The November elections saw big wins among women running for office, many of whom made history with their victories. Virginians voted in the first openly transgender woman ever to serve as a state legislator; they also elected the first openly gay woman, the first Vietnamese American woman and the first two Latina women to ever serve in the state’s House of Delegates. Charlotte, North Carolina voters elected the city’s first black woman mayor. Seattle, Washington voters elected their first openly lesbian mayor. The first openly transgender woman of color ever elected to public office was voted onto the Minneapolis, Minnesota city council. And on and on. Many of the women elected were first-time candidates.
With women, especially women of color, still hugely underrepresented in political office, many feminists were moved by the historic progress made for political representation in 2017—myself included. While we celebrate the historic wins, we should also seize the opportunity to learn from these trailblazing new leaders and to think big about what women who are now considering running for office might gain from their examples nationwide.
Despite a surge in political activism among progressive women following Trump’s election, data shows that women are still significantly less likely than men to consider running for office themselves. A national survey from May found that only 23 percent of women say they have considered running for office compared to 38 percent of men, with men more than twice as likely to report having “seriously” considered it. Earlier studies found that this gap is present across women and men of different races, ages, and income levels. Even with the increase in women’s progressive political engagement since Trump took office, researchers note that “other factors that impede women’s political ambition—in particular, their self-assessments of whether they’re qualified to run for office—are longstanding and deeply embedded.”
Beliefs about how qualified or unqualified we are, as it turns out, can be hard to shake. Among men and women with comparable professional backgrounds, men are nearly 60 percent more likely to consider themselves “very qualified” to run. There are all kinds of societal factors contributing to this, including the fact that young men are more likely to have been taught by their parents to think of politics as a potential career path and more likely to have been encouraged to run for office by friends, family, or political leaders.
Some of the trailblazing women who won elections this year were open about their initial doubts about seeking public office. Kathy Tran, one of the first Asian American women elected to the Virginia House, told CNN: “I never thought I would run for office. It was something not in my wildest dreams—partly because nobody ever looked like me that was elected to office.” A woman elected to the city council in Anchorage, Alaska earlier this year said that as the filing deadline approached, “I kept thinking, surely someone more competitive will sign up.”
Watching other women take that leap, run and then win can open up new ideas about what is possible in our own lives.
Of course, there is more to the story than simply shifting beliefs about running for office. Many women—disproportionately women of color and low-income women—face entrenched barriers that can make it difficult for them to run, even when the interest in serving in office is already there. As Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams told The Grio earlier this year, women of color can come up against the dual challenges of their own doubts about preparedness and external discouragement: “I think for women of color, it’s not only being ready to run but it’s also feeling the pressure not to run because we’re often told it’s not our turn.” Relatedly, women of color often face a deck stacked against them when it comes to accessing the fundraising money that political gatekeepers use to determine whether someone is a “viable” candidate. It’s a problem exacerbated by a political fundraising landscape dominated by a tiny, unrepresentative slice of ultra-wealthy donors. In addition, the fact that local and state offices tend to offer very low pay often serves to exclude women who aren’t independently wealthy.
Making changes to address these structural impediments, like by rethinking the way candidates are recruited and supported, by establishing small-donor public financing programs that help address the influence of big money in politics, or by increasing the pay for officeholders, would help clear the path for more women to run for office.
Even as we work to fix these structural barriers in the long-term, watching women from all backgrounds decide to run—and then seeing so many of them win—may help inspire others to reconsider assumptions about whether they, too, can run and win. One young woman who aspires to become the first black woman elected mayor of Philadelphia put it this way earlier this year: “If they can do it, I can do it. If she can run, I can run.”