By Celia Raney
WASHINGTON — Last year they marched on Washington. Now they are running for office.
After the first female presidential nominee by a major party, Hillary Clinton, lost in 2016 to President Donald Trump, pink-hat-clad women rushed down march routes and through side-streets across the world. One year and two marches later, the riverbed is ready for women to flood into power.
“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” Tabitha Isner told TMN.
After she took her mother to the Women’s March in January 2017, the 36-year-old Democrat put those words into action and launched a congressional campaign in Republican-heavy Alabama.
“I have thought throughout my life that maybe someday I’ll be a public servant in that way,” Isner said, “but we as women tend to wait, tend to think that we should be more qualified than we are, that maybe in ten years we’ll have the qualifications, the resume that we think we need to do the work.”
Isner is running for Alabama’s second district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the June 5 primary, she will face off against another Democratic female candidate, Audri Scott Williams.
“The women’s march was a time when a lot of us said, “Screw that, we can’t wait, justice can’t wait, the right thing can’t wait until we feel ready and qualified,’ ” Isner said. “It needs to happen now.”
As of April 25, 471 women are running for one of the 435 seats up for election in the U.S. House of Representatives and 57 women are vying for one of the 35 seats up for grabs in the U.S. Senate, up by 252 and 32 respectively from this point in 2016. Women currently hold 84 seats in the House and 22 seats in the Senate.
Out of the 7,383 state legislature positions, 1,997 are held by women today, an 11.8 percent increase from 1,659 women in 2015. The progress is slow moving — if the trend continues at the current rate of change women will not achieve equal representation in Congress until 2117 — but the 104 total seats that women hold in Congress today represent an all-time high, and the midterms could bring in a slew of female-held seats.
“This year is going to make a real difference because we have an unprecedented number of women running and I know in my state they are very well qualified, and I think that will make a big difference,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told TMN.
But do the numbers need to be 50/50 in order to achieve equal representation?
“I don’t think we have to have a quota system here where it is 50/50,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told TMN. “Women are represented on every committee, which is great progress — but obviously I’d like to see more women, particularly on the Republican side.”
When Collins took office in 1996, she was one of only nine women in the Senate.
“More and more women are having the confidence to run for federal office,” she said, going on to echo the same concerns that Isner said many women have when thinking about running for office.
“I’ve found over the years that oftentimes women think they’re not quite ready, when in fact they’re just as qualified as the men who are running and sometimes more qualified, so I think that’s exciting,” she said.
Back to school: campaign school trains female candidates
More women than ever are running for state positions, too. Only 39 women have served as governors in U.S. history, but 77 women are running in 2018 — blowing the previous record of 34 women in gubernatorial races in 1994 out of the water.
“Women are energizing, motivating and excited, and really wanna get out there and really wanna get ready to run,” Patricia Russo, executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, told TMN.
The political training school offers two programs to prepare women at different stages of campaign readiness. The school’s five-day intensive program trains women to run for office or lead campaigns. A one-day intensive started last year helps women become more civically minded and can be used as a jump-starter for the five-day session.
Since Trump’s campaign began, the school has seen a major influx in the number of women interested in running for public office. The trend has continued through the beginning of his tenure, Russo said, and she has seen an increase in the number of women with in interest in becoming politically involved “like never before.
“We’ve definitely seen a major surge in the number of women interested in running or in leading a more civically engaged life since the 2016 election,” she said. “We started seeing it there and then we really saw a significant increase right after the first global Women’s March a year ago January, and the trend continues, which is really exciting.”
The president owes a hefty sum of votes to women — 53 percent of college-educated white women and 62 percent of women without a college education cast ballots in his favor — but many women jumped to the phones after the 2017 State of the Union address and called the campaign school at 11 p.m., something Russo has never seen in the school’s entire 24 years.
Most women on the other end of the line wanted to “do something,” to run for office, work on a political campaign or learn how to become more civically engaged in their communities, she said.
Numbers of Independent and unaffiliated campaign students grows
These women are ready now, but where were they in 2016?
Two-thirds of the women contacting the school had not cast a ballot in the 2016 election and one-third were not registered to vote and were ineligible for the five-day intensive.
“While they were mad, and they marched, they weren’t ready to run,” Russo said.
Many of the more than 1,500 women helped by the school’s two programs since 2005 are Democrats, but the school is seeing a growing population of Independent and unaffiliated women — some of whom Russo guesses are Republicans struggling to stay aligned with the party.
This could be an opportunity for the Democratic party to pull voters from the right and swing political control of the House and Senate, but only if they stay policy-focused, Isner said.
“Democrats have to do a better job of appealing to white women in particular,” Isner said. “I don’t think we have explained ourselves well, have made it clear why the Democratic party is the way to go.”
Isner said many white women stay out of politics because they see how crazy and larger-than-life it can become. (White women in all elective offices across the nation still vastly outnumber women of color, according to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.) Focusing on policy and progress draws attention away from that and makes politics about representing the people, instead of pointing fingers, she said.
“It is so important that we stay policy-focused and not get focused on the one man in the White House. As frustrating as his actions sometimes are, it’s not ultimately about him — it’s about the direction the country is heading, the way we speak to our neighbors,” she said.
It isn’t all about the march
Not every woman running for elected office in 2018 was inspired by the Women’s March.
Cristina Osmeña, 49, is running as a Republican for California’s 14th district seat in the House, challenging the incumbent, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier. Osmeña told TMN that even without the marches, women still would be running in large numbers.
Osmeña is a Filipina who has politics in her blood. Her great-grandfather Sergio Osmeña was president of the Philippines from 1944-1946. Her father, Sergio Osmeña III, is a former senator who escaped political prison in the Philippines in 1997. She said her heritage and status as a minority are more empowering than her gender.
“Being a minority, being Filipina, has much more of an influence than being a woman,” she said.
Osmeña said she was responding to a push from a mentor who had passed away and the aftermath of Barack Obama’s presidency when she decided to start her congressional campaign.
“I’m an immigrant so I was responding to the archetypes that were going around about immigrants and I thought it was wrong and I thought I could step up to the plate,” she said.
Osmeña did admit that if she were not a minority, she would have been more empowered simply because of her gender. She said she would not be surprised if women voted along gender lines in November, adding, “I get tempted to vote along gender, too.”
But Amy Kremer disagrees with that premise.
“Women running is a great thing but that doesn’t mean that women are going to get votes just because they’re women,” Kremer said.
The 47-year-old co-founder of Women Vote Trump, a super political action committee supporting the 45th president, said she is not confident the Women’s March is going to influence long-term change.
“You don’t know if this is a moment or a movement until Election Day comes and goes; that’s going to be the real test, on Election Day,” she said.
In her eyes, the march was more of a coincidence than action-planning.
“The Women’s March came together because I think they had bought tickets for Hillary Clinton’s inauguration and then she wasn’t inaugurated, so they were all there and they came together,” she said.
Kremer said anyone voting this year is going to make their decision based on policies — specifically those affecting their children, their families and their wallets — not on who is in office and what behavior they showcase.
She expects the left will show up and “turn out” just as the Tea Party movement did when Obama proposed a new health care plan. But Kremer said that because Trump has followed through on campaign promises regarding national security, creating jobs and boosting the economy, the Republican party still has female support.
Osmeña said she too wants to remain focused on policy over propaganda, and that “we already knew what [Trump] was” when we elected him.
“I wouldn’t date him,” she said, but “we knew that he was like this and he was elected fair and square, and unless something happens to disprove that, there was a portion of the population that elected him and what is implied in his rhetoric towards women is a small matter given the fact that he was fairly [elected].”
Gender-unique challenge remain
The campaign school may help women prepare to run, but the candidates still face gender-unique challenges.
“With women in politics, it is much more likely that a woman will be attacked on her gender basis rather than on her ideology, her platform or other things,” Gabrielle Bardall, senior gender specialist of the Arlington, Va.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, told TMN.
Women are still expected to bear the burden of household and child-care duties, especially outside the U.S., which deters some from running at all and makes a campaign more difficult for those who do.
Women with family and domestic responsibilities who do choose to run are often attacked for their character, Bardall said, which affects women differently than men.
“It attacks their credibility and their identity as any kind of political attack would do but it also attacks women as part of society and women as part of the political sphere, and it has the added impact of having very disproportionate effects on the woman and her private life,” Bardall said.
Harassment and other forms of what Bardall calls “electoral violence” — a catch-all word used to describe the political struggles women face — take on different manifestations around the world.
“Harassment and violence is also a major consideration around the world. It’s something that takes on different shapes and forms, according to countries but according to our work it exists everywhere in some shape or form,” she said.
Women are more likely to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates, less likely than men to think they are qualified for office, are less competitive, confident and more risk-adverse than men, according to Bardall.
Isner is a mother, and the time she spends on the campaign trial and not at home with her child has come into the political spotlight.
She said that when people raise questions of whether she should be campaigning or at home, or talk about her appearance, she tries to embrace them, because these things make her feminine.
“I try and make those strengths, embrace that rather than respond in a defensive way,” she said. “When someone comments on my appearance, I say: Yeah, well if I’m a good-looking woman hopefully that will help me get elected.’ We need people running for office who appeal to a broad variety of people and it’s a shame that appearances are such a big part of that, but if that’s where we are, that’s where we are and we have to get women in office before we can change that.”
Osmeña had not witnessed political violence or sexism in her campaign until she saw a lewd online comment on an article written about her.
“I don’t read the comments anymore,” she said.
One woman’s big change
“Last year I marched. Then I ran. Then I won,” Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 21st district, said in a speech to the crowd gathered for the second annual Women’s March in January. The former real estate agent took her 8-year-old daughter to the first Women’s March last year for her birthday.
“It was really hard to tell her she wouldn’t get a first woman president on her eighth birthday, so I brought her to the march,” Convirs-Fowler said. “I didn’t realize at the time that it was not just for her that I came, it was for me and to lift my spirits and to get me to my place that I needed to be to take my seat at the table.”
One day after Trump’s inauguration and 104 years after the first Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. in 1913, Convirs-Fowler realized she could do more for herself, her daughter and women across the country.
She won her seat last November.
“We are changing the world every day, every woman, when we march, when we run for office, when we volunteer, when we vote, when we speak out, so let’s continue doing that.”