DETROIT— Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand opened her address at the Women’s Convention Friday evening with a nod to the women’s marches that came before. She invoked the suffrage parade Alice Paul organized in Washington, D.C., in 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. “They believed in having a spectacle,” Gillibrand said. “They wanted women to wear white and gold and purple, and carry banners, with horses and floats. … But the crowds were not cheering back then. They were spitting at them, shouting insults, blocking their path.”
The Women’s March that filled the streets of D.C. in January was not so different. It had hats named for genitalia in place of the white skirts, but the color-blocking aesthetic still prevailed. It also had its own internecine struggles over race and class—though the racial conflict of January’s march came in the form of Facebook debates, not the segregation at the 1913 march. But Gillibrand focused on the unity. “It was so powerful because it was intersectional and intergenerational,” Gillibrand said of the Women’s March on Friday. “It was the most inspiring moment of my political career.”
It would be hard to imagine a friendlier audience for the rousing calls by Gillibrand and her colleague, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The room was packed with thousands of progressive women eager to hear that their voices matter, that someone in Washington feels their frustration with the current administration, and that the arc of America is still reaching ever so slightly toward justice. At several points, Gillibrand and Klobuchar were each interrupted with standing ovations.
Both senators urged the attendees—who came to Detroit to learn how to turn their enthusiasm for the movement into action—to believe in their own power to effect change, even with a troll in the White House and Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress. At a nearby hotel restaurant after the event, Klobuchar told me the momentum captured by the Women’s March has already made an impact. “Without that grassroots activism and people feeling that they could stand up, we would not have had that health care bill defeated,” she said, recalling the nationwide protests against Trumpcare.
In her speech, Gillibrand applauded those protests, too, warning the audience not to put too much faith in politicians, even Democrats. “The only time our democracy ever works is when regular people just like you stand up and demand it,” she said. “Do not wait for some white knight in Washington or the party to ride up and save us all. You will wait forever.”
Klobuchar managed to throw a bit of shade in the direction of the Hillary Clinton campaign. First on the “to-do list” she proposed for Democrats: “The Midwest matters, and next time we cannot leave the middle of the country behind.” Klobuchar told me she was pleased to see the Women’s Convention organizers choose Detroit as a host city. “The only thing better would have been Minnesota,” she said. “I think it was the point that this is not a coastal thing, you know? The marches were in Anchorage, in Des Moines, and everywhere in between.”
Gillibrand has reportedly ruled out running for president in 2020, and Klobuchar has said she’s happy with her current gig, but both senators have been conspicuous in raising their national profiles recently. Seeing both address a sizable audience of their most vital constituency—progressive women—gave viewers an early idea of what either senator might sound like in a national campaign. They were particularly charmed by Klobuchar’s droll anecdotes about texting her distraught daughter the night of Trump’s election (she mistook an existential “Mom, what should we do now?” as a request for transit advice) and traveling with fellow Minnesotan Sen. Al Franken, when a flight attendant announced to the whole plane that “Mr. and Mrs. Al Franken” were on board. “We have come a long way, women,” Klobuchar concluded from that tidbit, “but not far enough.”