The American Women's Party is a new group that should be on your radar for 2018 and beyond. Differing from groups like She Should Run, which encourage women to run for office, The AWP is dedicated to empower the voices of voters, educate them on their rights, and encouraging direct action. I learned of the group from following one of its co-founders, Mia Brett on Twitter, and attended one of her organization's first official events this September in Manhattan, where she spoke about their mission with her colleague and co-founder, Maya Contreras. Both are excellent public speakers, with the ability to synthesize complex information into nuggets that stay with you long after. What's more, they are passionate organizers, determined to combat the shocking wave of voter suppression that has overtaken the country. During our conversation, I learned how this group came about, how they really feel about the Purity Left, and what they believe we can do going forward.
Jeremy Fassler: Where are you both from and what did you get your degrees in?
Mia Brett: I’m from Eastern Long Island and I went to Barnard. My undergrad was in American Studies and I’m getting a PhD in history, with a specialization in American legal history.
Maya Contreras: I was born in Denver, but I grew up in Albuquerque, went to college at Florida State, and now I live in NYC. My degree is in religion.
JF: How did the two of you first become interested in politics?
MB: I grew up on Long Island but I'm from one of those Lower East Side Jewish families where if you aren’t a Democrat you get disowned. My parents, especially my Mom, were political activists. My mother went to Woodstock and handed out flyers for SDS. She went to antiwar rallies in DC and was always politically active, so I was just raised with it.
MC: Being born poor, black and Latina in New Mexico, I can’t imagine any point when my life wasn’t political. I grew up with a single mother who had a college degree, raised three kids, and worked three part-time jobs just to make ends meet. We were on welfare. I saw the hypocrisy of people calling us lazy when we asked for a hand-up, and my Mom was the opposite of lazy. There’s all this lying that you hear, like with Reaganomics: “Oh, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work hard! By the way, we’re not going to pay any taxes, we’re going to offshore all our money that we just inherited without working, but you’re the lazy ones!” I learned that policy was a way to manipulate people to get what they wanted. When I was a teenager, my Mom died of breast cancer, and I saw how the healthcare system (among other things) were set up to fail for people living in poverty or on the margins. And going to FSU, there was so much bureaucracy. I had to prove every semester that I was an orphan and my mother had died, and there was all this paperwork. I was like, “This is how the government works?” I’m smarter than the average bear, but what happens when people are having a really difficult time navigating these things? But I don’t think that made me political. I already was political.
JF: How did you meet?
MB: During the primaries, my friend Laura and I started one of those infamous underground Hillary groups because we felt a lot of our friends from the Left were attacking us for supporting her. We joked that our group was the Feminist Bat Signal, because you could tag people to come talk about the issues and educate themselves on policy, and then they’d feel more empowered to speak publicly. Somebody tagged Maya to the group, and we started talking and became friends. We spent the night of the New York primary together.
MC: We went out for drinks to celebrate. That was really neat.
JF: What did you do after Trump won?
MB: After the election, Maya called and said, “We have to do something,” so we started The Oppo File, which focused on helping people with direct action, like giving them call sheets because this was when we had to express our resistance to cabinet appointments.
MC: With Oppo File, Mia and I realized that a lot of people didn’t understand basic civics. It was fine for people to be excited about Bernie Sanders and single-payer, but when I asked how he’d get us that, they didn’t know. Instead of throwing more gasoline on the fire, we decided to show people, “This is what your Senator does, this is what your Governor does, this is who you call about X issue, and don’t yell at this person who answers the phone because they’re just an assistant.” Soon after, we got a call from Bettina WitteVeen and her assistant Melissa Corrales, who really liked the work we were doing and said that she wanted to start the American Women’s Party and wanted us to come on board.
JF: How did the AWP get started?
MB: Bettina was reacting to 2016 and the misogyny we all experienced. She felt women were left out of the conversation, or at least, not included as much as we should have been.
MC: She originally wanted it to be a third party, but Mia and I put our foot down and said, “No, we are true blue Democrats and we believe in the messaging of the Democrats.”
JF: Why is it called the American Women’s Party?
MB: Women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, particularly women of color, and despite being not only that, but half the population, our voices and our issues are not treated as equal. One of the biggest examples that I’ve used to show this is when the conversations about Single Payer leave out reproductive rights. They say, “Well, it’s going to help the most people this way,” but to me, that’s ridiculous. There was a study that showed women were dying in car accidents more than men, and they discovered it was because the crash test dummies were always based on the average size of men, so the seatbelts were made for men. They xed them out of the equation. Bringing these up is a way to ensure that women’s issues are treated as the default and not pushed to the sidelines.
JF: How did voting rights become your signature issue?
MB: First of all, if we want to achieve anything in the first place, we have to elect the right representatives, and we can’t do that if people have trouble voting. As we did research, we realized that voting rights were the perfect issue to start with, not only because we have to tackle it if we want to vote people on our side into office, but because the people most targeted by voter suppression are marginalized communities, and we want to make the issues of marginalized communities mainstream and not tangential. Voting rights is something that targets those communities.
JF: Can you provide some examples of how they’re targeted?
MB: Sure. Women are targeted by voter suppression because they change their names when they get married or divorced, and they don’t have documentation that shows it. Trans people have difficulty voting if their gender doesn’t match the one on their ID: that doesn’t mean they can’t vote, but poll workers might not know that and turn them away. Up to three million people with disabilities have been unable to vote in the last election cycle because polling places weren’t accessible for the deaf and blind, or there weren’t enough parking spots for the handicapped. Homeless LGBTQs might not be able to use their homeless shelter as their address for registration, or are unable to secure an ID. We really want to tackle issues with AWP that affect politics and help us elect representatives we believe in, but that also help the rights of the marginalized and shine a light on policies that will help the communities not focused on in the mainstream.
MC: We also have voting machines that don’t have paper trails, that aren’t audited properly, and the public doesn’t know the results, like when the machine in Georgia got wiped. I hope that with everything that’s going on in the Mueller investigation we find out that they were able to suppress the vote.
JF: Of course, but if I hear “she didn’t go to Wisconsin” one more time, I’m going to lose my mind.
MC: We’ve called people out for saying that too, but the good news is a lot of them have no leg to stand on anymore, since we know how millions of bots spread disinformation on social media. I’m curious as to how voter suppression is not a major scandal. The media still doesn’t find it a sexy story. We were interviewed by somebody else who said, “I tried to pitch it to my editors, but they didn’t think voting was a sexy issue.” If only the media were as interested in millions of people being disenfranchised across the United States as they were in Clinton’s emails!
JF: What does someone get out of the American Women’s Party that they won’t get out of a group with a similar theme, like Emily’s List or She Should Run?
MB: Emily’s List is great about helping women to run for office, but our group is about empowering the voices of voters. Getting women to run is incredibly important, but so is making sure they have the tools to vote, and that everyone is educated to vote, and that people have tools allowing them to participate in direct action.
MC: And we want to stress that there is no competition. All of our groups are anxious to get to know and work with each other. I worked on a show for PBS where I met all these brewers, and I use them as an example because they’re not in competition with each other. They don’t care if another brewery opens across the street. They want to create jobs. They exchange recipes. That’s what we want to do too. All our groups have a purpose: ours is just focused on voters and their needs, but it will expand as needed.
MB: That’s one of the great things about Twitter – you meet people who want to work together! Nobody is upset that another group is coming in to share the work.
MC: When Mia and I met with Mobilize America, we asked, “Can we be useful to you guys?” and they said, “Yes, please!” Nobody has ever said, “Uh, we’re all filled up.”
MB: Yesterday, Code Blue tagged us because they’re working on automatic voter registration in Massachusetts. We are more than happy to amplify their tweets. Next time, we’ll tag a group and they’ll do it for us. It’s a great way to work together.
JF: What do you make of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party and groups like Our Revolution?
MC: When people try to hold the Democratic Party hostage, saying, “You need us!” I say to them, “No we don’t. You’re not willing to work with us and you’re saying it’s your way or the highway – and you’ve showed us what that looks like.” A lot of people want everything to change overnight, which is why we, when we did one of our voter initiatives, we put the entire history of voting rights for all fifty states on our individual brochures [which you can download here.] We wanted to show people that progress happens over time, even if it takes a while. And there are fifty-one million unregistered voters, more than half of who will register as Democrats. We’re going to register more people who want to work with us, compromise, and move forward.
MB: And when we went down to canvas in Virginia this month, everyone we met there were tried-and-true Democrats. It was so clear who the party really is.
JF: Do you think the results there validated your message of working together?
MB: Yes. People cared about a Democrat winning. Everyone who came loved Northam, and he won by more than he was expected to. We can win by fixing voter suppression and registering more people. And Tom Perriello [the Bernie Sanders-endorsed primary candidate for governor] deserves credit. The night he lost, he immediately endorsed Northam and said, “let’s get to work.” He canvassed all over the state, like a real Democratic soldier.
JF: What are your plans going into 2018?
MB: We want to continue helping people vote, spreading that information, and giving any help we can to make sure people get IDs and rides to the polls. We’ve also gotten people asking for local chapters, which we’re really excited about, because then we can focus on individual races going into 2018.
MC: We’re really excited about the convention we’re going to have in May, in Washington D.C. It’s going to focus on about eight issues, with a lot of breakout meetings that serve as mini-think tanks. One of the things we really want to focus on is messaging. We want people to understand that Democrats have a message, and we’re sorry if it’s too complex. We want to be more boastful! I don’t think Democrats are very good at that.
MB: And the convention is going to emphasize direct action. It’s important for us to get together and talk, but we need concrete ways for people to get involved. One of the real focal points of our convention will be groups you can get involved with and teaching people how to handle call sheets.
JF: What would you say are your respective strengths?
MC: Mia is a teacher, I’m a storyteller, and we’re both community organizers.
MB: My favorite thing I do is researching and coming up with policy solutions, and doing those things in people’s continued interests.
MC: And one of my favorite things is coming up with ideas to bring people together. That’s why this convention is my thing. I was talking to a psychologist last night and he said, “You know what I like about you guys and the American Women’s Party? You are dynamic.” I asked, “What do you mean by that?” and he said, “You and Mia aren’t talkers, you are communicators, which means you’re communicating what needs to be done. You’re not talking at people.” We know our party, understand our party, and have been listening to other registered Democrats nonstop, and one of the things we are all saying is that we want our voting rights instated on every level. We have a message, and we know what we want.
Note: This interview has been condensed. It also contains segments from the talk Ms. Brett and Mrs. Contreras gave this past September.
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