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Fearless Politics: Speak your mind even if your voice shakes

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One of the bigger untold stories in Ohio this year is what is happening with so many progressive women, right here in the Midwest.

They're done waiting for the invitation. They are no longer standing in the shadows, being good sports about their anonymity while secretly stewing that no one has recognized them for the leaders they are meant to be. Instead, armed with checkbooks funded by the force of their own labor and address books full of the evidence of friendships, they are throwing their own party, for the party, and they are helping to change the political landscape of this bellwether state.
I meet these women, day after day, week after week, as the heat rises in this year's race in Ohio for the U.S. Senate. My husband, Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown, is taking on the Republican incumbent, Mike DeWine. Sherrod is ahead in all recent polls, despite early and ugly television ads by his opponent. Sherrod's race, and that of his friend and fellow Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland who is running for governor, are two of the most high-profile in the country. Once again, all eyes turn to Ohio. And more often than any other time in Ohio's history, they are meeting the gaze of women.

There is a movement afoot among tens of thousands of women in this state who are insisting that, this time, they will not only be heard, but heeded. From Ashtabula to Adams, from Miami to Meigs, and every county in between, women are forming their own groups to force their way through the door of old party politics.

Women are gathering in the most affluent suburban living rooms and in the humblest of meeting halls on country roads. They're holding meet-ups in church basements and outside booths at county fairs, in brand-new chain restaurants and in local diners that have been the heart of main street for twenty years. They're organizing phone banks and parades, canvassing and fundraising. Many of them are doing this for the first time in their lives.

What surprises a lot of people when I talk about these women is that a good number of them don't live in what we call Ohio's three C's: Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Instead, they are like most women in the rest of the country, building lives and legacies in towns and villages somewhere else. And they're sick of the handy stereotypes that make it too easy to dismiss them as simple and uninformed. They've watched the policies of these current administrations -- in Washington and in Columbus -- ravage their families and their futures. They cast wide nets of concern, too, caring deeply about their neighbors as well as people they've never met. Their public schools are failing, their healthcare is disintegrating, and jobs that used to support a family and its dreams are evaporating, replaced by jobs that don't pay a living wage.
And the old way of political activism just doesn't cut it for these women.

"We got tired of being asked to make the coffee and do Xeroxing," one woman in her early 60s told me in a small town in central Ohio. "So, we decided to form our own group. Now we're raising more money for the Democratic Party than the men."

Another woman, probably in her late 50s, nodded her head. "A lot of us got involved for the first time in 2004, and after that we wanted to still socialize and not have it involve baking cookies."

Such groups have sprung up all over the state. These are not the women choosing to run for office. They are, however, refusing to run and hide. If women learned anything in 2004, it's that they must insist on helping to frame the debate, and so women who never thought they'd be able to endure the glare of public scrutiny are making speeches, throwing fundraisers, and writing letters to the editors.

A lot of them are mighty nervous -- at least at first. They remind me of what I always told my children when they were scared: Act brave even if you're not, and the courage will come. Turns out it works at any age.

So often, a woman will approach me before I give a talk and tell me she could never get up in front of all those people. Whenever that happens, I remind her of what Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn said: Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.

If you've never heard Kuhn's words before, you might have the same response I had the first time I heard it. It hits you, doesn't it? Right there. Suddenly, you have permission not to be perfect or polished or even particularly brave. It's not who hears you that matters. It's the speaking up that'll save you every time.

And here's the thing about that shaky voice. People will listen anyway. I see it time and time again as I travel the state and meet women who just can't be silent any longer. One woman in particular has wedged her way into my memory. She is a middle-aged mother whose son recently returned safely from Iraq. But he came home to a different mother. It isn't enough that her son survived. She wants all the troops to come home. And so she wears a T-shirt that identifies her as the mother of an Iraq War veteran, and she shows up at event after event, forcing herself to talk to rooms full of people she knows won't all agree with her.

"My voice is not real strong, and it usually shakes," she said softly as she grabbed my hand before speaking. "But sometimes. Sometimes, I think if I don't speak out? Well, I'm afraid I will lose my mind."

A few minutes later, she took the stage. Her voice shook that night, just as she feared, and she stumbled over her words a few times as she shifted from side to side.

But for the entire time that she spoke, her soft, trembling voice was the only sound in the room.

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