#GrabThemByTheBallot viral photo campaign sparks conversation

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) "Where there are extremes, you really do have to come out with a really powerful message," Gina Higgins said.

Higgins is one of 10 Vermont women who posed naked in a photo campaign that went viral. The movement has gotten support and backlash from around the world. The group called the campaign #GrabThemByTheBallot and it got a lot of attention during the November election. Now, it is trying to shift momentum.

It's now officially a nonprofit and leaders are recruiting some big names to rally their cause. They say even for the people who disagree with their methods, the message is part of a bigger conversation.

A flash of inspiration and snapshots in a small Burlington yoga studio.

"Standing full-frontal representing all kinds of women and that's democracy," Dawn Robertson said.

It was the beginning of a rollercoaster journey for Robertson, a Harvard Law grad. Her photo campaign called #GrabThemByTheBallot-- a direct line lifted from Donald Trump before he was president.

"You can grab them by the p****," Trump famously was caught on tape saying.

"And when he made that statement, I was pretty profoundly impacted by that," Gina Higgins said.

It pushed Higgins to put everything on the line for all to see.

"I felt obligated because we are in a very controversial time," Higgins said.

The UVM Medical Center nurse and mom to six joined Robertson and eight other women posing nude, covered by ballots and props, to challenge ideas about women and their bodies.

"It's this kind of over-sexualization, this kind of OK-ness approaching a woman in a sexual way when that's not being solicited," Higgins said.

The campaign partially inspired by the #MeToo movement about more than rallying votes.

"Having our physical appearance essentially be a huge part of how we're perceived and what our value is," Higgins said.

And just before the election, a crash course through a national media firestorm.

"I'll never forget sitting there, and my laptop just exploded," Robertson said.

From Fox News to Breitbart to the Daily Mail UK to conservative bloggers around the world, judgment was swift.

"This illuminated exactly what this campaign is about," Higgins said. "Hateful commentary basically about physical appearance."

"They ended up really exposing the underbelly of America and the naked truth, the irony of it," Robertson said.

Reporter Galen Ettlin: You're uniquely qualified to look at the issues of gender. What are some of the misconceptions you saw exposed through this campaign?
Christine Hallquist: I think the issue here is around taking gender out of the equation... The idea that beauty and attractiveness has anything to do with what we bring into the office or the political issues.

It's an area that resonates with Hallquist who made history as the first openly transgender major party nominee for governor. During her campaign, the comments and hate kept coming.

"You're ugly as a dog; you're no woman," Hallquist recited.

She says although she can laugh it off now, she has seen this treatment deter other women from seeking higher office or speaking up on the issues. So now, she's joining the new nonprofit's board, lending voice to future campaigns and helping others achieve what took her a life's journey to find.

"Seizing who we are," she said.

"It empowers women to see other women do that," Robertson said.

Robertson hopes the journey is just beginning. From here, she hopes to use her nonprofit and viral platform to boost the visibility of women in politics, support for sexual assault survivors, advocacy for women's reproductive rights and much more.

"Put clothes on those cows," Robertson read.

And despite social media backlash, these women have even stronger resolve to reach outside the frames they're kept in.

"I hope that as a culture, as a country we can move into a deeper way of interacting," Higgins said.

"Now it's about healing, it's about moving on and healing and finding tools to heal," Robertson said. "And I do believe that education and mobilization and voting is a tool."

Shining a light on hate and bias not always visible to the naked eye.

We were interested in movements like this one throughout history and how they resonate with people, both negatively and positively. Friday on the Channel 3 News at 5:30 p.m., Galen will speak with UVM Professor Ellen Andersen, who specializes in politics and civil rights, about these messages and their impacts.