In this IR file photo, Roughly 10,000 people gather in front of the Montana State Capitol for the 2016 Montana Women's March last Jan.

An estimated 10,000 people gathered in front of the Montana State Capitol for the Montana Women's March in January 2017. This year, smaller women's marches will be held in cities around the state with a goal to connect people with their local organizations. 

James Ridle, BMGphotos.com

The day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, an estimated 5 million people marched across the country and the world to protest an administration they feared would endanger their rights.

The 2017 Women’s March was likely the biggest single-day demonstration in U.S. history.

Some immediately started to question whether it was the start of a movement, or simply a one-day protest where anti-Trump progressives made signs, wore pink hats and marched before going back to their regular lives. Critics of the march largely saw it simply as a way to express bitterness over the election. 

But organizers say they’ve felt that energy ever since the 2016 election. More women are interested in running for office, volunteering with local organizations and holding elected officials accountable.

And in 2018, the Montana Women’s March is returning, with smaller marches around the state designed to transform last year’s energy into organized activism. The Helena Women's March starts at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Capitol near the the Thomas Meagher statue. The Rise Together for Democracy Rally will start at noon in the Capitol Rotunda. 

Last year, an estimated 10,000 Helena demonstrators marched in the bitter cold with signs calling for health care, reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, indigenous rights, racial equality and climate protection.

“We’ve talked a lot about moving from a moment to a movement,” Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said.

Carroll Rivas thinks part of the responsibility of creating a movement relies on organizations like the Montana Human Rights Network.

“You can’t make a movement without organization and structure and having those tools to bring people together to sustain that,” she said. “Folks will look for those moments to shout from the rooftops and we have to make sure we fill in the space between.”

And Carroll Rivas said she thinks organizations are doing a good job of connecting people. More people are volunteering their time and making donations, and Carroll Rivas said more people are reporting incidents of hate, which means they know they have a place to go.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana is also seeing an increase in support over the last year. Caitlin Borgmann, executive director, said state membership has more than tripled since the 2016 election.

“The Women’s March is a clear sign that people wanted to be more politically engaged after the 2016 presidential election,” she said.

Borgmann said the ACLU had to hire a new volunteer coordinator to keep up with people trying to get involved.

“It’s unprecedented that we’ve seen these levels of engagement,” she said. “I think it’s up to us as nonprofits to mobilize people.”

At this year’s Helena event, the first hour will be the Women’s March to the Capitol. That will be followed by a Rise Together for Democracy rally, where speakers will talk about opportunities to get involved and attendees will have a chance to make connections afterward.

Rebecca Johnson, one of the rally’s organizers, said more than 25 groups will participate, including the ACLU, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Pride Foundation, Moms Demand Action and the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault.

“When people come, they’ll hear a lot of ways to get involved and not wait,” Johnson said.

There will also be people helping attendees register to vote, which mirrors a national effort to get more women involved in politics, whether it’s running for office or voting.

Since the Women’s March, more women are interested in running for office. EMILY’s List, a national organization helping to elect women who support abortion rights, said 26,000 women have expressed interest in running for office, while only 960 women reached out to the organization in the previous cycle.

The Montana Democratic Party is also using the energy of the Women’s March to mobilize people.

Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said the party always recruits for the most qualified candidate, but said it’s been a priority to better reflect the demographics of Montana by electing more women. Women already hold more than half the party’s seats in the state Legislature. Of 80 candidates who have filed for 2018 elections so far, 40 are women.

“We look for the best candidate first but we are seeing more and more women saying 'I’m willing to do this now,'” she said.

Keenan said the party has seen more involvement at all levels since the Women’s March, but said it’s difficult to pinpoint what encouraged it. Keenan said while people have mentioned concerns with Trump, they also have asked how to hold Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte accountable.

“Those groups have been very active in calling for public face-to-face meetings on budgets cuts and this tax proposal,” she said. “There is not only this activism around involvement and maybe running, but there is this accountability piece.”

Keenan said some people also feel threatened by attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, ending the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and a monument review that could restrict access to public lands.

With more engaged central committees, Keenan said the party is working on recruiting candidates through a program called Blue Bench. Candidates with potential are recruited to start out in a local seat on the school board or as a city council member and work their way up to the Legislature. Eventually the party will have a long list of experienced candidates to run for statewide and federal offices, Keenan said.

“We have a lot of legislators who have great experience and it’s a natural flow for legislators to run for those statewide offices. 2020 will be a great year,” she said.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, a Republican from Hamilton who works on legislative recruitment for the GOP, said the party doesn’t have a statewide effort to recruit more women. Women make up 13 percent of the Republican caucus in the Legislature.

“When we find a woman candidate ... we welcome them into the party,” Ballance said.

She said it’s more important that a candidate understands the economics of her or his district and what specific issues are most important to constituents.

Ballance said she thinks the goals and tactics of the Women’s March don’t represent most Republican women. When asked if she thought Republicans could benefit from a similar effort with conservative values, Ballance said she doesn’t think so.

“I saw some ads recently for the national Women’s March and basically I could not find a unifying issue. It basically said make your sign and wear your hat and show up and march. We don’t do things that way,” she said. “When we’re upset about things we roll up our sleeves and fix it.”

Carroll Rivas, with the Montana Human Rights Network, said criticisms that the Women's March doesn't have a single goal could be a good thing. She said the Montana Human Rights Network has been working under a broad platform for decades. 

"(People) see the intersections between issues and I think that actually makes us more powerful," she said. "There is a big picture." 

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Education / Business Reporter

Education and Business Reporter for The Independent Record.

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