This year’s unprecedented surge in political enthusiasm among young women has sparked a flurry of headlines, candidate trainings, and campaign announcements.
But the lasting — and potentially history-altering — impact of this wave of women pledging to run remains to be seen. Will this increase in interest and activism finally fix our country’s gender parity problem? Or will it be a blip on the political radar that gives way to (male-dominated) business as usual?
This week, we’ll get an early litmus test as voters across the country hit the polls for local and, in a few cases, state elections; female candidates are running for everything from governor to critical state legislative races to city council in the off-year contests. And while we won’t know the results until after the polls close Tuesday, there are signs that the spike in enthusiasm could translate to major wins for women on the ballots.
An analysis by the Center for American Women in Politics found increases in female candidates in both New Jersey and Virginia, the two states holding state legislative elections in 2017. When it comes to the Virginia House of Delegates, the number of female candidates is at an all-time high — up an eye-popping 60% compared to recent cycles. In both states, the increases are largely coming from the left. “Short answer: yes, more women are running, but overwhelmingly on the Democratic side,” the analysis concluded.
That the surge in female candidates skews Democratic shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the number of women on the left who say Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton has spurred them to take action of their own (Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women for office, says 20,000-plus have contacted the progressive PAC about running).
Crystal Murillo was one of those women motivated to run by the 2016 results. The 23-year-old recent graduate was involved in her community, but had never really considered pursuing local elected office herself. The shock and dismay she felt after Trump’s win, however, served as a “catalyst for me to take an introspective look at my own values and priorities.” She launched a campaign for city council in her hometown of Aurora, CO.
“I didn’t want to just run to run, that wasn’t meaningful to me,” said Murillo, whose campaign is featured in the new documentary series She's The Ticket. “But the more I looked at my own city and my own community, the more I realized that there was a legitimate reason for me to run in Aurora. Our city council is made up entirely of older, white council members... the community here isn’t reflected.”
Jennifer Carroll Foy felt a similar pull to public office in the months following the 2016 campaign. “The election of Trump, it shook something in me, and I knew that something had to change, something had to happen,” she told Refinery29. The combination of last year's results and what she sees as anti-woman legislation moving through her own state Capitol compelled the 36-year-old public defender to run for Virginia House of Delegates this year. She announced her campaign in January. Then reality hit. “I had no idea how to run for office,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what paperwork to file, I didn’t know how to open a campaign account, I didn’t know anything.”
At the urging of a mentor, Foy signed up for a candidate bootcamp organized by Emerge America and set her sights on winning the seat. Since then, she's refused to let unexpected swings in the campaign (and life) deter her in that goal — whether it was finding out she was pregnant with twins and giving birth months early, tackling eye-popping fundraising goals, or confronting racism head-on in the wake of the Charlottesville march. “When I set my eyes on something I’m laser-focused,” she said. “Anything that’s there, I will move it out of my way and work it out. I have a mission.”
While Democrats dominate the pool of new female candidates so far, Republican women are running in some key races, too. New Jersey Lt. Gov Kim Guadagno is the GOP nominee for governor in the Garden State. And across the country, in Seattle, 33-year-old Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund is seeking a state Senate seat that could alter the balance of power in Washington state.
Englund is no newcomer to the world of politics — her resume includes working as a staffer to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking GOP woman in the U.S. House of Representatives — but she says she didn’t envision ever becoming the candidate herself. Over the years, various mentors encouraged her to run. She brushed them off. But this time, given the stakes of the race, which will determine whether Democrats control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the state Legislature, she decided to give it a go. Encouragement, she says, was key.
“My mentor having confidence in me was huge. Hearing 'you can do this' and then having other former bosses say, 'hey we really think you’re the right person,' made both my husband and I feel that if there’s one way we can give back the state it would be to run and win and to fix the balance of power,” Englund says.
That race for the open seat — the most expensive legislative campaign in state history — will send another woman to Olympia regardless of who wins: Englund's rival on the left is Democrat Manka Dhingra. But Englund says the success of campaigns like hers are crucial for getting more young GOP women to seek office. "I know I've already inspired other women and other conservatives to be brave enough to run," she said, citing several friends and acquaintances who have approached her about potential bids of their own.
Even with the apparent increase in women running, it’s TBD whether we’ll actually see more women serving after the off-year election. One reason for that, according to the CAWP analysis, is that many of these new candidates, particularly those on the Democratic side, are running as challengers to incumbents in tough races.
But even with those realities, the trend is nothing to balk at. No matter how Tuesday turns out, women are poised to keep flooding the ballot in the 2018 midterms and beyond.
“These conclusions serve as an important reminder that women’s electoral energy must be channeled strategically and across election cycles,” the analysis notes. “It’s unlikely that women will bust all trends in any one year, including 2017, but strategically planning for the decade of the woman is not a bad idea.”
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