WASHINGTON – The Year of the Woman? Politically speaking, it already is.
More women have already filed to run as major party candidates for Congress this year than any other year in history — 363 so far compared with the previous record of 334 set in 2012, says the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
In Michigan, of the 69 congressional candidates who have filed to run in the Aug. 7 primary, 20 are women — a number that might strike many as far too small considering there are about 190,000 more women in the state than men, but it's more than twice the number of women who have run in primaries for federal office in any of the last 20 years.
And it’s not just that women are filing to run in record numbers, either. Consider:
- In several races, female challengers have been out-raising their male counterparts, even some incumbents. Former Defense Department official Elissa Slotkin of Holly, who is running as a Democrat, has out-raised U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, in each of the last three quarters, raising overall $1.71 million to Bishop's $1.56 million. Former Saline Mayor and state Rep. Gretchen Driskell also out-raised U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in the first three months of the year by about $44,000 (though Walberg remained about $350,000 ahead in terms of cash on hand).
- In several wide-open races for seats currently or most recently held by men, women are challenging that status. In the race for the Democratic nomination to replace former U.S. Rep John Conyers — which will likely determine the winner in the predominantly Democratic district — Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones has endorsements from Mayor Mike Duggan and key establishment support, while former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib — who is known for her grass-roots strength — easily leads the crowded field in terms of fund-raising. Meanwhile, in the 9th District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, former state Rep. Ellen Lipton of Huntington Woods, in the first three months of the year raised more, with $501,000, than Democratic opponents Andy Levin (about $386,000) and Martin Brook ($16,000) in another race where the party primary may well determine the eventual winner.
- While gains are being seen by Democratic candidates in what some see as a possible wave election, Republicans are making noise as well, including businesswoman Lena Epstein, who helped run President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Michigan and is running for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham. She has poured nearly $1 million of her money into the crowded nomination race (and posted a picture of herself on Facebook standing in the bed of a pickup, pregnant, holding an American flag.) In the 9th District seat, Candius Stearns, a benefits consultant/agent and Macomb County GOP official, is the only Republican running — meaning that if Lipton were to win the Democrat nod, the district would almost certainly be represented by a woman come January of next year.
“I can just tell you that the tenor and tone I’m hearing in the district is that people are very excited about seeing a fresh face in the political sphere,” said Epstein, who co-owns Southfield-based Vesco Oil Corp., an automotive and industrial oil and lubricants company, and says she knows about working in a world dominated by men. “This is the year of the female candidate — especially the first-time female candidate.”
Of course, filing for office doesn't necessarily meaning winning a primary or a general election. But David Dulio, chairman of Oakland University's political science department, said research shows that when women decide to get into political races, "they do just as well as men."
Which means 2018 could represent a sea change.
"Women have an ability to be be compassionate and empathetic and apply it to their policy making," said Haley Stevens, a Rochester Hills native who was chief of staff to former President Barack Obama's auto task force and is running as a Democrat to replace Trott in what many consider a toss-up race. "It’s time to start getting things done. If you have a qualified woman on the ballot, you can know when you elect her, she will get things done."
In terms of background, too, the women running this year in Michigan — including those who are businesspeople, current or former government officials and/or legislators — represent a greater scope of experience and acumen than those in many other years.
Jones said while every woman has her own story as to why she’s in the race and what brought her there, “It’s a really good year for women to be running … it’s the time.”
Beyond more quantifiable measures, there is also anecdotal evidence, not just in Michigan but across the U.S., that 2018 could be a landmark year for women. Volunteerism by women is said to be markedly up, including on campaigns like Slotkin’s, who says there have been instances where women “literally walk into the office and say, ‘My husband doesn’t know I’m here … and I’m fed up with what I see in Washington.’”
Female candidates — like Dana Nessel, who won the Democratic endorsement for Michigan attorney general recently despite organized labor favoring her male opponent — are making gains. A record number of women — 40 — are also running for governor across the nation.
In some cases, candidates are presenting their womanhood front and center: Ads for female gubernatorial candidates in Maryland and Wisconsin have shown them breastfeeding babies. Others, like retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath, who is running for Congress in Kentucky, have taken a less gender-based approach, with an ad showing her walking down a runway with jets lined up behind her, predicting that Democrats can “win that battle” for the seat.
Nessel, meanwhile, made a name for herself last year amid the #Metoo movement’s targeting of alleged sexual harassment — an effort that resulted in Conyers losing his job as well as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., newscaster Charlie Rose and others and has helped fuel the record level of engagement by women in this year’s midterm elections. In an ad, Nessel asked, “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
The video went viral.
On a snowy Monday night in Bloomfield Hills recently, more than 130 people — practically all women — bundled up to attend a meeting of Moms Demand Action, a group committed to gun reforms that has, in the wake of the February shootings in Parkland, Fla., seen membership explode. And while they weren’t there to talk politics specifically, quite a few came believing — as individuals — it is time not just to organize but to put more women into office.
“I don’t think it should be remarkable when as many women run for office as men do,” said Beth Wallis, a 43-year-old librarian and faculty member at Oakland University. “We live in a time when the person who has been elected president of this country has shown so much disregard for so many people, including women. I think people have had enough.”
But while anger at Trump and earlier comments by him about grabbing women without their permission — as well as the unexpected loss of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on Election Night almost two years ago — may have played a large role in ginning up women’s interest and ire, many experts believe the enthusiasm has gone beyond that. Women, they say, many of whom may not have seen a viable path or reason to run before, are seeing it now with Congress often gridlocked and riven by partisan — or intra-party — divides on issues such as health care, social and environmental justice, education and reproductive rights.
“You’re seeing a difference this time around. We’re not waiting for someone to ask us to do it,” said Tlaib, who said she has spoken to other candidates, including Lipton, about the hurdles a female candidate has to face to run. “There’s a different level of urgency.”
Lipton, a biochemist and patent attorney, said it has been her experience that female lawmakers, regardless of party, are more open to discussion and collaboration as well as outside voices. “There have always been women candidates, of course, but there’s a growing awareness that we need to elect more women,” she said. “The questions that women will ask would be different than the questions a male candidate will ask.”
Will the gender gap be overcome?
At present, Michigan’s 16-member congressional delegation includes three women, all Democrats: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, as well as U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, and has never had more than four (in 2015-17) at one time.
It's possible this year’s election, then, could set a record.
But groups that research women’s role in politics, or work with female candidates or those who want to become candidates, caution against expectations that, even in what could be a watershed year for women, the gender gap will be overcome. While #Metoo and the Trump election helped fuel engagement, they say, whatever happens in this year’s elections, women will still be underrepresented in the 535-member Congress.
“We’re optimistic about the gains that will be made this year. We also know there is a lot of work to do after November to close the gap on underrepresentation,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase the number of women running — or even thinking of running — for local, state and federal offices nationwide.
There is no question, she said, about the level of enthusiasm. Where the group might have talked to 100-150 women a month nationwide before the 2016 election, she said it has had contact with a staggering 21,000 in total since then. But the fact remains that with three-quarters of the women who have filed being Democrats — and many running in competitive elections or taking on incumbents — representation in Congress in 2019 still won’t equal men’s.
Cutraro noted, however, that the level of engagement means more women than ever are thinking about and laying the groundwork for running — which is what her organization works on — and that is the key first step, since women are traditionally “not encouraged and recruited at the same rate as men.”
At the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, assistant professor Kelly Dittmar says it’s also important to note that women make up less than a quarter of all the candidates running in this year’s elections and that, overall, “there’s just more candidates at the U.S. House level.” Meanwhile, a wave of retirements and other events has led to the impending departure of several congresswomen — even as the recent special election in Arizona of Republican Debbie Lesko means a record level of representation for women — 107 members, or 20% — in the current Congress.
Diversity of viewpoints
But does electing women make a difference? Some researchers say that female legislators can be more consensus-building then men, but there are also competing studies that suggest Republican women may be more likely to seek out bipartisan support than their Democratic counterparts.
Some experts suggest that could be true because women, as a whole, are more likely to represent leftward leaning blocs of their parties, meaning more moderate Republicans might be more ideologically apt to work with centrist Democrats than progressive Democrats would be able to work with Republicans of any kind.
Other researchers’ work has also suggested that women in any minority party in Congress may be more effective than those in the majority party — perhaps because of the need for help in getting legislation passed. Other work, including Dittmar’s, suggest women are “more results-oriented, more likely to emphasize achievement over ego and more concerned with achieving policy outcomes rather than receiving publicity or credit.”
But regardless of measurements of collaboration and efficiency, there is no question that women help to change the institution: In the 1970s and ‘80s, women successfully integrated the congressional pool and gymnasiums, which were men-only, or segregated facilities, before that. Recently, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and the mother of a newborn, helped force a change to long-standing rules against babies being allowed onto the Senate floor.
Ultimately, diversity of viewpoint — from women of all manner of economic circumstances, educational attainment, ethnic or racial heritages and political persuasions — may be most important, say experts. That, and letting children, girls and boys alike, know that a woman’s place, whatever she looks like or what her name sounds like, may be in the House, or the Senate, or the White House.
One example of that kind of diversity: As noted in a recent New Yorker article on female candidates, Fayrouz Saad, a former director of immigrant and international affairs in Detroit who is running as a Democrat in the crowded race to replace Trott, joked in an early ad that while her name means “precious stone” when translated from Arabic into English, it also means "at least 17 different spellings on my Starbucks cup.”
Meanwhile, it’s not lost on the women who are running that, as much as they are running for anything else, it’s to show that they are to be taken seriously, an example of which was delivered recently by one of the few top female members of Trump’s team — U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
When Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow suggested that Haley may have been confused when she said the administration was considering new sanctions on Russia, Haley fired back, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” Kudlow later apologized for making the remark.
"I think women are saying, in very large numbers that, if we as women are engaged in the future of our communities — and women always have been, right? — then we have to take the next step and run for office and support women who are running for office," said Lipton.
"We have to be instruments of change."
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