Opinion

Opinion | Swanee Hunt

Women flipped the House. Why that matters

03womensads -- Dana Nessel for Michigan Attorney General campaign advertisement. (Dana Nessel 2018)
Dana Nessel 2018
A Dana Nessel campaign advertisement for Michigan attorney general. She won.

Last week, I spoke with dozens of experts as they’ve 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 about until the end of the week was a discussion of the women candidates who gave their all and 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.

The stunning display of women besting men was initially overlooked. 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. Pundits allowed that women played a key role driving from soccer practice to the polls (in SUVs, no doubt).

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They failed to notice that a legion of women had stormed every barricade, announcing in large numbers 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 the last was considered noteworthy.

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Democratic women in Congress rose from 19.3 percent to, at last count, 23 percent. Women won a whopping 21 of the 24 seats needed to stop the Republican Party from controlling all branches of government. Shout that secret from the rooftop: Women flipped the House!

My Republican friends are in a tough spot. With their congressional caucus 90 percent white men, GOP women saw their tiny numbers decrease by 14. The 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. 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.

Until they are, women won’t be breaking gridlock by working across aisles. But given the opportunity once in office, women often work together on close-to-the-people policies: protecting health care, the environment, schools, jobs, law enforcement.

Tuesday was an “all-in” moment to stop a boorishly amoral president who calls one woman “horseface” and brags about grabbing others in their private parts. So on Election Day I tramped door-to-door in the mud for former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger, whose highly sensitive security clearance information from her personnel file was leaked to her political opposition. With a talented twist, she turned that breach into a boon — by winning public backing from outraged high-level defense experts

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Her race was a moonshot, and it was sweet relief when a camera caught her four-year-old daughter playing with her Spanberger’s legs behind a podium as she delivered her acceptance speech.

Come January, the number of women in the House will be up from a record 85 to at least 102. But as important, tens of thousands more have flooded our political system, into positions from which they’ll plan their own runs for Congress — or higher. With that confidence will come a new kind of campaigning, at once honest and bold.

Dana Nessel is already there. In a campaign ad, she 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? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis?” Nessel won.

For most women, diversity is strength, not danger. Almost half the women in the House will be Native American, Asian Pacific, Latina, East African, Middle Eastern, and African-American. In addition, we witnessed enough two-women races (33 for Congress alone) to ensure that this phenomenon will soon graduate from curious anomaly to the luxurious realm of uneventful.

Tweets to the contrary, it turns out that Donald Trump is not the center of the universe. He is one amid other stepping stones. Hillary Clinton was a pivotal inspiration in her success and unpredictable in her defeat as she, using her concession speech and subsequent book to call for women to run. They answered her call, with her constant support strengthening their stride. Over the last two years, potential candidates have been pushed forward with anger while being pulled forward with hope: Hate-laced nationalism. Women’s marches. Hush money. #MeToo. Mass shootings. March for Our Lives. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Fake news. Fake fake news.

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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 slowly spiraling ever higher. The spin is 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 a year, 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 important policy changes, such as the ruling by the New York Federal Election Commission allowing campaign funds to be used for child care. But 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.