By Diandra Loux
From local municipal races all the way up to the national level, women of every race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and profession made themselves heard in the 2018 midterm elections. According to The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and The Women in Public Service Project, 125 women, including 45 women of color, won their seats for the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate in the 2018 election cycle.
Per Vox, over 42,000 women contacted Emily’s List, an organization that recruits and trains pro-choice women to run for every level of office across the country, about running for office during the 2018 election. The interest was so fierce that they expanded their staff and built out a training program to meet the demand. Emily’s List candidates went on to flip the 24 house seats needed to win the U.S. House majority, and the group is already working with more women ahead of the 2020 election.
For many, the surge in 2018 was no surprise — after the 2016 election, the number of women interested in running for office was at an all-time high. Yet running for office, and connecting to your voter base, is not a one-person job; behind most political candidates at every level are organizations that support and train them, and, ultimately, get them elected. And most of the organizations helping female candidates specifically have been working behind the scenes for years in preparation for a moment like the one we’re now in — when women feel empowered to enter the race.
More women than ever are stepping up to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Meanwhile, lawmakers — including Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), the first black woman elected to congress in Massachusetts; Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the first Muslim women elected to Congress; and Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-KS), the first Native American women ever elected to congress, plus Davids is the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to congress in Kansas — are all helping political hopefuls realize that they, too, can be a part of the shifting landscape.
She Should Run, a Washington, DC-based organization, says they’ve prepared over 21,000 women to run for office. Among those women is Grace Williams, a student at Ohio Northern Law School who balances her coursework with She Should Run’s incubator program, an online training that prepares women to run for office.
“A large part of the training was listening to what other women experienced as candidates, putting your thoughts to paper, and then saying those thoughts out loud in front of other people,” said Williams. Even though she’s not yet sure where her place in the government will be, the 23-year-old was inspired by the wave of women of color running for and winning their bids for office.
According to Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run For Something, women comprised over 50 percent of the 11,000 people who have contacted the them since the midterm election with hopes of one day running for office. The organization aims to recruit and support young women and men from diverse backgrounds to run for down-ballot races in order to build a bench for the future, and works to lower the barriers of entry for candidates by helping them with money, organizing, and access to the trainings they need to be successful in the process.
The organization tries to be early endorsers for their candidates to make sure they are supported and know that they’re doing a good job. “It sounds really small but it’s incredibly meaningful. They’re not going to be alone in this,” Litman says.
“The surge of women inquiring about running for office has become a snowball effect,” adds She Should Run CEO Erin Loos Cutraro. “We’re seeing incredible women leaders who don’t just represent one background,” she adds, citing the midterm elections as a key turning point for many political hopefuls.
But although more women are taking on the role of political candidate, women are still underrepresented at every level of government, party because they simply don’t run at the same rate as men. As of January, women still only make up 23.7 percent of Congress. Those numbers are even grimmer for women of color.
“Women of color only represent nine percent of Congress and just five percent of statewide offices. We have a long way to go to be fully representative of the great diversity that we offer,” Loos Cutraro says, adding that representation for LGBTQ+ individuals is also a priority for She Should Run. “Every time we elect a woman who leads as an LGBTQ woman, it ignites the possibility of the women who haven’t seen themselves represented.”
Many political hopefuls no longer feel like they have to conform to what was once expected of a female candidate in terms of appearance and pedigree, but there are still hurdles to overcome — like the all-too-familiar imposter syndrome.
Loos Cutraro calls doubts like, “Am I qualified?,” “Can I afford what it will cost financially, do I have the time?,” “What will it cost me in being out in public with my leadership?,” and “Can I handle the attacks on my family and friends?” key reasons some women opt not to run for office.
Florida-based organization Ruth’s List has found that training was extremely beneficial when it came to helping women feel comfortable running for office. The group works on a state and local level, and has trained more than 1,800 women to run for office in past and future elections; they are currently the only organization in Florida that offers free training to would-be candidates, which includes helping candidates sort through what they’re thinking, figure out what they would be best suited for, what their key issues are, and where their political passions lie.
Anna Eskamani first began exploring the idea of running for office during an internship at Ruth’s List. (She had previously worked with Run For Something.) As an intern, the now-28-year-old Orlando native became involved in grassroots efforts by phone banking for candidates, volunteering at Planned Parenthood, and registering voters. While encouraging other women to run, they would ask Eskamani, “Why not you?” As a result, she scheduled a meeting with the political directors at Ruth’s List to start weighing out her options. On November 7, 2018, she walked away with a victory for Florida House District 47.
“These organizations are so important because I think if women realize they have a network of support, they will be more inclined to run for office,” Eskamani says.
And the empowerment doesn’t end with one election. According to Ruth’s List CEO Pam Goodman, their candidates who ran in 2018 and lost either their primaries or general elections are all running again. The organization will continue to support these women as candidates in the 2020 election; they also anticipate doubling their numbers from 2018 by the time 2020 comes along.
“Decisions were made immediately,” Goodman says. “This is a movement. This is not a trend. Our country needed a movement like this.”
Editor's note: This story originally misspelled the last name of Erin Loos Cutraro. We have updated the story accordingly.