'On the sidelines no longer': record number of women run in US midterms

Kamil Krzaczynski, AFP | A woman holds a sign during a rally and march to elect more women to Congress in the US midterms on October 13, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

FRANCE 24 correspondent in New York – A record number of female candidates running in the upcoming US midterms has led pundits to predict that 2018 could be "the year of the woman". Could this "pink wave" tilt the election's results?


In front of the steps of New York's City Hall, a small, mostly female audience has gathered on an overcast morning. At a small podium in the centre of the crowd, a succession of women take turns to speak, each one making a call to arms.

"Women are more productive, more progressive, less likely to be corrupt," announces one of the speakers, Brittany Jones from the Broad Room, an organisation that describes itself as an "activist training camp" for progressive young women. "We need to elect more women, and we don't have the luxury of being complacent."

The Broad Room, which has gathered for the small but impassioned rally in New York, is just one of a number of organisations aimed at increasing the number of women in political office.

Jones speaks in front of the grand and imposing City Hall -- the seat of New York's City Council, where women make up just 11 of 51 members. It stands as a reminder of the scale of the challenge when it comes to gender parity in US politics.

Rally to elect more women outside New York's City Hall

But, with the 2018 midterms rapidly approaching, which many commentators have framed as a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency and all that has entailed -- from the accusations of sexual misconduct while he was still a nominee to the acrimonious appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court -- the winds of change seem to be blowing harder than ever.

Women, both voters and candidates, appear to be a major force in determining the outcome of these midterm elections, to the extent that commentators have started to dub this "The Year of the Woman".

Pink wave

A record 235 women are running for the House for one of the two major parties this year, smashing the previous high of 167 set two years ago. Another 22 are battling for a seat in the Senate, another record up from 2012's 18.

Some have already made headlines with stunning primary victories. Women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old who scored a major upset by defeating incumbent Joe Crowley for the Democratic House ticket in New York's 14th district, and Ayanna Pressley, who defeated 10-term Democratic congressman Michael Capuano in Massachusetts.

But this "pink wave", as some have dubbed it, has a nationwide presence, even in places with little history of electing female candidates.

"This is the first time in 223 years in the great state of Tennessee that a woman has won the nomination," says Erika Stotts Pearson, a Democrat running for the House in Tennessee's 8th congressional district.

Speaking at "Courage to Run", a 5k run at Washington's Capitol Hill celebrating women running for office, Stotts Pearson compared the current wave of rising female representation in government to the height of the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Participants at 'Courage to Run', a 5k run  celebrating women running for office, at Capitol Hill in Washington.
Participants at 'Courage to Run', a 5k run celebrating women running for office, at Capitol Hill in Washington. Yona Helaoua / FRANCE 24

"It is kind of like the 1960s with the women burning their bras. We are taking our power back and we are excited about it," she told FRANCE 24.

A Trump, Kavanaugh snowball effect

But while the gains made by female candidates have spurred real hopes of increased gender parity in US politics, it is clear that this phenomenon has really only gripped one half of the country -- the blue half.

While women make up some 42.9 percent of Democratic nominees for the midterms, they represent only 13.3 percent of Republican candidates, according to figures from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

Such a divide should not be altogether surprising, given the motivations behind the surge in women running for office which began, according to CAWP head Debbie Walsh, "pretty much the day that Donald Trump got elected president".

"I think a lot of women didn't think that in this country someone -- who says that it is okay basically to sexually assault women would get elected president, but apparently they can. I think that was deeply disturbing," she told FRANCE 24.

Since then, the movement has snowballed, she says, fuelled by White House rhetoric, the groundswell of anger and catharsis of the MeToo movement and, most recently, the confirmation in Kavanaugh of a pro-life judge accused of sexual assault allegations by three different women to the Supreme Court.

The Kavanaugh hearings in particular showed, according to Walsh, that "there is still a sense that women's voices aren't heard or valued, taken seriously or believed in quite the way that they should be".

And for candidates like Stott Pearson, that is something that can only be changed in one way: more women walking the corridors of power in Washington.

"I am running because you don't make progress sitting on a sideline but you make progress by actually getting in a race," she says.

Erika Stotts Pearson, Democrat nominee running for Tennessee's 8th congressional district.
Erika Stotts Pearson, Democrat nominee running for Tennessee's 8th congressional district. Yona Helaoua / FRANCE 24

"All across the country women are really speaking out. We're saying: 'no longer you tell us what we can do with our bodies. We are coming strong to Washington DC'."

'Parents, educators, nurses'

But there are also deeper, more systemic issues within the Republican party that are curtailing any increase in female representation comparable to that of the Democrats, according to Walsh.

For the Democrats that increase has been underpinned by a well-funded, well-structured network of organisations with the specific goal of getting progressive women into public office.

The best known of them is EMILY's List, a political action committee that recruits and trains pro-choice Democratic women to run for election and supports their campaigns. Since its founding in 1985, it has helped elect over 100 women to the House and 23 to the Senate.

"There's nothing comparable on the Republican side," said Walsh. "There are paths for women candidates but none of them have the resources Emily's List does."

Nevertheless other, more recently established groups, such as Vote Run Lead, set up in 2014, have taken a different approach.

"We are non-partisan: as long as you are a woman who wants to be a leader in your community and to run for office, we will train you," Heather Barmore, communication director at Vote Run Lead, told FRANCE 24.

Alongside increased female representation on both sides of the aisle, the group aims to encourage a different kind of candidate to the career politicians often favoured by the main parties to take the leap into the world of public office.

"Our main focus is that we want women to use their life experiences to run as they are," said Barmore. "We want women who are parents, we want women who are educators or nurses."

That is a view echoed by She Should Run, another non-partisan group -- set up in 2011 helping to train women for office. For them, the barriers women often face in entering politics can be overcome and their life experiences outside of the closeted world of politics a point of strength.

"We often hear from women that they are interested in running for office but they feel that they are not yet qualified. Maybe they don’t have enough work experience, or enough volunteering in their communities or that they might need another degree," volunteer Emily Liner told FRANCE 24.

"Our message to them is: you are already qualified to run for office. You are already qualified to serve your community. We try to help women learn how you can translate what you have already done, whether that’s in your workplace or in your family into a political campaign and eventually into a political office."

'Filled with rage'

But more women running for office does not necessarily mean more women in office. That will ultimately come down to one thing: the voters.

Two years after Hillary Clinton's defeat to Trump, are voters ready to back female candidates in significant numbers on November 6th? According to polling data, the answer is "Yes, absolutely," says Ruth Igielnik, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.

"We asked people if they thought more women running for Congress this year was a good thing or bad thing and we saw that six in ten Americans said it was a good thing so that is something that is definitely backed up by the data," she told FRANCE 24.

But once again, there is a clear partisan divide.

"We have only about 4 in 10 Republicans saying that this is a good thing, compared to about double the number of Democrats. So there's huge partisan gap," says Igielnik.

Pollsters seem sure that, in an increasingly divided, partisan America, the presence of a female candidate on the ballot is unlikely to see a Republican voter switch to the Democrats or vice versa.

"Consistently across all our research what we've seen is that party has become such a huge factor in so much of public opinion," says Igielnik. "We've seen that it separates people consistently more so than gender, race, age, that party really is a defining factor."

But where an increase in women on the ballot could make a crucial difference is in turnout.

With midterm elections typically drawing feeble numbers to the polls -- 2014's turnout was just 36.4 percent -- if the same mix of anger and hope that has driven more women to stand as candidates also spurs more Democratic women to make their voices heard at the ballot box, it could swing the entire election.

Polls show this is a very real possibility. Some 71 percent of Democratic women say they are "very motivated" to vote in this election, according to a Politico/Morning Consult survey, more than any other group.

"The country is just filled with rage and I think that right now this midterm election is going to be about whose voters are most motivated to show up and I think that unfortunately boils down to who is madder," said Walsh at the CAWP. "I think the anger is there not just on the part of the women who decided to run but also on the part of voters."

All this suggests that women are not only running for office in greater numbers than ever before but may also hold the key when it comes to which party will emerge victorious on November 6th. And if a pink wave is coming to Washington, it will almost certainly be part of a bigger, blue one.

'Not just going to go away'

But amid the optimism comes a note of caution. This is not the first time the "year of the woman" tag has been attached to a midterm election.

The term was also in wide circulation in 1992 when the country saw a near-doubling of the number of women in Congress in strikingly similar circumstances, when, as now, the controversial confirmation of a Republican-nominated Supreme Court judge facing allegations of sexual impropriety -- Clarence Thomas -- had provoked fierce debate over the male-dominated political institutions of the US,

But, says Walsh, that momentum failed to sustain itself with only incremental increases in the number of women in the House and Senate since then.

This election, though, feels different to '92, she says.

"It feels like there is a sense out there that women are searching for ways to have a voice in these institutions of power and that they're not going to just go away after the 2018 elections."

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