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Ready to Run, Ready to Rule: Women Entering Government

A woman rides on a crowded bus, walking down dilapidated streets to meet expectant mothers and poor children, passionately talking to the Bronx’s hopeful faces about indiscernible equality for all through socialist policies. Some 900 miles away, another woman drives down the uneven country roads of rural Georgia, attempting to convince questioning conservative citizens that she doesn’t have to raise taxes to alleviate their problems.

Both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who could become the youngest woman elected to Congress, and Stacey Abrams, who could become the country’s first African American female governor, are women at turning points in their careers and in the history of female politics. But before they can declare victory in November, they have to face obstacles against their races and ethnicities, against their incumbent opponents, and especially against their gender.

Desire to Run

The first step in any political campaign starts with a candidate who is passionate about an issue and desires to run.

Laura Quick, who ran in the Democratic Primary in Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District, told The Politic her motivations for running for office had been building up for years.

“It goes back to 2014 when I went to vote in the general election: there was no Democrat running against the Republican congressman,” Quick said. “I’m the type of person, when I see a void, and I think I can fill it, I do that.”  

By the time 2016 rolled around with the election of Trump, her desire was solidified. Quick’s story is reflected in the other women running this year.

From Abrams in Georgia to Ocasio-Cortez in New York to Jacky Rosen in Nevada, almost 590 women across the country are running for Senate, House, and governor positions— a dramatic increase unseen since the 1992 midterm elections. Given the recent political climate, many women, especially Democratic candidates, have taken the chance to run for office. After Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost to Republican nominee Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, many women around the country, particularly left-leaning, were both shocked and angered. The anger stemming from Trump’s statements and actions has spurred many women to set their feet on a political path. Irene Vasquez ’21, a Yale student who worked for Lizzie Fletcher’s campaign in Texas’s 7th Congressional District, admitted that she doesn’t think Fletcher “would’ve considered [running] if Trump was not president.”

Inderpal Grewal, a professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Yale University, reasons that this “political context” of Trump “will make women run.” While the motivations for many of these female candidates may differ from one candidate to another, a commonality is the desire to make a change.

Not only are they young, many of the candidates are women of color, single and working mothers, veterans, and candidates without much previous political experience. They span multiple religions, sexualities, and ethnicities. But these candidates take advantage of their various differences to connect with voters. Instead of hiding their backgrounds or what makes them distinct females, women are using their experiences to make their platforms stronger. As a single mom and UPS package car driver, Quick stated that she was able to connect with people better.

“I had to change careers because I was a single mom,” she said. “When I told that story of having to change careers in order to have healthcare, people related to that, they responded to that”.

Getting the Campaign Off the Ground

The path to political office is long and comes with several bumps along the road. Many female candidates face obstacles that may discourage them from running or prevent them from succeeding in their races. Compared to their male counterparts, female politicians have a more difficult time campaigning.

Historically, there have been multiple factors that created this gender disparity, which in turn lessened the likelihood of women running for office. For many female candidates, funding has been one of the main obstacles. Research from the New York Times has shown that large organizations such as political action committees (PACs) typically do not offer financial commitments to female candidates under the assumption that they will most likely not win. Quick agreed that “the hardest thing for [her] was the fundraising aspect.”

“I had committed to knocking on ten thousand doors and raise one million dollars,” Quick said, adding that her primary opponent “put $150,000 of his own money in. When you have that ability, you can get the people, you can get the staff.”

Electoral politics is a “masculine field” according to Grewal, “because it needs a whole lot of money, it needs political machinery, and it needs name recognition in this age of media.” This dynamic creates a perpetually negative cycle with women lacking support, and thus, they do not run, she explained.

Additionally, there are many psychological factors that add to the complex barriers for women. According to Politico, women are not encouraged by friends and family to run for office after college, at least not at similar levels of support that is usually given to men. This, coupled with doubts about their qualifications, already puts women at lower levels of candidacy.

Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21, a Yale student who worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, also said that political parties were sometimes not supportive of women, because it would disrupt their hierarchies.

“It was more that people like [Ocasio-Cortez], often marginalized folks, are not supposed to have the power,” she explained. “The Democratic Party was not very supportive of her.”

Another explanation for the unequal numbers of female candidates stems from voting trends. According to Frances Rosenbluth, a political science professor at  Yale University, women historically have not run for political offices because of familial situations. Most voters in the past have been middle-aged or older citizens who want to see the candidates who reflect them—candidates who are family-oriented.

“They want someone who is like them to make similar decisions for them,” Rosenbluth said.

But married women are generally busy with child-rearing or staying at home, in ways that men were not, Rosenbluth explained. She said women often find themselves in a “double bind” because a female contender has to have children to be perceived as a strong candidate, but the campaign trail would take time away from her family. However, if the woman is unmarried or childless, voters can be suspiciously hesitant to vote for the candidate. All in all, Rosenbluth finds that this puts women at “competitive disadvantage” against men.

More recently, Rosenbluth said, both candidates and voting demographics have been changing slowly. Younger populations—people without the same family prejudices—are beginning to vote. They want diverse candidates that reflect them, propelling the push for female candidates.

Primaries

To even get on the November ballot, candidates must first win their primaries. Some female candidates can barely get their campaigns started with the necessary funding and support. Thus, getting to the primaries is a feat.

In the primary elections, these candidates could face long-time incumbents or fellow women. For example, Ocasio-Cortez faced Joseph Crowley, a ten-term House Representative, in the primaries. With a shocking twist for many, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Crowley by a large margin: 57.5 to 42.5 percent. In Georgia, Abrams competed against Stacey Evans, winning by even larger margins of 76.5 to 23.5 percent. Abby Lee ’21, a Yale student who worked for Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign, attributed her win to several reasons.

“[Her campaign was] always very careful to focus on Georgia people,” Lee said. “She’s very invested in the state…and made efforts to visit many different parts of the state.”

While both Ocasio-Cortez and Abrams won their primaries, some of their comrades have been less lucky.

Quick, who lost her primary, said that she knows what she’d do better next time: “I’d start early with a lot of money,” she said, mentioning that she would “be open to Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, but no corporate PACs.”

If she were to run again, Quick said she would also want to find a campaigning veteran to help her strategize.  “I would like somebody to be a taskmaster and tell me what to do. I need someone who’s experienced with campaigning,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign saw the positive effects of support. Justice Democrats, a progressive PAC, offered the New York candidate campaign advice and strategy.

“She was contacted by Justice Democrats…because she had the potential to change the community,” Kumar-Banerjee said. “A lot of what they provide is not money, it’s resources. They’re involved in the campaign, they’re providing ground support.”

Lizzie Fletcher’s campaign received a different type of support. Vasquez explained that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got involved in the race by releasing opposition research against Fletcher’s primary opponent, Laura Moser. ”[Moser] was supposed to be the more progressive candidate,” Vazquez said. “It would be harder for her to win the district.” With that, the DCCC gave Fletcher an easier path to the win.

However, during the primaries, many of the female candidates also faced hostility because of their gender and background.

“The three Republican males—I can’t tell if it was because I’m UPS package car driver or because I’m a woman—the one who ultimately won, would never even acknowledge my presence,” Quick said. “He would shake hands with both [of] the men, but I was not afforded that respect.”

Kumar-Banerjee noticed the candidate she worked for being treated similarly. .

“[Ocasio-Cortez] was not taken seriously…certainly a male newcomer would have been treated with more respect than she was,” Kumar-Banerjee explained. “All these news sources wouldn’t cover her…they made it seem like she wasn’t even there, like she was invisible.”

November 6th & A Hopeful Future for Many

2018, nicknamed “The Year of the Woman,” holds the potential to change the political makeup of the US to include more female candidates taking office in an upheaval unseen since the 1992’s election cycle, after the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings.

With the election right around the corner, many candidates have been busy with their campaigns.

While the increase in women running for office in the United States is historic for many American females, it is difficult to predict how this can turn into success during the November elections. Primaries are not always the most accurate description of what can happen in the midterms. Voter turnouts are often low and typically reflect extreme positions of a party. Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign is stark example of that. The Democrat won on socialist ideas in a race with only 15 percent turnout. However, Kumar-Banerjee explained that many people “didn’t even know when the recent [primary] election was.”

Bloomberg’s analysis on the races show that at the best, women have a chance to occupy 30 percent of Congress, which is unprecedented but not deafening. Many women ended up running against each other in the primaries, knocking down the number of female candidates. There are also several female incumbents who have a higher percentage of winning races due to recognition and financial resources. Butthe general election in November can prove to be even more difficult. Many women face male incumbents or are situated in non-competitive races with definite advantages for one party over the other. In many cases, women won’t be elected because of political reality.

Yet, any rise in the number of women in Congress could be seen as a change to the country.  Ocasio-Cortez’s win, for example, represents a potential shift in Democratic political ideology. Kumar-Banerjee said she believes that Ocasio-Cortez “was definitely a big part of the reasons that medicare-for-all is going to have to be talked about. It becomes a cultural force and that’s what drives the power in Congress.”

Kumar-Banerjee shared a story about the impact that Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign had on citizens.

“I remember standing on subway platforms … and people would walk up to me and people wouldn’t speak English,” Kumar-Banerjee said. “There’s a large Spanish speaking constituency.  They would walk to me and be like, ‘I know her,’ and I can understand enough Spanish to know that they were saying, ‘I know her and I’m voting for her.’… she inspired a lot of people and made a lot of people feel heard.”

Lee, the Abrams campaign worker, also offered hopeful predictions.

“It should shift the way Democrats run and campaign in Georgia,” Lee said. “[Abrams] was the first one in Georgia to really be like, ‘We’re not attempting to win back the right. We’re not attempting to pull those moderate suburban white voters. We’re going to run on our platform, as we are, and we’re going to work on mobilizing marginalized communities and empowering people to get out and vote.’”

Many women who are on the ballot, whether Republicans or Democrats, still have the opportunity this November to break up the white male dominated makeup of their state’s legislation. This is all dependent on voter turnout in November—whether they are a continuation of previous years, or whether younger generations will change the course of politics.

If female candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, Abrams, Fletcher, and the others dominate the polls on November 6th, there may or may not be changes to what policies might be brought to the spotlight. Rosenbluth suggested that the biggest idea that we need to look at is “substantive versus descriptive representation,” or whether or not voting women to legislatures matters. Grewal says that we also need to make sure that women are continuously running and being elected, not simply as a result of major political turmoil. So while voting women into Congress is a start to equal representation, it is not the stopping point towards equality for women in the country.

“Ever since 2016, I’ve given up any type of prognosticating.” Quick said. “There are some days where I feel, ‘Yeah, it’s going to happen,’ and there’s some when I think, ‘No, it’s not going to happen, it’s all a ruse.’ I had a little bit of PTSD from the whole 2016 elections.”

While Quick can’t say for sure what she thinks is going to happen, she is ready for the future. “I don’t predict, but I hope,” she said. “I’m ready to do whatever’s necessary…I’m ready to be an activist.”