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The Emerging Strategy for Capitalizing on Women's Unprecedented Interest in Politics

Women have mobilized in large numbers to run for office before. Women-in-politics advocates want to make sure it's sustainable this time.

Participants getting legislative advocacy tips from experts at the "Ready to Run" seminar in March.
(Twitter/Center for American Women and Politics)
Jean Sinzdak could see right away that this year would be different for women in politics. For the first time in her 12 years of running a seminar for women interested in public office, she had to start a waitlist.

Registrations for the “Ready to Run” program, run by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), began pouring in after the presidential election. Whether it was Hillary Clinton’s loss or Donald Trump’s victory despite multiple sexual harassment accusations and a video that shows him brag about grabbing women, the election results have been a mobilizing force.

“We had a lot of women who said, ‘I never considered running myself, but this year I woke up or I realized I had to do it,’” says Sinzdak, the associate director for CAWP.

The program’s 18 partners across the country have reported similar results as have other organizations that help women run for office. EMILY’s List, for example, reported in March that a record 10,000 women had reached out about running for office since November. That’s roughly 10 times the number that approached the organization during the entire 2016 election cycle. VoteRunLead also reported an unprecedented 6,545 women have so far signed up to learn about campaigning.

Women are underrepresented in politics at every level of government. Despite accounting for half the population, they make up roughly 20 percent of Congressmembers, state legislators and mayors, according to the CAWP.

The overwhelming interest from female candidates has many hoping that significant progress toward equal representation will be made in the next two years. But this kind of mobilization has happened before, so organizers are challenged with figuring out how to keep the current energy going.

In October 1991, 35-year-old law professor Anita Hill testified for three straight days before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee about sexual harassment she said she had experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, who was being vetted for the U.S. Supreme Court. Millions of Americans watched as she detailed embarrassing and offensive sexual comments before an all-white, all-male panel that went on to confirm Thomas’ nomination.

“Women were literally seeing their underrepresentation for the first time,” says Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar at CAWP. “There was a very visceral reaction, especially in the context of what she was talking about.”

The events helped set off the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, which saw historic numbers of women elected to office. But since then, momentum has stalled. In state legislatures, for example, the number of women serving has grown 20 percent since 1993. In the 24 years prior, the number of women in state legislatures more than quadrupled.

There are likely many reasons for the slowdown. For one, a lot of states introduced term limits in the 1990s. In addition, Sinzdak suspects a lot of the momentum before the 1990s was driven by women getting elected to part-time or citizen legislatures, which are far easier to break into.

In general, women are notoriously more difficult to recruit to politics than men, so organizations like CAWP and EMILY's List know they have a rare opportunity to make real progress. That means encouraging women to be strategic about when and where they can win.

For example, a liberal candidate would face a tough fight in 2018 if she runs against her ward’s sitting conservative councilmember. But in 2020, she might stand a better chance going up against a weak incumbent in an at-large seat. 

After 2020, redistricting could create more opportunities in places where redrawn political lines might suddenly weaken an incumbent. In the meantime, organizers are encouraging potential candidates to build their political resumes now by joining and running for local boards and commissions.

While it can be frustrating for fired-up candidates to be told to wait, Jo Ann Davidson, a former speaker of the Ohio state House and the founder of a women’s leadership institute, says more women are now receptive to mapping out a long-term plan.

“There seems to be more sophistication about that,” she says. “Rarely can you just walk in without any elected office. You have to build a record.”

For now, many are closely watching New Jersey and Virginia, the only two states with legislative elections this year, as a bellwether for next year and beyond.

CAWP's Dittmar says sustaining the long-term interest among women will largely depend on where their discontent comes from. If they simply don’t like Trump, there’s a good chance their motivation can fade. But if it’s because of either party's politics, that’s more sustainable.

“That’s not going away," she says. "It was there before. It’s just now been made more urgent to you.”

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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