The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With more women running for office, new opportunities — and challenges — arise

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidates and former state Reps. Stacey Abrams, left, and Stacey Evans get ready to debate May 15 in Atlanta. (John Amis/AP)
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An earlier version of this story reported that Stacey Abrams was the first black woman to be a major-party nominee in the country. She’s the first black female major-party gubernatorial nominee.

The historic wave of women running for Congress and governor this year already has landed 78 women on November ballots in several states. It also has revealed an uncomfortable truth: To seize political power in a landscape still dominated by men, many women are going to have to defeat another woman along the way.

Dozens of such contests already have been held that elevate one woman and disappoint another, a reckoning that resumes June 5, when eight states hold primaries. Stacey Abrams made history as the first black woman to be a major-party gubernatorial nominee in the country, but she had to beat fellow Georgia state legislator Stacey Evans in a May 22 race to get there.

Some women running against other women said they found this new dynamic liberating in a cycle where Democrats have made clear at the ballot box that they want to send women to Congress, where men still outnumber women 5 to 1. And most of the female candidates are Democrats, many of whom are appealing to voters with overt references to women’s rights, #MeToo and the election of President Trump.

Such an appeal is more complicated to make when you don’t have a male opponent. However, the female faceoffs also can force voters to look beyond gender, to the issues.

“Because I’m taking on a woman incumbent, the focus has been a lot on the very sharp policy differences,” said Katie Porter, a Democrat and consumer advocacy lawyer who hopes to unseat Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) in California’s 45th District. “[Voters] immediately say, why should I choose one over the other? And the answer to that question can’t be because one is a woman and one of them is not a woman.”

In California’s top-two primary June 5, the two highest vote-
getters will move on to the general election, regardless of party. The women are facing several male Democratic opponents.

“If Katie Porter does get through the primary,” said Walters, “I don’t believe I’ll be campaigning any differently against her than if I had a male [candidate] running against me. I run on issues.”

That’s an advance regardless of the outcome, said Kelly Dittmar, who studies gender and politics at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

With a paucity of female candidates, “our tendency is to lump them together and say, ‘She’s the woman candidate in that race,’ ” said Dittmar. “The more women you have running against each other, [it] really brings to the forefront the diversity among women . . . as candidates and as voters.”

The all-female races haven’t banished what many women said is an unwelcome focus on their appearance.

“My God, the amount of women that have something to say about your clothes or the way you dress or anything like that is just, holy cow,” said Katie Hill, who ran an organization that provides housing for the homeless and is running for Congress in California’s 25th District. At one point, a female voter told her she needed to wear pantyhose to be taken seriously.

Another woman in that race, Jess Phoenix, said she hadn’t heard any sexist remarks in person. But after she announced her candidacy, a troll found an Instagram photo on her personal account that featured her with torso exposed, to showcase a new tattoo on a side of her ribs.

“Apparently, your sleeves aren’t the only thing you’re willing to roll up,” wrote one Twitter user in response to a campaign tweet.

The online needling “doesn’t faze me too much,” said Phoenix, “because it’s yahoos on the Internet, and if I was worried or ashamed” of how she presents herself, “I clearly wouldn’t be in this race. You know what you get into.”

Expectations about gender and candidacy may vary by generation. Hill, 30, a first-time candidate, said the comments about her appearance came from older women.

Her qualifications also were questioned in ways she perceived as sexist.

“ ‘Why did you jump ahead of line? Why didn’t you wait your turn?’ You get a lot of that, even though no one in my race on the Democratic side has held any kind of public office before,” she said.

Phoenix, a geologist who studies volcanoes, leans hard on success working in male-dominated sciences. “I am able to get a team going and accomplish what we need to accomplish because . . . you know, for me it’s about what your output is,” she said.

There have been hard-fought and high-profile races between women before, of course.

What has become clear this year, with more than 525 women running or saying they will run for Congress or governor, is that women can compete just as fiercely as men. What’s not clear is whether voters would fault them for it, said several candidates.

Texas’s 7th Congressional District around Houston drew national attention for its intraparty acrimony. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), favoring the more-
centrist Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, released opposition research on one of her opponents, Laura Moser, who aligned herself with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

“One thing someone said to me very early, and I’ve been very careful about, is: Don’t be the bad stereotype of women going against other women. That sort of catfight stereotype,” Moser said in an interview before the runoff, which she lost by more than 30 points.

She said she had been “careful not to descend into any personal warfare” during the campaign, and she immediately endorsed Fletcher after the election.

Fletcher said that voters were focusing more on issues such as Hurricane Harvey relief and less on the gender of the candidates or the DCCC drama.

“We’re . . . just trying to stay above any kind of fray that’s anything other than talking about the issues to the voters,” she said.

Fletcher also had the backing of Emily’s List, dedicated to providing funding, resources and advice to progressive female candidates who support abortion rights.

In races with multiple women who align with its values, the group either sits the race out or gets involved only if it can help a strong candidate move on to the general election. That can mean making some tough calls. But, said spokeswoman Julie McClain Downey, “We see this as a good problem to have.”

Phoenix, the California volcanologist, said she’s running a grass-roots campaign and isn’t too concerned that Emily’s List endorsed Hill.

“I’m a massive fan of the kind of work that they are set up to do,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean that I let it slow me down or stop me whatsoever.”

The new landscape of women running for office might create opportunities to change existing structures and assumptions about what women need to win.

“I just think it’s so positive that you have your Emily’s List candidate, and then you have the more-rogue candidates who maybe nobody in the establishment told us they could run,” said Susannah Wellford of Running Start, a nonpartisan group that trains women to run for office.

“Maybe nobody believes that they even have a chance,” she said. “I want more of those people.”

In 2018, American politics is going through the growing pains of stretching to accommodate candidates that are clamoring to take up more space, and more seats, than they’ve historically been allowed. But growing pains are, after all, signs of growth.

Unfortunately when you have women running against each other you're going to have at least one woman lose,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “By the same token it demonstrates that we've made a lot of progress if we’ve gotten to the point where there are multiple women in a congressional district of the same party that are vying for that nomination.”