Women Running for Political Office Sets Records
“When something bad happens, women want to take action,” says Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, the PAC that has supported Democratic pro-choice women since 1985 and has become one of the most powerful institutions in American politics.
Since Trump’s election, an unprecedented number of women have been motivated to dive into politics for the first time, many with the hope of defeating or succeeding men who’ve held the bulk of America’s political power for centuries. In fact, the number of women running for the U.S. House of Representatives has set a record. Their ranks are expected to grow, with filing deadlines still to come in many states.
To date, 390 women are planning to run for the House of Representatives, a figure that’s higher than at any point in American history (previous record of 298 in 2012). Twenty-two of them are non-incumbent black women — for scale, there are only 18 black women in the House right now. Meanwhile, 49 women are likely to be running for the Senate, more than 68 percent higher than the number who’d announced at the same point in 2014. Currently, there are 83 women in the U.S. House, out of 435 seats.
Forty women are running so far in governors’ races, a total that already surpassed the previous record of 34 in 1994 – including Georgia’s own Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans.
“It’s about time,” said Kara Eastman of Nebraska, one of two Democrats vying to challenge a GOP incumbent in a district centered in Omaha.
While just over half the nation’s population is female, four out of every five members of the U.S. House are men.
Even with the record numbers, women are still outnumbered by male candidates. However, the number of women running with so many House seats open offers one of the best opportunities for women to make real gains in representation and priorities.
But is this type of rally unprecedented? No.
The rise of the tea party is an example of how the rage of losing a presidential election to a candidate you feel doesn’t represent you can move Americans into politics with intensity and velocity. The swift formation of that political faction was driven in many regions by right-wing white women inflamed by Obama’s victory – which arguably reshaped the Republican party. And let’s not forget 1992, when, after the shoddy treatment of Anita Hill by an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee, American women took home a record number of congressional seats.
In the months after the Presidential election, says Patricia Russo, executive director of The Women’s Campaign School at Yale, “about a third of women who contacted us, who marched and were mad, were not even registered to vote. The second third said, ‘Of course I’m registered to vote.’ But when I asked where they voted in 2016, they said, ‘Oh, I didn’t vote. I had some personal challenges,’ or, ‘The candidates were so similar I just couldn’t decide.’ ”
Now, organizations promoting women getting involved in politics are more prevalent and getting much more attention. The Women’s Campaign School at Yale, where now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand learned how to run, held its first five-day workshop in 1994. But there was no infrastructure to continue to draft women into politics and support them once they got there, which left the pipeline near empty. Now, the women are entering the program at a younger age and the majority of those who enroll are women of color.
Other groups in the candidate-training-and-support business have registered exponential growth over the past year.
For Higher Heights — founded in 2011 to harness the power of black women as voters, organizers, and candidates — a slow rise in engagement in the months after Trump’s win became an enormous spike with the fall 2017 elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama. “Black women were really acknowledged as political drivers of change, as first-time candidates and as the voters who made the difference,” says co-founder Kimberly Peeler-Allen.
Erin Vilardi, who runs VoteRunLead, which trains female candidates specifically for local and state-level offices, says that in a typical year, two-thirds of the organization’s resources are devoted to persuading women to run, with a goal of tapping 2,000 nationwide. This year, 3,200 women have been trained and over 10,000. They’ve even tailored recruitment to rural America. “There are tons of progressive women in rural communities who don’t even need that much encouragement,” says Vilardi. “There’s disgust very much about the abuse that men in power have systematically been engaging in unchecked, and disgust with the people who continue to keep those men in power.” In another interview, Vilardi said, “Not throwing every dollar behind the exciting new women candidates, especially women of color is missing the political moment if I ever did see it.”
EMILY’s List, meanwhile, nearly tripled the size of its state and local team and doubled the digital staff to handle the 26,000 inquiries they’ve received about jumping into the electoral fray post-Trump.
Run for Something — co-founded in 2017 by a Hillary for America alum to enlist first-time candidates younger than 35 — expected around 100 people to sign up the first year; instead, 15,000 did. Sixty percent of them are women, 40 percent nonwhite, and the group so far boasts a nearly 50 percent success rate after supporting 72 candidates in the fall of 2017 (outpacing the typical win rate for first-timers of 10 percent), according to co-founder Amanda Litman.
“If you wake up in the morning caring about something,” said Emily Cain, executive director of Emily’s List “you are qualified to run for office.” The message echoes one delivered by Higher Heights co-founder Peeler-Allen to the black women she advises, many of whom lack confidence: “Each one of you is beyond prepared to run for public office. You need to channel your inner mediocre white boy and use that to run.”
This past fall’s election saw Ashley Bennett, a 32-year-old psychiatric-emergency screener from New Jersey, beat the incumbent who mocked the Women’s March by asking whether protesters would be home in time to cook his dinner. Ashley showed that improbable wins by improbable candidates are possible – especially if they can convert anger and frustration to action and power.
Altering power ratios never easy or quick. But this virtue of politics is true: It can be swiftly responsive to change.