A year later, Austin women’s march organizers focus on winning office

Jan. 19–Melissa Fiero, the lead organizer of last year’s Women’s March in Austin, didn’t realize the magnitude of that event until it lay before her.

"I walked out on the steps of the Capitol and was just blown away — people were as far as you could see them. They were wrapped around the Capitol along both sides," Fiero said. "It was — we use the word awesome a lot, too much — but it was one of the most awesome sights I’ve ever seen."

It was the largest demonstration in Austin’s history, and one of many, in Washington and across the country, that have collectively been called the largest single-day demonstration in American history — drawing between 3 million and 5 million people nationwide and dwarfing the crowd a day earlier attending the inauguration of the president who had inspired the protests.

But a year later, Fiero is fixed on a far smaller, but, in her view, no less awesome number.

"There are at least 630 Democratic women running for office in the March primary" in Texas, said Fiero, who methodically combed the records of the Texas secretary of state’s office for every county. Among them, she said, "there are at least 170 Democratic women running for justice of the peace."

On Saturday, Fiero will be back on the Capitol’s south steps to speak briefly at an abortion rights rally, one of three events happening in Austin on the anniversary of last year’s women’s marches, but she and other leaders of last year’s Austin women’s march have moved on to what they view as the logical and necessary next step.

"We really talked to a lot of people and decided that the truly local elections were not getting the focus that could help ultimately change the state of Texas, because if you’ve got people who are more progressive running for justice of the peace or county commissioner or city council it does two things — it starts changing the environment at the local level and it also starts creating a group of candidates that will run for progressively higher office," Fiero said.

"They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds," said Sylvia Holmes, another of the organizers of last year’s march, recalling a T-shirt from the event. Holmes will be at Saturday’s Capitol rally politicking in her campaign for Travis County justice of the peace, Precinct 3.

Like Fiero, 58, Holmes, 36, volunteered on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She had been eyeing a run for justice of the peace for a few years.

A new candidate

Jonasu Wagstaff was drawn to political action by Bernie Sanders, and encouraged to run for justice of the peace in Williamson County’s Precinct 2 by folks in the county’s Democratic Party who explained that she did not need to be a lawyer.

"JP is the lowest court in the land, I understand that, but it is also the court that you as an average citizen are most likely to come in contact with — speeding tickets, kids fighting in school or truant," said Wagstaff, 36, who lives in Leander and is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

"I happened to be a troubled young lady myself as a teenager," she said. "I had a childhood experience. I was sexually molested by a family member. I’ve never shied away from it, and I’ve always put it out there."

"I was very fortunate that I had people that cared about me, really great teachers that really pushed me for bigger and better things, things that unfortunately some people just don’t get from their families," Wagstaff said.

Running for justice of the peace, she said, "is me wanting to give back."

Yet Wagstaff said, "I was getting reprimanded within my own party, I was advised not to say I was sexually assaulted, just to say I was assaulted. This was coming from a woman, and I listened to her and heard her out and I said, ‘Can I respond back to your criticism?’ and she said, ‘Sure.’"

"When I say ‘sexually assaulted,’ you tell me that it makes people feel uncomfortable, and I say, ‘Good. We need to quit normalizing this,’" she told the woman. "This is stuff that happens, that’s probably happened in your family and you might not even know about it."

"What happened to me is not my shame to carry. That belongs to that other person," Wagstaff said. "I want girls to be able to see that and know that, hey, this happened to me but look, I could become a judge."

The "Silence Breakers" on sexual abuse claimed the "Person of the Year" Time magazine cover that President Donald Trump coveted.

In fairness, Fiero said, Trump is due some credit for that.

"I think if there’s any silver lining to the cloud that is Trump, it is that it has created a wave of activism in this country," Fiero said. "I think where the women’s movement is concerned, Trump has in a perverse way had a strong positive influence by making women more willing to stand up and speak out, and I think the ‘me too’ movement has come directly from Trump as the beginning."

‘Personal stories’

Fiero lives in Oatmeal, population 20 or so, in Burnet County. She has a background in public relations and in marriage and family therapy.

"Personally, I could say ‘me too’ a half-dozen times over," Fiero said. "I think most women in this country, if they were willing or able to speak up, would acknowledge some level of abuse, or whatever, there are all kinds of words to use."

"What hurts me are all the women who are in positions who can’t speak up, who work in jobs that are not high-profile enough to be listened to, whether it’s a waitress or a sales clerk," Fiero said. "Their jobs are no less important, but their power differential is greater. They don’t have a voice yet, and I hope they find one."

Andrea Hughes, 36, who does tarot readings at Elysium in Austin, is the principal organizer of this year’s event, though March On! Texas, the group created in the aftermath of last year’s women’s march, provided some logistical help and money.

"The reason I’m here doing this is because I’m a survivor," said Hughes, who grew up in Temple. "I’m a serial survivor — domestic violence, rape, date rape, if I start listing it off it sounds like a bad episode of ‘Oprah.’"

Hughes found her voice amid state Sen. Wendy Davis’s 2013 abortion filibuster.

"I walked into the Capitol in 2013 at the start of the summer of the ‘unruly mob,’ and I wasn’t really anybody and didn’t really have any direction and I wasn’t really a part of anything, and, by the end of that month, I had all these friends and all these connections and all of a sudden I had a community of activists around me that were interested in what I had to say and what I was doing," Hughes said.

At Saturday’s abortion rights rally, Hughes said, "We focus on personal stories rather than featuring organizations. I feel most feminist events tend to focus on the president of this org or the president of that org or the senator, and the problem with that is you tend to end up with very white, very privileged, very economically upper-class group of people."

The rally marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — the U.S. Supreme Court case out of Texas that established a right to abortion.

Wagstaff didn’t attend last year in part because she wasn’t sure how inclusive it would be. This year, Hughes invited her to speak about Native American reproductive issues.

And of Trump?

"You have to resist the kind of demagoguery that put him into this office in the first place, and I really hate to give him any credit for motivation," Wagstaff said, "But there is a backlash of women running for office because of his vile, sexist and misogynistic behavior and it’s amazing to me, just seeing all the women candidates, especially here in Williamson County, that have gotten so fired up saying, ‘No more of this, we’re going to take over. Now, it’s our time.’"

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