Stepping Up: Marin Women Use Art Forms and Platforms to Increase Political Participation

When filmmaker Emily Abt was growing up on the East Coast her mother ran for a local political office, twice, and both times she lost her race. But when Abt asked her mother if she was sad that she was not elected, her mother never expressed any regret. “The message was to go for your biggest dreams,” says Abt, who is currently making a feature film about a young working mother who runs for office. “My mother’s message was also don’t be afraid to fail.” 

This is the message Abt hopes will resonate with the women across the nation.

Her film, entitled Thirsty, is in the final phases of fundraising and pre-production. The script, written by Abt, tells the story of Audrey, a middle class working mother with young children who decides to run for political office. “Audrey, the main character, is imperfect, the timing for her to run is imperfect and she does not have perfect support at home. But she is gutsy enough and determined enough to run anyway,” says Abt. “I want to inspire women to jump in and go for it, even if they don’t think they have a shot.”

Abt, who was a social worker before becoming a filmmaker, has directed both feature films and documentaries focusing on social justice issues. “I’ve learned that when it comes to social issue filmmaking, dramatic, sexy, character-driven stories are what reach audiences,” she says. “Otherwise, you are just preaching to the choir.” In Thirsty, Abt depicts a woman who does not have support from her husband, and she decides to run anyway. “They say the thickest glass ceiling is often at home,” says Abt. “I want women to see this film and think, well, if Audrey can do it, why can’t I?”

Emily Abt Marin Officials
The Level Up Marin event. Pictured from left to right: Sally Wilkinson, Cristine DeBerry, Afsaneh Zolfaghari, Terrie Harris-Green, Shelby Pasarell Tsai, Magali Limeta, Sally Newson, Sara Aminzadeh, Janelle Kellman, Gina Daly, Lucia Martel Dow, Angela Andrews

In early September, Abt joined ten Marin County based female candidates and elected officials — women not unlike Audrey, the protagonist in her film — at an event hosted by Belvedere resident Sally Nunn Newson. The speakers included Sara Aminzadeh, candidate for Assembly District 12, Cristine Soto Deberry, who is running for re-election for Southern Marin Fire District Director, Gina Daly, Trustee for San Rafael City Schools Board of Education, Lucia Martel Dow, candidate San Rafael City Schools Board of Education, Trustee Area 2, Terrie Harris-Green, running for Board of the Marin City Community Services District, Janelle Kellman, Mayor of Sausalito, Magali Limeta, running for Novato School Board Trustee Elect, Shelby Pasarell Tsai, Governing Member candidate, Reed Union School District, Sally Wilkinson, Mayor of Belvedere, and Afsaneh Zolfaghari, Board Trustee, Reed Unified School District. Newson, the host and founder of an initiative called Level Up Marin, says her mission is to “level up” women’s representation in politics by bringing together female candidates, offering them exposure to voters, fundraising opportunities and mentorship by other women who have won races and are holding elected positions.

“Women are 50% of the population, but only represent 28% of Congress and 31% of elected positions statewide. Women are persistently underrepresented in politics, and I want to shake that up,” says Newson. “I have been asking, how do we get women inspired to run for office? I held this first Level Up Marin event to get people involved before the November election, to give the community an opportunity to learn about both our local candidates and about the film Thirsty. I believe film may be the best way to get the message that we need to run for political office and support women who run for office across.” 

While Newson has launched Level Up Marin locally, national nonprofit organizations such as Emerge, which trains and recruits women who want to run for office, and Galvanize, which encourages women across the country to become politically engaged, have expanded their reach over the past six years. Many women who took offense at the language and perceived misogyny of former president Donald Trump caught on mic in a leaked 2005 video refer to themselves as part of “The Class of 2016,” meaning, that is the year they became politically active. Kathy Dennison began hosting political fundraisers at her home in Corte Madera that year and has now hosted or co-hosted over twenty events. She describes the “Book Club” trend that several female congressional candidates from across the country have described.“According to candidates I have hosted, many women, especially older women in very traditional marriages, want to support political campaigns, but believe their husbands won’t approve. So they tell their husbands they are joining a ‘book club,’ and once a week they head off in the evening to phone bank or write postcards for the candidate they support,” says Dennison. “What we’ve heard from candidates is that there is a national sense of women discovering their political power.”

Recently Dennison hosted Dr. Kim Schrier, a U.S. Representative from Washington State who was a practicing pediatrician with a young child when she received a life-changing call from her best friend. “Dr. Schrier’s best friend called her in 2016, knowing Dr. Schrier was considering running for office and would make an excellent candidate,” Dennison recounts. “The friend said, ‘If not you, then who? And If not now, when?’ and that was when Dr. Schrier put her hat in the ring. She won a seat in 2018 and is currently the only pro-choice doctor in Congress.” 

Last June, when the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturned Roe v. Wade, voting registration records show that women became further engaged. According to nonpartisan voter registration data published by the New York Times: The Upshot, the number of women registering to vote in ten states (states that provide voter registration data) went up collectively by 35% in the month following the Supreme Court decision. In Kansas, more than 70% of newly registered voters were women in the week after the Dobbs decision, and this surge is widely associated with the August defeat of a referendum that would have ended abortion rights in the state. “We still don’t have gender parity in politics,” says filmmaker Abt, “but women seem to understand that the time when men are making decisions about these very primal issues that affect women just has to end.”

Sausalito, art consultant and Upstart Modern gallery owner Bettina Stiewe says she considered how she might use her exhibition space to become part of the political moment for several years. Then she joined a local group called Activate22, founded by Kentfield resident Robin Sternberg.“ Activate22 is focused on getting people to vote,” says Stiewe. “In 2020 we sent out something like 50,000 postcards encouraging people to vote.” Stiewe began to envision an Upstart Modern show centered “around feminine voices being heard and seen,” and when Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, it made the exhibit all the more timely. Resilience: A Visual Proclamation ran from September 14 to October 21, 2022, and featured the work of 30 female artists with, in Stiewe’s words, activated voices. The proceeds from the show went to the Center for Reproductive Rights, Rock the Vote organization, and Representative Josh Harder, an incumbent running in the Central Valley’s 10th congressional district (at the discretion of the buyer.) Stiewe, like other local women taking political action, has found that using her platform to elevate women’s voices helps her cope with the sense of urgency she feels leading up to the November midterms. “It feels good to be able to do something,” says Stiewe. “I am very concerned about where we are in our democracy. I believe what happens next in our country will be up to female voters, across the board.”

Kirsten Jones Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.