Soraya Chemaly is the director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and the author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.”
The midterm elections saw a cascade of historical firsts for women, as the first Muslim women (Democrat Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Democrat Ilhan Omar, a Somali American former refugee in Minnesota) and Texas’s first Latinas (Democrats Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia) will be joining the House, and Republican Marsha Blackburn became the first woman elected to the Senate from Tennessee. A record number of women — at least 118, possibly more, after all the tallies are in — will serve in the 116th Congress when it is seated in January.
Yet as exceptional as these results were, the election was historic for women because so much about their involvement was unexceptional.
Many of the female candidates did not wait to run until they felt more prepared, had greater confidence or experience, but instead claimed the right to authority in a way more traditionally associated with male candidates. They refuted double standards that have held women to higher measures of behavior, experience and appearance. The candidates acknowledged their imperfections — but also explained why their identities matter. They openly talked about the impacts of maternity, racism, homophobia and sexism on their lives. They explicitly connected issues often relegated to “social” and “private” realms to public, economic and political ones. They described sexual harassment, childbirth and maternal mortality, and focused on health care as a priority.
Women ran for office in such unprecedented numbers that a woman running against another woman was unremarkable. As the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics noted, in a record 33 congressional and gubernatorial races, voters chose between two female candidates — an unprecedented normalization of women seeking power. With women filling the field becoming commonplace, they are preparing the way for women to campaign on the same ticket as running mates.
The growing economic power of women is also becoming a given in electoral politics. Broadly speaking, female candidates remained disadvantaged in major fundraising, relying more on small and individual donations. Male candidates can and do tap into fraternal networks that give them access to more people and money. This election cycle, congressional candidates on average received 36 percent of their donations from women, an increase from 28 in the previous cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Much of the giving went to Democrats — $308 million, compared with $90 million for Republican candidates.
Another notably unexceptional aspect of this election was that, just as more women were running, more women were losing. That was critically important: For women to reach anywhere near parity in representation, they need role models of women willing to take risks and be resilient despite losses. Many female candidates, in the political corollary to the corporate glass cliff, ran in races that were particularly high risk and in districts that were heavily gerrymandered. Just as Stacey Abrams did in her campaign to become the first African American female governor of Georgia (she is contesting the results), women set out to fight in some of the most difficult races, sending a message that, win or lose, they were ready to battle on any terrain.
While many women emphasized their roles as mothers when running for office — a conventional approach for women seeking political power because it reaffirms gender roles rather than challenging them — plenty of candidates ran as nonconventional women: single, unmarried, trans, gay and bisexual. Democrats consistently nominated women who represented a “new normal” for many communities, women whose experiences challenge traditional norms along many axes.
But the overthrowing of the idea that women’s political leadership is unusual is happening largely on one side of the aisle, and it is still limited to legislative positions, not executive ones. The Center for American Women and Politics reports that 476 women filed as candidates for the House contests this year (up from 298 in 2012), but Democrats outnumbered Republicans 356 to 120. The story with House nominees was similar, 183 Democrats to 52 Republicans. Only 10 percent of the current Republican members of the House are women. Republicans suffer from a near total lack of female leaders, while the new Democratic House majority is one in which female leaders will substantively shape institutional power.
They can be excused for taking a special pleasure when they are seated in January as the opposition to a president notorious for his misogyny. But he had better get used it, because this is the new, unexceptional normal.