In February 2017, Ghazala Hashmi was driving to work and listening to news about the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. After having the first panic attack of her life, she wondered, as she described in an essay for Medium: “Do I, a Muslim American who has lived in this country for close to 50 years, have a home in this country any longer?”
She resolved to do something. This November, Hashmi, a community college administrator, could become the first Muslim American woman elected to the Virginia Senate.
In 2018, an unprecedented number of women nationwide ran for political office and won. The momentum continues unabated in the few states holding state legislative elections this year. It’s a hopeful sign that 2020 could be another banner year for women.
Virginia, with its legislative elections in odd-numbered years and its swing state status, is often watched as a bellwether of national trends. Indeed, the first sign of 2018’s wave came from the 2017 House of Delegates election, in which Democrats flipped 15 seats, 11 of them with women candidates. The proportion of women in Virginia’s House jumped from 17 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2018.
This November, all 140 legislative seats in the state Senate and House are up for election. Nearly twice as many women are running now compared to four years ago, when the full legislature was last up for election.
Some are first-time candidates like Hashmi. Others, like Danica Roem, the first openly transgender state legislator, are defending their seats in tough districts. Shelly Simonds tied her Republican opponent in 2017 but lost the random drawing to determine who would take office; in 2019, she’s trying again. And while 2017’s surge in women candidates came from Democrats, this year Republican women are on the ticket in a number of Virginia’s most competitive races. With women making up 52 percent of Democratic candidates for the House, control of the legislature could hinge on which party’s women prevail.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, term limits have created a record number of open seats and all state legislative offices are up for election for the first time since the post-2016 surge of women’s activism began. Louisiana ranks 44th nationally in women’s representation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. But thanks to the new state chapter of Emerge, an organization that trains Democratic women candidates, there is hope for some movement in the rankings.
When Emerge Louisiana started recruiting its first class at the end of 2017, demand for its candidate-training program far exceeded expectations. “It was a tsunami of inspiration from the national level down but also the local level up,” executive director Melanie Oubre told Ms.
Two years later, 18 Emerge alums qualified for the Oct. 12 open primary for the state legislature. Many are first-time candidates, and one-third are African American women. “People are starting to pay attention to the fact that state legislatures are so important,” says Ianthe Metzger of EMILY’s List. “With redistricting and the dangerous anti-abortion bills that are being passed across the country, it’s vital that we get champions for women and families at the decision-making tables.”
The change that electing more women can make is on full display in Virginia, where the Equal Rights Amendment hangs in the balance, just one state away from ratification, having been blocked from coming to the floor of the legislature.
“So goes Virginia, so goes the nation,” declares Sheila Bynum-Coleman. An African American real estate agent and community activist who describes herself as a “mom on a mission,” Bynum-Coleman is running for office—and taking on the House speaker, a 29-year incumbent. “And once we win,” she says, “we’ll get the ERA passed.”