Last week, I spoke with dozens of experts as they analyzed the midterm elections — electorate splits in terms of education, race, region, and income. But there was little notice of the most powerful group of all.
Women. I don’t mean in the privacy of the voting booth. What I listened for and rarely heard, even days later, was an acknowledgment of the stunning display of women who thrust themselves (and their families) into the public eye. Smiling at us in ads, garnering endorsements of newspapers, promoting themselves on airwaves, and occasionally, helmet in hand, climbing into a fighter jet.
I was wryly amused on election night to hear candidates described without mention that Paul lost to Pauline, even when side-by-side pictures begged for comment. Instead, pundits lauded suburban women – I suppose mothers carpooling from soccer practice to the polls (in SUVs, no doubt).
They failed to notice that a legion of women from all social classes had stormed every barricade, announcing that they were running for office, then putting together campaigns headed by other women who organized still other women to canvass neighborhoods, donate money, and vote. Only their vote was considered noteworthy.
Dems needed 23 seats held by Republicans to break that party’s complete control of the legislative and executive branches. Women won a whopping 22. Shout that secret from the rooftop: Women flipped the House!
My Republican friends are in a tough spot. The ultra-conservative base generally distrusts a female candidate, assuming she’s out of her depth or (worse!) might compromise. Without their support, she can’t win her primary. Although their congressional caucus is already 90 percent white men, GOP congresswomen saw their own numbers actually decrease.
These Republican candidates-in-waiting are no less talented than the Democrats, but they haven’t been encouraged to run and coached to win by the likes of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. That’s a huge problem. Especially when they have substantial blocks in their parties, women on both sides of the aisle will collaborate extensively to pass close-to-the-people policies: health care, environment, schools, jobs, law enforcement. Pundits may stop wringing their hands. Women will break gridlock. The culture of Congress will change.
So will the White House. Last Tuesday was an “all-in” moment to stop a boorishly amoral president who calls one woman “horseface” and brags about grabbing others between their legs. I tramped door-to- door in the mud for former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, whose highly sensitive security clearance information was leaked to her political opposition. With a talented twist, she turned that breach into a boon — winning public backing from outraged high-level defense experts. Spanberger won.
As important as the increase of women in the House (87 to 102), tens of thousands have flooded our political system, into positions from which they’ll plan their own runs for Congress — or higher. They’re bringing a new kind of campaign, at once honest and bold. In her ad, Dana Nessel wondered aloud, “When you’re choosing Michigan’s next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?” Nessel won.
Tweets to the contrary, Trump is not the center of the universe. He is one force amid many. Another is Hillary Clinton-- a pivotal inspiration in her success and, astonishingly, in her defeat; she used her concession speech and subsequent book
to urge girls to dream and women to run. They answered her call, and with her constant support strengthening their stride. Over the last two years, potential candidates have been pushed forward by anger while being pulled forward by hope: White nationalist misogyny/Women’s marches. Hush money/#MeToo. Mass shootings/March for Our Lives. Justice Brett Kavanaugh/Massive publicized testimonials. Fake news/Fake fake news.
Discrimination against women in politics is a vicious circle, discouraging women to run, which means ensuring that they’re not at the table where more discrimination takes form. But now a virtuous helix is spiraling higher. The spin is slow but self-perpetuating. As they wield more influence, women will champion ways to level the field so that they wield more influence.
Our midterm elections were a subplot of a new women’s movement resonating globally. No one can predict where we’ll be in two years, or in a decade. But we know that last week a flow of strong, newly-elected women were reveling in one another’s support. We must push for policy changes, such as a recent one allowing campaign funds to be used for child care. But Boston philanthropic activist Barbara Lee also urges us to encourage those who ran and lost to declare (as men often conclude) that this past week was a dress rehearsal.
As in any social movement, the surge of female political leaders will be slowed by rough terrain. But its progress is now unstoppable. Future candidates will keep putting one foot in front of the other, even as they balance on stone slabs across a new political landscape, opened up by a seismic shift.
Swanee Hunt founded Political Parity and the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.