2017 saw a seismic shift in the national dialogue surrounding women’s rights. Sexual assault, in particular, took center stage with the origination of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
Women in Hollywood and on Capitol Hill took a stand against sexual misconduct and demanded changes in not only a culture that had previously allowed powerful men to abuse women in secret, but also in the policies that allowed these attacks to go unreported, sometimes for decades.
Their demands in February resulted in Congress passing landmark legislation requiring lawmakers accused of sexual harassment to pay out of pocket for their own settlements and completely overhauled the process of reporting sexual misconduct on the Hill.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), whose Me Too Act was the basis for that legislation, said the #MeToo movement was the American public’s way of asking Congress to lead the charge against “truly egregious” behavior toward women.
2017 also saw the revelation that the United States ranked lower on measures of political empowerment than it had since 2007, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and ranked 96th out of 144 countries worldwide on measures of women’s political empowerment, educational attainment, health and survival, and economic opportunity.
These results, which show the U.S. as less equal on issues of gender than countries like China, Pakistan, and Mexico — which some Americans stereotypically view as unkind to women — may be somewhat surprising to those looking back at what has been dubbed the second year of the woman.
This may be why, heading into 2018, women are no longer simply asking Congress to act on their behalf.
In line with the spirit of the Women’s March on Washington last January, more than 30,000 women have expressed interest in running for office this year — nearly 32 times the number of women who had reached out at this point in the 2016 election cycle.
The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), widely considered the leading source of scholarly research and data about American women’s political participation, also identified 442 women who have filed or are likely to file as U.S. House candidates and 52 women likely to run for the U.S. Senate.
If those numbers stand up, the 2018 midterms would host the largest pool of female congressional candidates in history.
Not all women running for office are part of the ‘resistance’
Though many of the women running for office this year were galvanized by President Trump’s election in 2016, Republican women are an undeniable part of the movement to see more equal representation in Congress.
For these women, like Jinyoung Englund, who ran for the first time in Washington’s special Senate election last year, the key to their races is not resistance, but resilience.
“There are Republican women running for office for all different reasons and no one is telling their story,” Englund told Newsweek. “And that’s doing a disservice to them.”
According to the CAWP, the number of Republican female House candidates has risen by 35 percent this year. While less than the increase seen by their Democratic counterparts, the difference is easily explained, according to Meghan Milloy, co-founder of the fledgling nonprofit group Republican Women for Progress.
Milloy claims that the reason Republican women run for office in lesser numbers is not that they care less or are less politically active. Instead, she blames the phenomenon on the GOP tendency to avoid playing identity politics.
Her assertion that the GOP has less infrastructure in place to assist women running for office is correct. EMILY’s List, Emerge America, Higher Heights, and Run for Something are all groups dedicated to helping progressive women win elections. Far fewer options exist for Republican women.
Erin Vilardi, who founded the nonpartisan group VoteRunLead, said she feels Republican women were traditionally left out by organizations that provide assistance organizing and laying the groundwork for campaigns, and that media reports often ignore them because they don’t fit as easily into the feminist message touted by the left.
“We really believe that women’s leadership, women’s rights, women’s ability to lead in the world does not belong with either party,” she said. “We’re getting tons of young millennial Republican women who are coming and looking for a home.”
Changing the face of American politics
Regardless of party affiliation, if women manage to pull out wins in the 2018 midterms it could mean the beginning of the end for the centuries-long gender disparity in American politics.
Within the country, data shows that women only hold about 20 percent of all national-level seats, and that is a record high.
Local numbers are just as low, with women holding only 25 percent of seats in state legislatures and an even lower percentage of mayoral seats. A CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance report found that only 18 percent of mayors in 100 of the largest U.S. cities are women.
While this data may be disheartening for those who want to see more women in politics, it is also evidence for why they should encourage the women they know to run.
Data shows that when women run for office they are elected and re-elected at rates comparable to those of their male counterparts. The issue historically has been that women do not put their names on the ballot in the first place.
“If we were in a country where women didn’t feel there were obstacles in the way, we’d be in a country where there were an equal number of women and men running for office,” said EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock.
And that is, she says, why the record number of women running in 2018 matters.
This is the first installment of Madam Candidate, an IJR original series about women running for office in the 2018 midterms. Twice a month, the series will profile female candidates across the country with the hope of understanding what inspired an unprecedented number of women to put their names on the ballot this year. Check back for the next installment in the series on March 20, just ahead of the Illinois primary election.