No, the Year of the Woman was not hype. The election returns provide ample reason for those working to shift the gender balance in politics to celebrate. Consider:
- Of their seven gubernatorial pickups, four of the Democratic winners were women.
- The only Democratic Senate candidate to pick up a seat was a woman, Sen.-elect Jacky Rosen of Nevada.
- Women will hold at least 96 seats in the House, a record; at least 23 members of the U.S. Senate and nine governors will be women.
- Overall, at least 117 women have been elected as House members, senators or governors.
It’s not simply that women won, but women brand new to politics and/or running to be the “first” won (e.g., African American House member from Massachusetts, two Native American women, female governor in Maine). A number of the big wins were notched by women who had served in the military or the intelligence community — one powerful reason for fully integrating women into these avenues of public service. These include former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia; Elissa Slotkin, an Iraq War veteran from Michigan; former Navy commander Elaine Luria of Virginia; and former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill from New Jersey. While the vast majority of successful women candidates were Democrats, Republican women broke through to win the governorship in South Dakota and a Senate seat in Tennessee.
Certainly, President Trump provoked a lot of women to run for office for the first time, to march and to canvas, to give to political causes and — most important to the county’s political realignment — to vote for Democrats. Whether it was his bullying or his racism or his support for alleged child molester Roy Moore or his own payoffs to accusers or his nonstop stream of insults about and to women, a whole lot of women decided, rather than to stew, to get into the fray. Wins in the suburbs can in large part be attributed to women shifting support from Republican to Democrat for the House.
Absorbing the constant sting of Trump’s verbal arrows, women did not “get over” Trump’s election or learn to live with his serial affronts. They did not take kindly to his mocking of the #MeToo movement or of Christine Blasey Ford. It’s fair to say that women who would not have otherwise gotten politically involved did so because they could clearly see the mostly male political powers were not looking after their interests. So they marched, they organized, they became donors, they ran for office, they made new alliances, they “persisted,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refused to sit down and be quiet as instructed on the Senate floor.
And here, one should take a step back to appreciate that for all Trump’s assaults on the rule of law, the attacks on democratic norms, the attempt to intimidate the media and the undermining of objective reality, Trump’s anti-democratic actions were met with an outpouring of democratic activism, by some of the people (women) who felt most aggrieved by his conduct. Don’t get me wrong — plenty of men organized, ran for office, became donors and the like, but women who had broken barriers in the military and persevered as immigrants or who had never dreamed of a political career or (weekends of marches) jumped into the fray for the first time. That says a lot of about the vitality of our democracy and the ability of women to creatively organize outside conventional political networks.
Once elected, these women may behave somewhat differently from their male counterparts and even from women who came up in politics in past generations. Many of the newly elected officials come with a decided outsider’s perspective and with a strong tradition of public service. Perhaps they will be more inclined to push for ethics reform and public transparency. In addition, they haven’t spent their adult lives in partisan trenches so possibly they will exhibit the desire and skill to reach across the aisle. If so, the country will be in their debt. In any event, the Trump era may have revived our participatory democracy — and given it a new, decidedly female profile.