There Was Boundless Energy for Women Candidates in 2018. Now, Just Apathy.
More women than ever ran for office four years ago, and the future, everyone said, was female. Where's that same energy for the 2022 midterms?In DepthIn Depth
Illustration: Angelica Alzona
On the heels of the #MeToo movement and the election of our notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” president, record-breaking numbers of women ran for Congress in 2018, making it the second so-called “Year of the Woman.” Ultimately, more than 100 women were elected to Congress in the midterms. It seemed that rather than depress political participation, Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton was a uniquely galvanizing moment for women: Between 2016 and 2018, the number of women running for office literally doubled. Then in 2020, for the first time ever, the New York Times endorsed not one but two women for president—Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar—and it really felt like the glass ceiling might finally be broken.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Year of the Woman in 1992, when a wave of women ran for Congress following massive public backlash against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, after Anita Hill testified before Congress that he had sexually harassed her. But the energy of both 1992 and 2018 seems to have been zapped.
Today, women candidates and campaign staff are navigating a starkly different political landscape. Among many liberal-leaning voters, the activist spirit that defined the Trump era has faded, and the energy and media frenzy surrounding liberal and progressive women candidates in particular has largely vanished—leaving them to struggle against the sexist barriers that have always constrained women in politics, but without the game-changing momentum that helped bridge these gaps in recent cycles.
Trump may no longer be in office, but that alone doesn’t change how women comprise just 27 percent of Congress members, only one-third of whom are women of color. On the state level across the country, a mere 31 percent of state legislators are women. Oh, and in the past 233 years, zero of the 46 presidents of the United States have been women. Despite the persistence of these disparities, with the Trump presidency in the rear-view and nearly five years since the rise of MeToo, much of the electorate now seems to be meeting the struggle for gender parity in politics with a shrug.
Christy Smith, a Democratic candidate for California’s 27th Congressional district this cycle, tells Jezebel the timing of this affliction of political apathy is particularly unfortunate, considering how much is at stake for women, pregnant people, families, and especially those from communities of color this election cycle: A Supreme Court case could effectively end Roe v. Wade, state-level attacks on trans people and their families are surging, and Congress is neglecting to take action around inaccessible child care—or, for that matter, the 41 percent rise in child poverty since the expiration of the Child Tax Credit in January.
Smith ran for California State Assembly and won in 2018. She ran for Congress in 2020 amid the pandemic, and lost by just 300 votes. She is now running for Congress again in one of the tightest races in the nation, with her state’s primary slated for June 7, and she says that this year, the enthusiasm around women like her who are running for office feels off in comparison with previous years. She theorizes that covid’s disproportionate impact on women’s time, energy, and economic circumstances has taken a toll on their political organizing capacities: “For many women, covid meant going back into full-time caregiving, whether for children, parents, or other loved ones, which makes it challenging to continue activism on top of their daily schedules—it’s something some have had to set aside, and we’re feeling the impacts of that.”
New York State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, who’s running for state Senate this cycle, echoes Smith’s concern that women candidates are battling complacency and even hostility among the electorate in a post-Trump political era. “People are just feeling tired and exhausted—there was a huge presidential election, then a literal insurrection at the Capitol,” Niou told Jezebel. “The politics just never seem to end. People are burnt out, sad, and angry all the time. It’s been nonstop the last two years.”
For many women, covid meant going back into full-time caregiving, whether for children, parents, or other loved ones, which makes it challenging to continue activism on top of their daily schedules.
As a Taiwanese-American woman, Niou felt particularly impacted by the Trump administration’s racism, including sharp attacks on Asian Americans at the onset of the pandemic. The Trump era increased visibility around women candidates, because they were the perfect political foil to the noted pussy-grabber-in-chief. But for women of color candidates, Trump also fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia that have often forced women like Niou to fear for their safety. Anti-Asian racism, harassment, and threats targeting her Senate campaign have continued and even escalated, today, more than a year after Trump left office.
Still, Niou is undeterred, and believes at this critical moment for issues like reproductive rights, child care, family leave, student debt, and more, “we won’t have these protections and supports—for our bodies, our children—unless it’s women speaking up for them, writing these bills.”
Some progressive voters are disillusioned with hollow “girlboss” rhetoric.
At the height of the 2020 Democratic primary, the field of candidates was the most diverse in history, including an unprecedented number of women candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, now-Vice President Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, the last of whom at varying points in the fall of 2019 even led the field. It was disappointing for many feminists, if not entirely surprising, then, when Biden ultimately nabbed the nomination.
Since Biden took office, the election of the first female president doesn’t feel like a pipe dream so much as an afterthought, a low-priority consideration amid a deluge of ostensibly more urgent and tangible policy crises that include a war in Ukraine, inflation concerns, and an ongoing pandemic. Where some voters seem to have given up and moved on from the idea of shattering that final glass ceiling, or treating gender parity in political representation as a priority in general, the intervening years between the 2016 presidential election and this year’s midterms have actually made some progressive-identifying voters more hostile to women in leadership—sometimes out of legitimate frustration with how “girlbosses” and “She-E-Os” have weaponized gender to pinkwash harmful policies, and sometimes out of plain-old sexism.
The figure of the girlboss is arguably personified by politicians like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who spent much of last year claiming that critiques of her support for the filibuster and other policy stances with devastating consequences for marginalized people were somehow sexist, because some of her social media critics also disparaged her bizarre fashion choices. In the thorny politics of abortion rights, in particular, we’ve seen anti-abortion women rise to the top ranks of their innately anti-women movement’s leadership and argue that robbing women of bodily autonomy can be feminist.
Justified disillusionment with the figure of the girlboss has, in recent years, yielded no shortage of enjoyable memes and internet snark (think: “Gaslight/Girlboss/Gatekeep”), particularly coming from progressive members of Gen-Z. As Vox reported, where companies and brands are concerned, Gen-Z consumers are “more aware than previous generations” about the values that underlie flowery, corporate diversity rhetoric. Among some of these younger voters, this disillusionment might be yielding knee-jerk distrust of women candidates who so much as talk about their gender and identity, even if they do hold progressive policy stances.
Smith, who authored a number of bills focused on college affordability and bolstering public education while in the California Assembly, also thinks some of the complacency and hostility toward progressive women candidates can be attributed to the devaluation of policy areas that are written off as “women’s issues” in progressive politics, in general. This devaluation can make women candidates, who are more likely to focus on issues like health care, reproductive rights, and child care, seem less progressive than their male counterparts whose rhetoric might focus more on tax policy or wealth inequality broadly, despite how all of these issues are rooted in economic justice.
“Whether it’s the significant need across the country for paid family leave, or a robust, publicly funded childcare system so women can be in the workforce knowing that their children are safe—there’s nothing more progressive than gender equity,” Smith said. “Yet we find those issues relegated to the bottom of the progressive priority roster time and again.”
Candidates who are mothers and women of color face even more challenges.
As candidates like Smith and Niou struggle against an attention economy stretched thinner by the day, lessened participation and excitement around women’s political campaigns compounds with other age-old barriers—namely fundraising and sexist campaign finance disparities.
Simona Grace, executive director of the grassroots PAC Moms in Office and a single mother herself, says women candidates face sexist challenges to raise as much funding as their male—and especially white male—counterparts, who have more expansive networks of business connections, or even their own wealth to self-fund their campaigns. Because men—especially white men—are perceived as the norm for elected officials, they have more credibility with donors and PACs, who are hesitant to donate to women’s campaigns unless they already somehow have raised a substantial amount of money, perpetuating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Grace says she was inspired to start Moms in Office when she saw “how much harder [Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.)] had to work than white male candidates” to raise funds for her campaign. She was in awe of how Porter still managed to win her race and become the only single mom in Congress during her first term. Today, she doesn’t want Porter to be an outlier.
But Grace fears that in a political landscape where “a white, male candidate with deep pockets is considered by donors to be the more viable candidate” over a “more qualified, experienced female candidate with less money,” public apathy to women candidates could be lethal to the success of their campaigns. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, among Democratic primary winners for House seats, women raised an average of $1.4 million—$185,000 less than the average for men. Candidates who are mothers face even greater biases that can stop their campaigns from taking off, Grace says, because of sexist assumptions about their caretaking responsibilities.
Even amid the “Year of the Woman,” women candidates from communities of color, and particularly Black women and immigrants, faced added barriers to gain public support and attention, compared with men of color and white women candidates.
Christian Dyogi Phillips, a political science professor at the University of Southern California and author of Nowhere to Run: Race, Gender and Immigration in American Elections, has traced limited representation of women of color in Congress and state legislatures to the minimal number of majority-minority districts in the U.S. Candidates of color are rarely deemed viable by party leadership in districts that don’t primarily comprise voters of color. This scarcity of districts where they can supposedly run, Phillips told Jezebel, leads to gatekeeping and “exclusionary practices” as party leaders try to “ensure these seats can be held onto by a particular racial group.” In this calculus to evaluate which candidates of color are viable, women of color are often “pushed away from the candidate pipeline” because they’re seen as less electable and less likely to hold onto districts long-term than their male counterparts. Addressing representational disparities for all women, including women of color, requires us to “look beyond majority-minority districts, and reevaluate how we determine who can run in all districts,” said Phillips.
we won’t have these protections and supports—for our bodies, our children—unless it’s women speaking up for them, writing these bills.
It’s worth noting concerns about the viability of women of color politicians persist long after they’re elected. As the first woman and woman of color to serve as vice president, Harris has faced sharper scrutiny and attacks from political media than any vice president in recent history. (This should say a lot, considering previous occupants of this office include a veep who literally shot someone, and plenty of veeps who did nothing at all.) Vice presidents are typically regarded as a shoo-in for the next president—case in point: Joe Biden—but two years out from the next presidential election, Harris is already being overlooked.
2018 and the surge in attention surrounding women candidates challenged many sexist assumptions about electability, Phillips says. Now, it’s time for us to see women of color as electable, too.
The future could still be female—depending where you look.
Despite everything marginalized candidates are up against, we shouldn’t give up hope for gender and racial equity in politics. Instead, Run for Something co-founder and executive director Amanda Litman thinks we should redirect more of our focus from the gridlock of federal politics to the local level, and its vastly untapped potential to address gender disparities and create the most direct, material change to the lives of marginalized people. “You’re going to get more women and people of color in Congress, as governors, senators, mayors, if you have more women and people of color on school boards and city councils and in state legislatures,” Litman said. “That’s because politics, like anything else, is a skill. It takes time and practice to build it up, and local politics and races get you that practice.”
More candidates than any previous year have approached Run for Something about running for local office this cycle, and many of these interested parties are women. That we still have candidates who are making history is exciting, but the lessened media frenzy around women candidates and electeds isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Litman says. “It should be boring that women are running for office.”
Representation alone isn’t a cure-all for gender inequity in society, or the oppressive conditions of white supremacy and patriarchy that fall hardest on the most marginalized. But it can be a significant part of the equation when women candidates, and especially those of color, apply their lived experiences to support progressive policies. Niou, a survivor of workplace sexual harassment, spoke out about the issue and supported a bill to establish a hotline for victims. Grace, who’s seen the transformational work of single mothers in office, says with more of them elected, child tax credits, family leave, and other measures for working families “would be a priority.” To Grace’s point, research has shown women in Congress are more likely than their male counterparts to actually pass and see their bills signed into law—an especially important skill at a time when Congress, with the filibuster intact, is often at a standstill.
Despite the many setbacks, Niou remains hopeful for women candidates. “It’s our job to remind folks that, yes, we might all be tired—but we’re worth the fight.”
2022 doesn’t exude the same buzzy, plucky, “the future is female” energy of 2018’s Year of the Woman. It’s a year grounded in daunting realities, exhaustion, and political fatigue, even as fundamental rights and urgently needed supports are being ripped out from under women and marginalized people. But while disillusionment has never created change, paying attention to and electing progressive women in our communities, up and down the ballot, could very well plant the seeds for it.