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Election 2017 Was a Historic Night for Women

Minority and LGBTQ women, in particular, scored big victories in state and local races across the country.

Sheila Oliver, left, was elected New Jersey's first black woman lieutenant governor on Tuesday. Here, she stands with Gov.-elect Phil Murphy at their victory party.
(AP/Julio Cortez)
This story is part of our 2017 elections coverage.

Women claimed big victories on Tuesday in a night that marked many firsts and could signal the start of a sea change for women in politics.

The sheer volume of success for women candidates was a surprise to many, mainly because they were running against incumbents who historically win re-election 90 percent of the time. But not this year. Incumbents in Georgia, New Jersey and Virginia all lost their seats to women.

“It would be foolish to make too much of any one race,” says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. "But all of this together -- there’s something going on right now.”

A handful of cities elected their first female mayor or -- in the case of Seattle, its first in nearly a century. Women were elected to the mayor's office for the first time in Manchester, N.H., and Newton, Mass. There's also more to come as Atlanta (which has only had one woman mayor) and New Orleans (which has never had a woman mayor) are both holding mayoral runoff elections between female candidates. 

Other firsts on the local level include Nassau County, N.Y., electing its first woman executive, and in  Boston and Boise, Idaho, voters electing enough women that their city councils will now be either majority or near-majority female for the first time in their history.

At the state level, women in Georgia, Virginia and Washington claimed victory in open legislative seats formerly held by men or outright defeated male incumbents to make gains in state-level representation.

Notably, women in Virginia led the surge in flipping 11 of 16 Republican-held seats in the House, with one race too close to call on Wednesday. Starting next year, the chamber will have at least 28 women serving. That’s a record high and an increase of more than half.

Election night was also historic for minority and LGBTQ women.

Charlotte, N.C., elected Vi Lyles to be its first black woman as mayor, and Sudanese-American Mazahir Salih became the first Muslim and first immigrant to win a seat on the city council in Iowa City, Iowa. Sheila Oliver was elected New Jersey's first black woman lieutenant governor, and the first two Latinas were elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

An openly transgender woman won a statehouse seat for the first time in Virginia, while Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis became the first transgender woman elected to a city council in a major city. Lisa Middleton in Palm Springs became California's first transgender candidate to win a city council seat. And in Seattle, Jenny Durkan will be the city's first lesbian mayor.

In some ways, the groundswell of victories can be viewed as a direct result of the many women inspired to run after President Trump’s surprise defeat of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a year ago. Certainly, some races had the tone of a referendum on Trump.

In New Jersey, 32-year-old Democrat Ashley Bennett was inspired to run against Republican Atlantic County Freeholder John Carman when he mocked the Women’s March on his Facebook page. She won with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

In Virginia, transgender candidate Danica Roem ran against long-time Republican Del. Robert Marshall after he sponsored a so-called bathroom bill in the state legislature. Roem, 32, campaigned on ideals like inclusion and equality, but her main platform spoke to local concerns, such as better transportation and infrastructure. She won with 54 percent of the vote.

But Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University, cautions that change in politics doesn’t happen in a matter of months. She sees this as a culmination of the work that organizations promoting female candidates -- like Emily’s List and Ready to Run -- have been doing for years.

“We also had five women elected mayor in Utah,” she says, “which is just amazing because that is not a liberal place. But the reason is that the Republican party in Utah has been working really hard to encourage women to run.”

The surprise victories this week for so many first-time female candidates has many hopeful that mainstream donors and organizers -- who generally don't gravitate toward unknown women candidates -- will take notice. But, Rutgers’ Kelly Dittmar notes that Virginia -- where a whopping nine of 30 women challenging incumbents won their race -- is now a solidly purple and leaning blue state. So, expecting the same level of upsets next year in red states might be overly optimistic.

“We have to be a little careful about saying Virginia is like other states,” she says. “But there is a lot of hope that this inspires funders and parties to invest more.” 

This story is part of our 2017 elections coverage.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this mistakenly reported Lisa Middleton's win as being to the California Legislature. She in fact won a seat on the Palm Springs City Council.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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