How I Lead: Sharon Warner Researches, Organizes Rural Feminists

by Ash Bruxvoort

As a software developer working in Washington DC, Sharon Warner might not seem like the woman to start an organization called Rural Feminist. But that’s exactly what she did this spring after conducting approximately 50 interviews with rural women across the United States.

“After the last election I really noticed how much of a divide there was between rural counties and urban counties,” she said. “I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but since high school I’ve mostly lived in urban communities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. I really wanted to hear from women who still live in rural areas about their political motivations and why they're seemingly so different from women in urban areas.”

She asked these rural women about what political issues impact them most in their day-to-day life. She was surprised to see that regardless of who they voted for in the past election, most women she interviewed cared about six issues: free public college tuition, single payer healthcare, a robust social safety net, free public day care, paid family leave, and a universal basic income.

“The thing is that most people I know in cities care about these issues, too. I think there’s more uniting urban and rural women than we think,” Sharon says.

Find Common Issues

Throughout her interviews Sharon saw recurring themes. She says she heard many stories about women trying to go back to college with children. Since they weren’t taking full course loads scholarships and financial aid were less accessible to them. She said some women worked multiple jobs and weren’t eligible for food stamps because their income was too high, even though they really needed it. The cost of healthcare, especially for children, and cost of daycare were also two things rural women felt held them back.

The women she interviewed had a diverse array of political leanings. She said approximately 75-80 percent were mothers and maybe half had attended college. Rural Feminist’s own leadership team represents a wide set of political beliefs and backgrounds. Jennifer Parsons is passionate about single payer healthcare and helps Rural Feminist with their messaging and phrasing. Jackie Phillips is from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, part of the state’s coal region. She is passionate about revitalizing the community she grew up in and makes frequent trips back home.

Make Feminism Approachable

Sharon says their hope is to bridge the rural urban divide and make feminism more approachable.

“Living in a city, most of my neighbors and friends call themselves feminists. I can see feminists fighting for better education, affordable healthcare, and wage increases. It's easy for me to say the feminist movement stands for equality,” she says. “But living in a rural area, you get a completely different picture of it. There isn't a lot of feminist outreach in rural areas. It's easy to get a distorted image of feminism from conservative news media or other places that's not necessarily inviting.”

The group hopes to reach out to women who feel alienated by the feminist movement. On their website, Rural Feminist encourages women to contact their representatives, attend town hall meetings, research the core values of the organization, and share their beliefs. Their social media presence pushes out news updates and stories related to the core values identified through the interviews.