Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s inauguration appeared to launch 2017 as a year of the woman. The year started with the Women’s March, which brought out millions of people, many in pink hats that signaled outrage about Trump’s comments about feeling free to grab women. It ended with the ouster, resignation and electoral defeat of prominent men implicated in sexual harassment and assault in the fields of entertainment, business, politics and beyond.
The original “year of the woman” came in 1992, after senators grilled Anita Hill about her allegations that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her — hearings that ushered an unprecedented wave of women into Congress.
Will 2018 be another such year? That’s what many are wondering, considering the momentum of the #MeToo campaign, Trump’s unpopularity, especially among women, and the surprising victories of female candidates in last year’s Virginia House of Delegates elections.
Here’s how the midterms look for female candidates right now:
A record number of women are running
This year’s congressional elections are likely to feature a record number of female candidates. As of this week, the Center for American Women and Politics had identified 390 women who have filed or are likely to file as U.S. House candidates and 49 women likely to run for the U.S. Senate. Among House candidates, the vast majority — 82 percent — are not incumbents. If those numbers hold up, it would constitute the largest pool of female congressional candidates in history.
Many women say they’re running because they were furious about Trump’s election, especially after the “Access Hollywood” tape, and energized by the Women’s March in Washington the day after his inauguration. That’s a conclusion based in part on accounts from Democratic organizations such as Emily’s List and Emerge America, which in 2017 reported a flood of women expressing interest in their candidate-training programs.
It is also consistent with a survey of college-educated Americans — the people most likely to run for office — conducted in May by political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox that found Trump’s victory had spurred political activism among female Democrats.
For instance, 47 percent of Democratic women said they were more closely following the news and 40 percent said they were more politically active since Trump won the presidency. (The numbers for Democratic men were lower, at 33 and 34 percent.) Female Democrats also reported being more likely in the wake of the 2016 election to donate to political candidates and join political interest groups.
While men — Democratic and Republican alike — in Lawless and Fox’s survey were on average more likely than women to say they were considering a run for office, female Democrats appeared particularly exercised about Trump. Among the Democrats who said they had thought about running, 28 percent of women said it had first occurred to them since the election, compared with 11 percent of Democratic men.
But it’s also because female candidates are overwhelmingly Democratic
Feminist objections to Trump probably aren’t the whole story, however. One reason so many women are running is that so many Democrats are running.
According to campaign finance data compiled by Michael Malbin, an extraordinary number of Democratic House challengers had by last October raised at least $5,000, a reasonable threshold for establishing a viable candidacy. That was more than three times as many as in any recent election. The numbers for Republicans looked more typical.
Because most women run as Democrats, a boom in Democratic candidates also means a boom in female candidates, and vice versa. In 2016, for instance, 70 percent of female Senate candidates and 65 percent of female House candidates were Democrats, according to primary and general election data from the Center for American Women and Politics. This year, among the women likely to run, about 80 percent are Democratic.
Thus, it’s likely that the surge in female candidates is a result of both the activism of the women’s movement and the more general strategic calculations by Democrats, many of whom are women. Either way, it’s all about Trump.
Will women ride the #MeToo wave into office?
Will this translate into a major increase in the number of women in office come November? Some of that depends on whether the Democratic wave election that some analysts are predicting (including here at TMC) actually materializes. But women win their races just as often as men — so more women on the ballot will probably mean more women winning seats.
Some research suggests that women’s fortunes might also depend on the extent to which stories about sexual harassment and misconduct continue to dominate the news. In that way, 2018 could be like 1992, when anger about sexual harassment helped female candidates win women’s votes.
That’s no small task. Despite the conventional wisdom, it’s not easy for women to win over female voters. A large body of research finds only limited evidence that women are disproportionately inclined to vote for female candidates, once you account for things such as partisanship and ideology. That was true even in 1992’s year of the woman, when political scientist Philip Paolino found that women were not on average more likely than men to vote for female Senate candidates such as Patty Murray and Barbara Boxer.
Paolino did find, however, that women who believed sexual harassment was a serious problem in the workplace were more likely to vote for female candidates in states where women were running for the Senate. Attitudes about sexual harassment were not correlated with vote choice in races where women were not running — nor did they influence men’s votes.
“Women will support female candidates not based on simple in-group preference,” Paolino concluded, “but because of a concern that the descriptive underrepresentation of women in Congress increases the possibility that gender-salient issues are overlooked.” In other words, female candidates may be able to galvanize women’s votes when women feel that a male-dominated political system is neglecting their issues.
With the news media heavily covering sexual harassment and predation recently, voters may very well be thinking about the subject quite a bit. Consider the figure below, which shows the number of news stories including the term “sexual misconduct” or “sexual harassment” from January through December 2017. These data come from searches of more than 5,000 U.S. publications, including newspapers and television stations, archived by NewsBank.
Between January and September, U.S. news outlets collectively published about 3,000 such stories each month. But after the allegations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein broke, the number quadrupled to nearly 12,000 in October. And as more accusations emerged about “Today” show host Matt Lauer, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, and many other celebrities, it reached 28,000 in December.
The news media will probably move on to other stories in the coming months, letting sexual harassment and assault allegations again fade. But it’s also likely that more allegations about prominent celebrities or politicians will surface — and so the coverage probably won’t disappear entirely.
If these allegations stay in the news, and if candidates point to them as they campaign, research suggests that female candidates may get bigger shares of the vote. The more those stories are in the news and the more candidates talk about them, the more likely it is to affect voters’ choices — and that may determine whether 2018 becomes another year of the woman.