The Thrill of a Women’s Wave
By Jill Filipovic
Watching anti-Trump female candidates win is exciting, but I’m worried about all they’re being asked to do.
Enormous turnout. A record number of women running — and winning, some of them in squeak-out victories unseating incumbents and turning red districts blue. Mikie Sherrill, who talked about her time as a Navy pilot and mother of four on the campaign trail, won in New Jersey. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger both won in Virginia. Lauren Underwood won in Illinois. In the Kansas governor’s race, Laura Kelly beat Kris Kobach, one of the nation’s leading architects in voter suppression.
A significant number of women of color ran for office this year — and though it looks like Stacey Abrams is not going to win in Georgia, after a long fight not just for voters, but over voter suppression — many of these candidates won. Some claimed victory with small, mostly-female campaign staffs. All of them did it with the energy of female voters, many of whom said they were disgusted by President Trump and the chauvinistic shenanigans of our male-dominated White House and Congress.
Watching these women win has been a salve on a festering two-year-old wound, as a president who ran on misogyny and racism used his platform to amplify that bigotry. This was a tough election, and while Democrats didn’t take the Senate and many high-profile candidates lost, female candidates did remarkably well. The numbers are still being tallied, but we may, for the first time ever, have 100 women in the House. Texas will send a Latina woman to Congress for the first time — actually, two women. The nation will send two Native American women to Congress, a first as well.
It is exhilarating and remarkable to see so many women succeed against long odds, and heartening to see so many take their place as “firsts” in what has never been a truly representational democracy.
But I am worried, too. The women are here, and the expectation is that they will do what women so often do: act as a cleanup crew.
The election results were not entirely the stuff of feminist pink-wave dreams. In addition to Ms. Abrams’s contest, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp did not hold on to their Senate seats. Several high-profile male candidates who enjoyed significant female support (and female labor on the campaign trail) also lost, including, most notably, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke. Republican women also claimed some victories, of course. Marsha Blackburn, whose campaign hinged on her opposition to abortion rights and descended into racist fear-mongering, won in Tennessee. Kristi Noem is leading in the South Dakota governor’s race.
For all of the people who turned out to vote to send a message that President Trump does not represent the best of America, many other Trump loyalists sent the message that the president does indeed represent their America: Angry about a more inclusive nation, nostalgic for a past when white men had a monopoly on power and the rest of us knew our place.
The progressive women who ran in 2018 — victors or not — laid their claim to their country. Many of them did so in reaction to President Trump, many out of a sense of obligation to fix what is so clearly broken, and many from a place of newfound confidence, also perversely bolstered by the president. Mr. Trump’s win “showed you that anyone can do this,” one young Republican woman who was considering running for office told me last year.
The women who ran broke a lot of the old campaign rules. They talked about their families. They breast-fed on camera in political ads. They were openly competitive.
When they take their seats, though, they will face a different set of expectations from our rule-breaking president, and even from their male colleagues.
In business, researchers talk about the glass cliff: the fact that women end up elevated into leadership roles in times of crisis, making success a long shot. When many of those women fail to right a ship that someone else sunk, they end up shouldering the blame.
It’s an unparalleled good thing that so many women ran for office this year, and that so many women worked and volunteered on campaigns. Canvassers and journalists across the country noted the strength of female Democratic enthusiasm, and pollsters backed it up.
The narratives around who lost and why will almost certainly touch on identity, questioning whether candidates were too “identity-focused” by virtue of recognizing that they were not white men, and their lives, experiences and priorities were different. This simplistic read seems destined to overshadow more nuanced takes on how sexism and racism shape our perceptions, preferences and behaviors. It also ignores a stunning reality: Women made the blue wave.
If the post-mortem will be undoubtedly tough on the women who lost, the coming years won’t be much easier for the women who won. There is a perception that we need more female leaders not just because a representative democracy is a fairer democracy, but because women might just be better at the things our current leaders lack — communication, collaboration, the ability to cool one’s Twitter fingers and restore a bit of integrity to politics. There is an expectation that the Democratic women elected Tuesday will make real change and do what they promised: take on President Trump, be advocates for their communities, make our national policies as representative as our country.
The problem is that they haven’t really been given the tools to do it. Republicans maintain control of the Senate. They have a leader in the White House who says he will do whatever he wants.
In politics and in business, research shows that women are punished for being seen as grandstanding or self-promoting. That leaves female politicians without a crucial advocacy and negotiation tool. And more eyes will be on female legislators, because minorities in any room are inevitably more visible. The women who won on Tuesday night, then, face the monumental task of cleaning up our current mess, one made, for the most part, by men — without taking credit for their efforts.
The real story of this election, though, is not what women have or haven’t done, or what we will or won’t do; it’s another stage in the long dance between disaster and progress that has animated gains in civil rights and women’s rights since our country’s founding. The disastrous, proto-authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump came to be because a black man occupied the office before him, and then a woman challenged him; Mr. Trump’s presidency also inspired many women to run for office; his presidency is also such a crisis that a lot of women actually won. These victories do not work in straight lines, and they are rarely total.
Once they are in office, our female legislators will sometimes disappoint us, just as men do. They will sometimes be astoundingly courageous, just as men are. Many of them will probably work harder and ask for less credit than their colleagues — not something men often do. The reality is that even with all of these female victories, women still make up less than a quarter of the House. We can look at this new Congress and see more women and people of color dotting the long-monochrome landscape of overwhelmingly white, mostly-male faces, and recognize that progress has come, fragile as it may be. And we can look at those same faces and see all of the ways in which our American representatives do not quite yet represent all of what America is.