How the Women's March left a lasting impact on these suburban activists

The Women's March movement ignited a fire in Mary O'Connor when she joined millions of women the past two years participating in demonstrations across the globe.

Within months of the inaugural Chicago rally in January 2017, the St. Charles business owner formed We Can Lead Change-Fox Valley, a local group aimed at protecting democracy. After last year's march, the grass-roots organization grew in size and scope, held educational forums and focused on getting more women into elected office.

Women's March Chicago is not putting on a third annual event this year after organizers held a "March to the Polls" in October, and other sister marches across the country have been canceled as accusations of anti-Semitic ties embroil national leaders.

But O'Connor and other activists felt compelled to give suburban residents a chance to collectively celebrate a year of historical firsts for women. They will stage the Fox Valley Women's March Saturday, Jan. 19, in downtown Geneva and expect to draw at least 1,000 people from throughout the area.

The rally will coincide with hundreds of other anniversary demonstrations, including a handful in Illinois.

"I'm optimistic that what we did worked and that we must continue to be relentless," O'Connor said. "We've engaged so many people now. It's not just about women. It's about all the issues."

Suburban women say they, too, remain energized by the Women's March, likely the biggest single-day protest in U.S. history, despite the recent controversy. Some were motivated to run for office - and won. Others worked on campaigns during the midterm election, volunteered for progressive causes and witnessed a steady rise in political involvement in their communities.

"I think as a nation, we've moved miles in the last year," O'Connor said. "Everybody needs to continue to stay involved. There's no activity that's too small."

The Daily Herald revisited women who marched over the past two years to ask about the movement's impact. Here's what they had to say.

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After marching on Washington, Joanna Spathis co-wrote a book to inspire teens to become social activists. She's now written a second edition that will be published by Red Wheel/Weiser in the fall. "This is about civic activism, about getting involved and being engaged in what's happening," she said. Courtesy of Joanna Spathis

Joanna Spathis, author and Democratic precinct committeewoman from Elmhurst

Since the march: A former children's book editor, Spathis and former teacher Kerri Kennedy co-wrote a youth activism guide published in 2017. In the fall, a second edition, "Wake, Rise, Resist: A Field Guide to Citizen Activism," will be published for a broader audience.

The book will offer more than 125 "concrete actions" for building empathy, inviting new perspectives and avoiding complacency, even if you're not politically minded, Spathis said.

She also now volunteers as a hotline counselor for DuPage County's only domestic violence shelter. "I felt like I really needed to do some feet-on-the-ground, tangible work every week."

This year: "This is less and less about one president and more about creating civic engagement and a civil society that will work better for all of us. I think we're starting to understand that. We are no longer reacting. We are effecting change."

She sees less need to march as a "symbolic gesture." "We're doing more nitty-gritty work and maybe save the march for the impromptu moments of anger and needing to make sure everyone is aware we're paying attention. But there are elections to win and people to mobilize and things to do in the meantime."

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Corinne Pierog, founder of Kane County Democratic Women, and her husband, Robert Krawczyk, attended the 2018 Women's March in Chicago. Courtesy of Corinne Pierog

Corinne Pierog, founder of Kane County Democratic Women

Since the march: Kane County Democratic Women has grown from 11 members to more than 70. It has held educational forums on topics such as gun violence, legalization of recreational marijuana and health care. It also advocated for candidates for all levels of government in the midterm election.

"There's this growth of ... democratic engagement in Kane County that has not been seen for a long time," she said.

This year: Many women have decided to run in the April election for city council, school board, community college trustee, library board or another local office. "They feel engaged and empowered," Pierog said.

Pierog's organization plans to participate in the Fox Valley Women's March. The movement, she said, has given women and advocates a space to support one another and challenge their legislators. "Collectively, that voice becomes powerful. To me, the whole outcome of the Women's March is that collectively now we are being heard."

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"Without the Women's March, I wouldn't have been a candidate," says state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, who was sworn in last week to the Illinois House. "I simply would not have had the tools or the people to encourage me and to make me think it could be possible." Courtesy of Anne Stava-Murray

Anne Stava-Murray, new state representative from Naperville

Since the march: As a first-time candidate, Stava-Murray won an upset victory in the state's 81st House District. At the start of the year, the former senior market research manager announced she's running for the Senate seat held by Democrat Dick Durbin.

"Without the Women's March, I wouldn't have been a candidate. I simply would not have had the tools or the people to encourage me and to make me think it could be possible," she said.

The march spurred her to contact her representative, and she didn't agree with the positions she heard. She co-founded a Naperville Women's March Action group, gaining skills as a community organizer. U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood ultimately swayed her to run.

"It was about going from 15 women in my living room and two men ... to having a campaign with over 100 volunteers and raising $30,000, and spending my time in a way and my energy in a way that now I'm an elected official representing my district," Stava-Murray, 32, said.

During the campaign, Stava-Murray had a support network of other women candidates and tapped into an energy beyond her direct community.

"It was this moment of connection and of empowerment," she said of the march. "But not empowerment in the sense of power over others, but the ability to empower myself and others together, and to truly put the needs of people first."

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Kelli Wegener of Crystal Lake was sworn in last month as a McHenry County Board member. She decided to run for office after participating in the 2017 Women's March. Courtesy of Kelli Wegener

Kelli Wegener, McHenry County Board member

Since the march: Wegener won election to a McHenry County Board seat, making her one of three new Democrats on a largely Republican board. "Women have unique perspectives. We go through different experiences, so we offer a different viewpoint on many issues," she said.

This year: Wegener will speak at the Woodstock Women's March and recognizes its influence on her own political involvement. "I think the enthusiasm of people wanting to promote change and to be heard really spurred me to do this."

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Wyn Cain, a past president and current board member of the League of Women Voters of Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Area, marched in Chicago to promote voter registration. Daily Herald file photo

Wyn Cain, League of Women Voters of Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Area board member

Since the march: "There's been a blue wave in Lake County," Cain said. Many members of her League chapter now are seeking political office.

This year: Cain's experience was beyond what she could have imagined when she participated in Chicago's "March to the Polls" in October to promote voter registration. She met League members from other chapters and witnessed a diverse group of men and women coming together to support the group's mission. "It's thrilling. It gives you a sense of purpose."

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