by Jillia Pessenda*
Across the country women are running for office in record numbers. At Women Winning, a Minnesota-based organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women from all political parties to all levels of public office, we see this unprecedented national trend reflected in our work across the state. At a time when we are confronting the omnipresent misogyny of Donald Trump and his administration, women are tackling adversity by stepping up to run for office. And we must; according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, only 107 women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising just 20% of the 535 members. If we ever hope to gain equal representation, let alone a majority, as (white) men have had for over 240 years, we need this to be the new normal; we need women to continue to run in record numbers for years to come.
In 2018, women’s access to reproductive healthcare is on the line, reversing Roe is a real threat with the looming nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and decisions about women’s healthcare and access continue to be weighed and determined by men. Women make up 50% of the voters in this country but have yet to achieve equal representation in state legislatures, executive offices and in Congress. Women are running for office because they understand that we must have power to craft laws and make policy decisions that directly impact our lives, our families and our communities. But what is it going to take—not only for women to continue to run—but to win in 2018 and beyond?
The surge of progressive women running for office is in part a reaction to Trump’s election and the campaign that led up to it, but has also been fueled by the dangerous policies, changes and threats that come with the Trump Presidency. The President’s blatant disrespect for women has turned into dangerous policies. Even before the announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, there’s been a marked increase in anti-choice legislation and threats to Roe v. Wade. In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant signed a law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy—the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Earlier this year, ThinkProgress reported that, “The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health removed a webpage dedicated to breast cancer and other helpful reproductive health information, including important insurance information for low-income people.” Healthcare access and reproductive freedom are frequently cited motivators for women running for office in 2018; taken together, the administration’s attacks on women have mobilized women to take action.
The resurgence of visible feminist activism—highlighted by the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement—is also inspiring women to run. Just as importantly, seeing women win has convinced others they can do the same. I’ve talked to dozens of candidates this year in Minnesota and across the country who were inspired to run by the historic campaigns of women like Rep. Ilhan Omar—the first Somali-American Muslim state legislator in the country who won her election in Minnesota the same night that Trump was elected. These success stories give women, especially from marginalized communities, hope that it is possible to run and win. In 2017 we also witnessed the historic elections of transgender women including Danica Roem in Virginia and Andrea Jenkins in Minnesota—the first black trans woman elected to a major city council in the country. And just this summer, we saw historic congressional primary wins for women of color including Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota who will usher in a new wave of leadership to Congress. In Minnesota’s second Congressional District Angie Craig is running for a second time against incumbent Jason Lewis who narrowly won in 2016 and has a long history of making misogynistic statements in a district where suburban women could determine the outcome of this election. In 2016, Angie lost to Lewis by less than 2 percentage points; it was one of the closest congressional races in the country and will be a critical seat for Democrats to win in November. In order for women to win, often they need to run more than once. For this surge of pro-choice women’s candidacies to endure and be successful, we must continue to lift up powerful narratives of victory and perseverance and invest our time and resources in their candidacies.
Shatter The Myth That Women Aren’t Electable at the Executive Level.
Since Hillary Clinton lost her Presidential bid in 2016, I’ve heard many people who self-identify as liberals or progressives (many of them women) who express or comment that women aren’t as “electable” as men at the executive level. It’s important to remember that Clinton actually won the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes. In Minnesota we saw this “electability” conversation play out in the recent democratic primary for Governor. In 160 years of statehood, Minnesota has yet to elect a woman to the highest executive office in our State. In fact, there are only six states in the country currently with women Governors (2 Democrats and 4 Republicans). As I campaigned this summer for the Women Winning-endorsed candidate for Governor, Erin Murphy, the comment I received more than any other was, “I really like her, but I’m worried she’s not ‘electable’ in the general election against the Republican male candidate.” Many expressed to me this concern and their feeling that the male Democratic candidate was a safer bet. Murphy, a State Representative and former House Majority Leader, was arguably the most qualified candidate for the job having over a decade of experience passing policy at the state level, experience balancing the state’s budget and she campaigned on a policy platform that included single payer universal healthcare. Yet the question or comment I received most often wasn’t about her policy platform or her vision for the state—it was their fear around “electability.” Murphy ultimately lost the Democratic primary to her male opponent proving that our state, like most others, still has work to do in confronting our gender biases if we are going to elect a woman to the highest level of executive office in our state.
The fact is, when women run for office, they win at the same rates as men; electability isn’t the issue. As feminists, liberals and progressives, we must confront our own internalized sexism when deciding which candidates to support. Shattering the myth and misconception that women aren’t electable at the executive level starts with us confronting our own biases and then showing up to support the pro-choice women running with our time, our money, and our vote.
We also can’t ignore the role the media plays in perpetuating sexism in its coverage of female politicians and influencing voters, A recent study illuminated in an article published by the Columbia Journalism Review found that “subtle sexism” in political coverage can have a real impact on voters perception of female candidates. Although more research is needed, the study found that, “A woman politician described with masculine-coded adjectives was seen as almost 10 percent more qualified and 7 percent more competent than a woman described with feminine adjectives.”
Many of the pro-choice women running in 2018 don’t have the same background or resume as traditional male candidates. Women who run for office often lack institutional support from party insiders or donor networks. Many of the women running that we are working with in 2018 don’t have political backgrounds, campaign experience, or come from historically politically inclined career fields like law, but they are extremely engaged with and connected to their communities. Many are active in their children’s schools, in their local businesses or serve on community boards. From pediatricians to nurses to scientists to stay-at-home and single moms—women running in 2018 have diverse experiences and careers that prepare them to lead and bring new perspectives to elected office. In order for these women to win, we must challenge the traditional notions of what constitutes experience, and recognize and uplift the leadership that many of these women bring to the table. It’s their leadership in their communities, in their careers and in their lived experiences that will motivate people to turn out and vote and engage new people in the political process.
Build the Bench. We Are Just Beginning.
Supporting pro-choice women running for office in 2018 is not the end, but the beginning. Women Winning has been in existence for 36 years. In that time, the number of women mayors, county commissioners, and state legislators in Minnesota has more than doubled. Yet women still make up just 33% of the Minnesota legislature, with women of color/ LGBTQ women still severely under-represented. Part of all of our work is to build the bench for the future. This means supporting pro-choice women running for all levels of public office—from park board to president; it means encouraging and supporting them (in advance of their campaign announcement) in order to prepare them to be confident, viable, competitive candidates. In order for working class or low-income women to run for office, we must encourage a holistic approach. We need to support these women with childcare, a financial plan if she has to give up her day-job to run, and address self-care on the campaign trail. Although this is changing, women don’t typically run for statewide executive office, Congress or U.S. Senate without any prior experience, which is why it’s so important to support women down the ballot now. Additionally, many of the women running this year will inspire young women to work on their campaigns, and once elected, they will go on to hire them in their administrations or as policy aides. This builds the bench for women in politics for the long-haul. You can’t be what you can’t see; women – especially women with intersecting identities – need to see themselves reflected in public office.
We also must acknowledge that not all of the women running in 2018 will win. And that’s okay. Every pro-choice woman running in 2018 adds another crack to the glass ceiling and many of them will go on to win the second or third time they run. Men not only run more than women they often run multiple times before winning; like Angie Craig is demonstrating here in Minnesota, we need women to continue to run more than once. Building the bench of pro-choice women candidates also means challenging the men who share our values to consider stepping back in order to support and help elect the woman who is ready to run.
Changing the Face of Power.
Anita Hill inspired a wave of women across our country to run for office in 1992. But that “trend” of women running in record numbers didn’t continue. 26 years later we see a new, unprecedented wave of pro-choice women running. Despite the passage of time, we’re still wrestling with the misogyny of our political leaders and once again bracing for public testimony. This time from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she prepares to address the Senate Judiciary committee on allegations of sexual assault against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The parallels between today and 1992 are evident, except this time we have the power of the #MeToo movement, we have more women in office and running for office and we actually have (Democratic) women serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee questioning Kavanaugh. In order for women to win in 2018, and in order for this momentum to continue beyond a trend, we not only need to support women today, we need these structural shifts to continue. We need safe workplaces for women to work and thrive. We need to challenge our own internalized sexism, including redefining what leadership looks like. We need to shatter the myth that women aren’t electable at the executive level. And finally, we need to build the bench for pro-choice women in the future. Women Winning doesn’t just endorse pro-choice women, we train, encourage, promote and put money and resources behind many of our candidates to help them win and we’re in it for the long-haul. It’s going to take all of us, with a renewed and sustained commitment to electing women in 2018 and beyond, to change the face of power.
*Jillia Pessenda is the Political Director at Women Winning and former candidate for office.