Burke stopped to chat with each of them casually, snapping selfies and exchanging contact information.