A women's movement grows in 'the most Trumpian place in America'

By Elizabeth Flock

Photography by Abbey Oldham

The women gathered hesitantly in front of the county courthouse, many of them holding signs. At first there were a few, then a few more, and then more than 70. It was early February, and they had come to protest President Donald Trump’s travel ban. At first, as they marched down Main Street, they got thumbs up and honks of support. But it wasn’t long before the counter-protesters arrived, men holding signs that said “Make America Great Again,” “Trump” and “These People are Stupid!”

Soon, a parade of pickup trucks followed, led by a truck full of fraternity brothers from the nearby college in Buckhannon, a small town in north central West Virginia. As men whooped and hollered, and did a “burn out” -- spinning their wheels while stationary, until their treads burned and smoked on the asphalt -- the women were doused in a giant cloud of black smoke. Some were hit with pebbles and debris. When another truck dropped firecrackers, the women, some with children, tried not to run or scream.

Among them was Lisa Hollen, a soft-spoken speech pathologist, who had changed jobs after the 2016 election because of how pro-Trump the school she worked at had become. To her, Trump had always been a wealthy, “larger-than-life loser,” a man who made womanizing comments on the Howard Stern Show and acted like a bully on reality TV, even long before he was a political candidate. After he was elected, the principal at Hollen’s school told the teachers not to talk about Trump’s victory, which Hollen thought was not very good advice. Not after the scene at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School on the day after the election, when kids in the hallways chanted “Build a wall!” And not after one of her seventh grade students said that “people who voted for Hillary Clinton should be taken out in the yard and shot.”

To Hollen, addressing Trump’s win was not about being a “cry-baby liberal.” But she knew most of Buckhannon saw it differently.

Lisa Hollen sits in her studio at Beech Tree Yoga in Buckhannon, West Virginia on April 20, 2017.

Buckhannon, population 5,639, is a deeply conservative town, and long has been. While coal is its past, oil and gas are its likely future. It’s a town where guns are sold at yard sales, where Pentecostal churches are nearly as common as restaurants, and where distrust of Hillary Clinton is visceral and deep-seated. Even back when the state was a Democratic stronghold, Upshur County, where Buckhannon is located, stubbornly voted red. Last November, it went more than 75 percent for Trump; the town’s mayor calls it “the most Trumpian place in America.”

When you ask men in Buckhannon why they voted for Trump, there are common refrains. That he’s going to bring back jobs. That what he says makes sense. And that Barack Obama ruined the country with his health care and his social issues. A teen radio host from Buckhannon once made national headlines for saying on his YouTube channel that Obama was “making kids gay”.

Trump may not be perfect, said Jon Harkness, a baby-faced Theta Chi fraternity brother who was in the first truck that spewed smoke at the march. But there isn’t a “snowball’s chance in hell” he would have voted for Hillary, because she was a “pathological liar” who left men to die in Benghazi.

Harkness said he and the other frat brothers had been hanging out at the house when they saw talk on social media of a planned anti-Trump protest downtown. “And us being the redneck, right-wing people that we are, we decided to go raise some hell,” he said.

Trucks spin their wheels and drop firecrackers, staging a counter-protest, during a march against the travel ban in downtown Buckhannon, West Virginia on February 4, 2017. Courtesy of Heather Kessler

Like many of the protesters, Hollen was upset by the smoke and the trucks. In addition to speech pathology, she was also a yoga instructor, and tried to live as peaceful a life as she could. But she was encouraged by the number of women -- and some men -- who showed up to march. It felt to her like a local movement was building, and had been ever since an impromptu “March for Lateral Love” that took place in Buckhannon just days after the election.

As Hollen saw it, there were also signs a national women’s movement was building. In the months since Trump’s victory, an unprecedented 11,000 women were considering running for office, while 86 percent of phone calls to protest Trump through one liberal organizing group were made by women. In January, the National Women’s March drew millions of women around the world, including a handful from Buckhannon. These women, and those who attended the local marches -- many of them strangers to one another before the election -- had since begun to meet regularly to talk about how to resist Trump’s agenda.

The list was long: educate themselves on the issues, lobby their representatives, write op-eds to counteract negative conservative coverage. And keep taking to the streets to protest, even if most of the town -- especially men in the town, even some of their husbands or neighbors -- didn’t like what they had to say.

“At first we all felt like we were little creatures crawling out from under rocks, just reaching out to each other,” said Hollen. “Then we found a few, and a few more.”

On a recent Thursday night, a dozen women, along with a couple of men, gather at a local coffee shop in town for their third official “huddle.” The huddles, a creation of the national Women’s March organizers, were designed to keep the protest momentum going at the local level. In Buckhannon, the huddle is just one of several groups the women have going.

Today, in the coffee shop, Edwina Howard-Jack, a longtime English teacher who has organized much of the area’s activism, comes in wearing a button that says, “Keep your tiny hands off my constitution.” As the meeting gets underway, she and the other women talk about why they’re here. For health care. The environment. Feminism. The future. Howard-Jack is here for language and education. At night, she has dreams she is teaching Orwell’s “1984” again, giving her class a lecture on totalitarianism.

They also talk about how hard this is, how their husbands got upset with them for appearing on the front page, how their neighbors hate their guts, and how the member of a local Republican party group posted on Facebook that women who participated in the Women’s March had “given over their dignity.”

But the women say these reactions only spur them on. “I don’t think this election angered women, it angered ‘woman’ as a collective,” says Howard-Jack, who hasn’t forgotten Trump’s boasts, caught on a 2005 recording, about grabbing women “by the pussy.”  “And ‘woman’ is saying we are here, and we are a force to be recognized.” The women murmur in agreement.

Women gather for a "huddle" to discuss resisting Trump's policies at Dough Re Mi coffee shop in Buckhannon, West Virginia on April 20, 2017.

It was on the “A Day Without a Woman” protests in March that Howard-Jack, who has a warm smile but the no-nonsense manner of a teacher, decided to start a local chapter of Indivisible, one of the main groups on the left leading the charge against Trump. Among other things, she has organized what was billed as a Buckhannon town hall with West Virginia’s Republican senator, which drew more than 100 people, though not the senator. Howard-Jack held the town hall anyway.

In the coffee shop, the women also talk about how this activism has been a long time coming. One woman, whose husband marched in protest after returning from Vietnam, while she was busy raising kids and working, says she told him: “It’s my time now.”

An older woman speaks up next, her voice trembling a little. “I was sitting here earlier thinking, I never really had a voice before.” She begins to cry, and another woman comes over and takes her hand. “I was raised to be seen and not heard. Then I got married right out of high school and it was the same thing. And I was abused for 14 years. [You all] gave me a voice again.” The woman touches her chest. She is still crying. “So sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” Hollen says.

“It’s like we were all sleeping,” says Howard-Jack. “Now I think we’re awake.”

At first we all felt like we were little creatures crawling out from under rocks, just reaching out to each other.

—Lisa Hollen, speech pathologist and activist in Buckhannon, West Virginia

Buckhannon, like many places in America, has two worlds. There’s the quaint downtown, where you can drink an expensive latte, buy a piece of art, and tear away a flyer for a vinyasa yoga class. There are the big farm homes on sprawling plots of land, where the better-off and some of the women live.

But there are also crumbling trailer parks, regular meth busts, and persistent questions about where all the old jobs have gone. Buckhannon’s good jobs, historically, were coal jobs; today, there are no longer any operational mines in the town. This is widely blamed on President Obama, and tougher EPA regulations. At the A&O Railroad offices downtown, men still call to ask when the coal trains will pick back up.

A scene from South Kanawha Street, just off Main Street, in Buckhannon, West Virginia on April 20, 2017.

“Things are pretty dire here,” said the town’s Republican mayor, David McCauley, who has messy white hair and a grandfatherly demeanor. Trump, he argued, brought hope to Buckhannon for people who said, “‘We can’t take it anymore.’”

And recently, more hope arrived with the announcement of a 600-mile natural gas pipeline -- 23 miles of which would cut through Upshur County. The company behind the pipeline has promised it would bring 3,100 jobs to the state, and $2 million in tax revenue to the county. But as with other pipelines around the country, the project has faced opposition from local environmentalists -- chiefly April Pierson-Keating, a thin, fierce woman with a shock of red hair, who has been at nearly all the women’s marches.

Keating, who has stage IV metastatic cancer, which she thinks came from growing up near power plants in Charleston, West Virginia, wants the town to understand the pipeline’s environmental dangers. But in Buckhannon, where nearly 30 percent of people live below the poverty line, jobs are desperately needed, and it’s been a losing battle.

Trump brought hope to Buckhannon for people who said "We can't take it anymore."

To her, the battle became a kind of war when Trump appointed an EPA chief who rejects climate change science, and then signed an executive order that rolled back environmental regulations. When she thinks about all of it -- her cancer, the pipeline, what Trump’s policies could do to the environment -- she sometimes holds her head in her hands and groans. But Keating, who grew up the daughter of a single mother and rock & roll musician who taught her “a woman can do anything,” is also not easily dissuaded.

And while in some ways the election made things worse for Keating, it also made life a little easier, because she is no longer fighting almost all alone. Instead, there is now a small army of women protesting beside her. Women whose first priority, unlike the rest of the town, is not jobs, but social justice and a sustainable future.

Not long after the women’s huddle at the coffee shop, Keating is invited by the local high school to give a talk about her activism and the pipeline. She is excited, because it’s a chance to reach a younger audience, and because the pipeline goes right by the high school, which she sees as extremely unsafe. She shows up wearing a “Defend Our Water” button pinned to her black suit jacket, expecting a friendly welcome.

A sign at a sporting goods store in Buckhannon, West Virginia on April 22, 2017.

But Buckhannon-Upshur High School is as conservative as the town, and this does not happen. During the election, an AP government class survey found that 68 percent of the student body supported Trump; when Trump won, many kids came to school wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and T-shirts. One of the women who attends the huddles says her kids have been harassed at the high school for their “crazy liberal” mom; several parents say that teachers promote Trump in class.

This is the school Keating walks into, and so instead of the warm welcome she hoped for, Keating is greeted by an openly hostile environmental science teacher, who challenges her on every point. From his point of view, Keating is a left-wing environmentalist who doesn’t have her facts straight. Keating sticks it out to the end of the presentation, but by the time she meets an environmentalist friend for lunch afterwards she is sobbing.

In the afternoon, she is supposed to go back for a second class, but is not sure she can stomach it. Finally, she decides to return with the male colleague she had lunch with. “You’re a man,” she tells him dryly, “they’ll listen to you.”

As Keating begins her presentation a second time, though, the teacher and class are just as combative. Some of the students have parents who work in oil and gas, or plan to get jobs on the pipeline after graduation. You said we’re doing facts? A junior in an oversized sweatshirt asks. Or are we doing opinion?

“We did some research on pros and cons, so they’ve been prepped,” the teacher, Ed Koba, tells Keating.

The classroom walls are covered with posters with different messages: one warns of the loss of endangered animals, while another praises the sport of hunting. Some caution against littering, while another exalts coal mining.

Keating nods, and takes a breath. Her breast cancer has spread to her spine by now, which she does not mention, though she tells the high schoolers that fracking has been linked to cancer. The students are skeptical. (While some of the chemicals used in fracking are carcinogenic, there is no scientific consensus that fracking causes cancer.) A girl with purple hair and a lip ring raises her hand. If the environmental risks are so bad, she asks, where are we supposed to get jobs?

April Pierson-Keating (left) stands near Buckhannon-Upshur High School on April 21, 2017. Edwina Howard-Jack (right) sits in front of the county courthouse on April 21, 2017.

Keating says that coal, oil and gas jobs aren’t the only ones out there. She mentions solar, but acknowledges that the industry still needs to grow.

“I think she’s more concerned about right here, right now,” Koba says.

Toward the end of Keating’s presentation, she sits down at a desk, and her male colleague takes over. As he speaks, some of the kids begin to express concern about the pipeline, and by the end, after the presentation is over, even Koba comes around a little.

“Here, what I want is for my kids to learn all the sides,” Koba says. “But yeah, coal wasn’t the best decision years ago. Now we have acid rain.”

It’s not much, but it’s something: a slight shift in thinking, an admission that Keating might have a point. It’s precisely the kind of moment that the women are fighting for. “This is going to take a sustained effort. It’s going to be draining. So we have to pace ourselves,” Keating says. “We have to have our principles in mind, don’t look back, and just keep going.”

On a Saturday in late April, on the day of national March for Science in Washington, it pours freezing rain in Buckhannon. The women hold their own science march anyway, standing with signs in front of the county courthouse, where they marched against Trump’s travel ban.

The women are feeling optimistic, thinking about how maybe Trump can’t last forever, not with the vulnerabilities he has -- though it will be weeks before Trump fires FBI director James Comey, pushing the White House toward crisis. Hollen, the speech pathologist, comes to the march with her husband and young son, who holds his own protest poster. She has just learned that she’s getting a column in the town paper, where she’ll be the liberal counterpoint to a conservative writer, who happens to be the teen radio host. For her first column, Hollen will examine her local representatives’ voting records, to see if they’ve backed Trump’s agenda.

Keating is there, too, holding a sign that says, “Science Saved My Life.” In the coming weeks, her environmental organization will get a much-needed grant, which she’ll use to notify people that they’re in the pipeline’s “blast radius,” and to get the local water tested. At the high school, the principal will tell her he is sorry if she felt attacked by the science teacher, that it is not what the high school is about.

Standing beside Keating is Howard-Jack, in a poncho and a pink “pussy hat,” who organized the day’s science activities for kids. In the weeks that follow, Howard-Jack will ramp up the Indivisible protests, plan more town halls, and even go to Charleston for an activist training program, where she will discover that the movement is larger than she thought.

A March for Science is held in downtown Buckhannon, West Virginia on April 22, 2017.

The women also feel optimistic because they have begun to see encouraging signs across the state. Earlier that month, the West Virginia House voted to legalize medical marijuana, and Paula Swearingen, who they view as a true progressive, will soon announce that she’ll challenge Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat. They’ve begun to notice promising changes locally, too, such as rising concerns in the community about the fate of food stamps or health care in the Trump budget.

Elsewhere in the town, though, the women know attitudes are different. At the train depot, the trainmasters say the women need to get a job. The young radio host, whose broadcasts now reach Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, says that the women’s protests are “misandry” -- ingrained hatred and prejudice against men.

And at a Theta Chi meeting, the frat brothers hold a prayer thanking Trump for dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. They are bothered that the university asks students to donate to the needy on Martin Luther King Day, but not on Veterans Day. And they dismiss the women’s protests as a “temper tantrum” over Clinton’s defeat.

“You can’t really protest a loss,” Harkness says. “Just grow up.”

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