A study from Politico revealed that the United States now ranks 101st in the world when it comes to gender equity in national legislatures—down from 52nd in 1997. Less than a quarter of elected offices are currently held by women. According to the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, women now make up 19.4 percent of Congress, 24.9 percent of state legislatures, 12 percent of governors, and about 20 percent of mayors.
Considering that women are more likely to support community and family issues including healthcare, reproductive rights, the environment, and gun rights, this is disheartening. Since 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman when 119 women ran for Congress after the Anita Hill hearings, the growth in women serving in elective office has stagnated. Donald Trump’s election, however, ironically served to help spur women’s political involvement.
After approximately 4.2 million people attended more than 600 women’s marches nationwide in January, organizations that train potential female candidates report massive increases in interest from women interested in running for office. As we reported in the Spring 2017 issue of Ms.:
After the election, programs for women considering running for office saw a surge in interest. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, noted that in December its Ready to Run program “would normally have two to four people who have paid their registrations to come. Because everybody puts it off. [But after] the election we started to see [conference] registrations coming in at a pace we have never seen before. She added, “We’re not the only group we’re hearing this from.” In deed, says EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock, “This moment requires nothing less than an all-hands-on-deck effort. Since Election Day, her organization’s Run to Win recruitment campaign has signed up 6,500 women who want to run for office—that’s six and a half times the number they signed up in the prior 22 months.
Emerge America, a nonprofit organization that trains Democratic women to run for office, observed an 87 percent increase in applications since the election of Donald Trump—data echoed by Politico’s report, which found that the demographic that experienced the biggest spike in political activity was Democratic women.
Since the election, women have been leading the resistance against the Trump agenda in the streets. The boom in women running for office means soon they’ll be fighting for equality and justice on the campaign trail, too. But even after Trump’s victory, Politico’s investigation found that women were still 15 percent less likely than men to say they’ve considered running for office, indicating that it will take more than Trump’s election to close the gap in political ambition. Jennifer Lawless, an American University professor quoted in the Politico report, states that for lasting change, “this activism has to be channeled by political parties and organizers.”
The report reaffirms that though women are as likely to win elections as men, they are less likely to run because they tend to lack the same kind of encouragement from parents, friends and teachers to participate in political life that their male counterparts find easily. This disparity in women seeking office also stems from how little political parties actively recruit women. “The people in leadership who do the recruiting and grooming never reach out” beyond their own circles, Emerge America founder Andrea Dew Steele said in the Spring 2017 issue of Ms., adding that “if the whole recruitment process stays the same, you get more of the same.”
Politico’s report identifies three key strategies that could increase the number of women in elected office over the next decade: Cultivating women candidates at the beginning of the political process, identifying elected positions where women already have been elected and encouraging them to seek higher office and approaching women with a sales pitch for seeking office that reframes the conversation around politics.
Organizations like Emerge America, EMILY’s List and CAWP’S Ready to Run will be crucial in developing confidence and skills in women running for office so that they are prepared for the campaign trail. In our Spring 2017 feature, Ms. found that women state legislators affirmed that organizational encouragement from a woman’s group was a reason they decided to run for office. School boards in particular, as the only elected bodies in the U.S. that have ever come close to achieving gender parity, are great places for women candidates to begin. Once they decide to run for higher office, these women must identify other women who can replace them who will continue to support issues they are passionate about.
The gender gap disappears once women begin to think of politics as it should be, rather than what it is today. The report claims that “when women see political office as a way to fix problems and improve their communities, they become just as eager to run as men.” That aligns with the most radical claim made in the report: that women are better politicians than men. Female politicians are more likely to say they entered politics because of a specific policy concern, and women are more likely to sponsor bills and keep them alive longer by “reaching across the aisle.” Electing women could be a key part of safeguarding and expanding on the progress made over the last century—not just for women’s rights, but for civil rights, LGBTQ rights and economic justice.
“I just want to say that this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in the women’s movement, I would argue, since 1992,” Dew Steele told Ms. in our Spring 2017 feature. “Our staff on the ground are inspired by the kinds of women who are stepping up to the plate. So I do want to say, yes, there might be barriers… but it’s incredibly hopeful.”