It’s one of the most ballyhooed facts in this election: A record number of women are running for Congress. The downsides are less celebrated.
“People ask, ‘How do you do it with your four kids?’ ” said scientist Julia Biggins, one of four women in a field of six Democrats competing in Tuesday’s Virginia primary for the chance to challenge Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in November. “I don’t know if my male counterparts are getting those types of questions.”
Biggins and two other women in the Democratic race — Lindsey Davis Stover and Alison Friedman — are making their first bid for elective office.
They join state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton (Loudoun), the establishment favorite and only current officeholder in the primary. Army veteran Dan Helmer and former federal prosecutor Paul Pelletier complete the group.
The four women, who each have school-aged children, have been asked some version of the same question that Friedman put like this: “Oh, so you’ve chosen to sacrifice your parenting for your own ambition?”
It’s been something they’ve commiserated about and, at times, bonded over.
Although locked in fierce competition, there’s a “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits and dresses and three different kinds of shoes you’re going to need to get through the day” that they share, Friedman said.
There’s been talk of getting together for a cocktail after the primary is behind them.
“I believe each of us in this race has the presence of mind to know we are choosing this because we want a world that’s better for our kids,” Friedman said. “But on any given day the competing demands are hard, and even with competitors, I do think there’s a camaraderie and an understanding of a sacrifice and a passion and a commitment that trumps that.”
Stover said that as she launched her campaign, a male state legislator tried to talk her out of running by making a comment she found sexist.
“Lindsey, this is really hard,” he said, according to Stover, who declined to identify him. “With the way you look, you could be governor. Why would you ever want to run for Congress?”
Others told her, “Hey, it’s not your turn,” “You’re an entry-level candidate,” and “You’re just starting out.”
She interpreted those comments as a dig at her gender, although Helmer, at 36 the youngest of the six candidates, said he was also told to wait his turn or start by running for the House of Delegates.
Stover, 40, worked on Capitol Hill for 12 years, becoming chief of staff to a congressman and then senior adviser in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Now she owns a consulting firm with her name on the door.
She bristles at the notion that she’s a neophyte.
While she said she hasn’t experienced overt sexism in the congressional race, Wexton recalled a “teachable moment” early in her state Senate tenure. A lawmaker she had just met asked, “Who’s watching your children while you’re down here in Richmond?”
“My husband, their father,” she said. “Who’s watching your children?”
The women face another challenge. With three of the four wearing their blond hair in a similar style, it’s difficult for some voters to tell them apart.
That was evident a few weeks ago in Herndon, when Friedman knocked on the door of 71-year-old Navin Bali, who quickly agreed to vote for her.
He had talked to only one other candidate. Although he couldn’t remember her name, one defining characteristic came to mind.
“She was also a lady,” he said as his fluffy white dog ran outside.
“There are a couple,” Friedman responded.
A record 431 women had filed to run for the House as of Wednesday, trouncing the previous record of 298, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Still, women account for only about 23 percent of all candidates so far, up from a total of about 18 in 2016, center data show.
Female candidates are winning primaries at slightly higher rates than men, with 46 percent of women advancing in House races, compared with 40 percent of men, said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist who studies gender and politics at the center.
Whether they can win in November is another question, said Jennifer L. Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
“The fact that women are faring at least as well as men is important, but I wouldn’t make much of the differential because a lot of that is obscured by the prospects of them ever being able to win a general election,” she said.
That’s not the situation in Comstock’s race, which three independent analysts consider a toss-up and the only true swing district in the Washington region.
After a recent forum, Cathy Faraj, 70, a retired Fairfax County Public Schools teacher, said the race is too important to get hung up on gender.
“I used to scan the ballot and say, ‘Who’s the woman?’ ” she said. “Now we have so many women running that it’s not that big of a thing for me.”
Political observers speculate whether four women could “split the woman vote,” handing victory to one of the men. Campaigns try to avoid this by defining their candidate by their experience and accomplishments.
Women are more likely than men to face crowded primaries, and female incumbents are more likely to see a crowded primary in the opposing party, said Lawless, who studied nearly a half-century of primary elections.
“They perceive a female incumbent as more vulnerable than she might be,” she said. “There’s no empirical evidence that any of this is true, but perceptions drive candidate emergence.”
In Virginia, Democratic candidates are encouraged by 2017 gains in the state legislature. Of 15 freshman Democrats in the House of Delegates, 11 are women.
And most residents of the 10th Congressional District are already represented by women. Phyllis J. Randall and Sharon Bulova are chairmen of the Loudoun and Fairfax boards of supervisors, respectively. With her years in the legislature, Comstock has represented parts of the district since 2010.
Last year, Comstock often appeared in campaign literature beside her daughter and mother. Stover and Friedman are also presenting themselves as mothers, with photos of them with their daughters prominently featured on their websites.
Friedman’s 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, joins her door knocking. Stover’s girls have campaign duties, too: Audrey, 6, is in charge of hole punching, and Emery, 8, does the shredding.
The eldest put her “bucket list” on Stover’s desk the other night and said, “Mom, I got a good feeling about Number 2.”
Beneath “Make the U.S. women’s soccer team,” she wrote: “Be the first girl president.”