Women around the United States are clamoring to run for office since Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, say Democratic Party figures fielding a surge in demand from aspiring female politicians.
Far from discouraging progressive women, the shock of defeat and anger at the now more than 100-day old Trump Administration’s male bias has been channeled into a new-found desire to take back power step by step. And that means starting from the local level and moving up to the highest echelons of government.
“Women had a wake-up call after the November election because many took for granted that Hillary would break the glass ceiling and be the first woman President,” said Kathleen Matthews, the interim chair of the Democratic Party in Maryland, in an interview after Clinton’s appearance at the Women in the World summit last month in New York. The vanquished candidate delivered her first election post-mortem in a discussion with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, saying of the Trump Administration, “As a person, I’m OK. As an American, I’m pretty worried.”
The abrupt awakening since the political earthquake of 2016 has been especially pronounced among younger millennial women, many of whom shirk the label feminist because as Matthews sees it “they don’t like labels period.”
“Millennials assume that they will be successful and have every door opened to them,” she said. “But the election showed the system will slam that door in your face and you have to be intentional about going after political power. Suddenly politics looked like a place where if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.”
Matthews knows first-hand how tough it is as a woman to run for public office. The well-known former TV broadcaster and Marriott corporate executive was one of only two female candidates in a nine-person Democratic primary race last summer to fill an open seat for Congress in Maryland. Both women lost, and her home state now has only men representing it at the federal level, a bruising setback for the cause of women in politics. But for Matthews the biggest surprise was that, despite decades in leadership roles, she was still viewed as insufficiently experienced.
“Here I am at age 63, and with 40 years of a career as an on-camera news anchor, and a top global business executive,” Matthews told Women in the World. “And I saw how a woman like me was challenged in many ways for not having a strong enough resume to run. I was amazed.”
“Of course in this climate younger women are not going to run. No wonder they have a lack of confidence about being able to win.”
Matthews, who along with MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews, forms one of Washington’s most established power couples, took the primary loss in her stride and decided to fight back by joining the board of Emerge Maryland, part of the national Democratic women’s organization Emerge America.
Founded 14 years ago by the former Capitol Hill staffer and Democratic fundraiser Andrea Dew Steele, and now with affiliates in 18 states and growing, Emerge America identifies and attracts Democratic women who want to seek public office, then trains them up to be ready to run for election.
Since the end of last year the group has been inundated with inquiries for its courses teaching communications skills to help aspiring candidates “identify their authentic voice,” networking, and practical political process nuts and bolts. The aim is to increase the number of Democrat women in elected positions, especially given that female representation in the Congress is stagnating at below 19.4 percent and around 24 percent in state legislatures, or 104th in the world, behind Mexico, China and Pakistan.
“I wanted to make sure that other women in greater numbers were getting prepared to run for office,” Matthews explained. “Emerge Maryland really demystifies the process and gives women a toolkit over a 10-week program that enables them to understand the political process, feel confident, and target how they should run their campaign. I think it’s going to make a big difference.”
San Francisco-based Steele said the national organization had seen an 87 percent increase in California applications for its unique training programs requiring women to devote a weekend each month for six months.
“We were uniquely poised because our application process hit right after the election and we run a six-month training program,” she said. “And we were really fortunate to be able to catch that interest. Several programs have had to double the number of positions they offer.”
Despite only two women Democratic governors remaining in power in the U.S., Steele says she remained “incredibly optimistic.”
“The single reason we don’t have enough women in office is that not enough women wanted to run. But now women are self-selecting since this election and saying ‘I want to run’.”
Steele attributes the spike in interest chiefly to the Trump effect. “This is the biggest slap in the face for women that we have arguably had since the Anita Hill hearing,” she said, recalling the 1991 humiliation of the law professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation.
“The fact that America not only elected Donald Trump but that we now have a president who is the most misogynist president ever — that woke women up without a doubt. They are also telling us if he can get elected then certainly that helps them overcome any doubts about being qualified!”
There have been notable increases in women signing up for political training in states including Wisconsin and Maryland, after the game-changer of November. Matthews said the Maryland chapter of Emerge had more than 500 inquiries from women who wanted to get information to sign up for the training program — 10 times the previous number of applications.
“There was really something that happened to women in terms of their frustration, their anger and their desire to act on that election and get into the arena. It is phenomenal. We haven’t seen anything like it before.”
The male top-heavy administration has also galvanized women. “The photos we see coming out show that this is a man’s world in that White House and women are window dressing, with Ivanka Trump as a security blanket,” said Matthews.
Although they have not focused specifically on women, Republicans have shown Democrats how determined they need to be about moving their candidates into offices like local school and water boards and commissions. These entry-level offices can “stoke the pipeline” of women candidates at all levels of government from county roles to state legislatures.
“Getting in young is a really good idea because you don’t have kids yet and can start building your political resume’,” said Steele. “We want young women to consider entering the political arena earlier.”
And that is where Hillary Clinton with her mantra of “resist, persist, insist, and enlist” comes in.
“I was so inspired to be a woman running for Congress last spring when Hillary was on the ballot with me,” Matthews said. “Her candidacy was one of the proudest moments of my life. And I think that she can continue to inspire women with her resilience — mostly by letting them know that when men run and fail they just get up and run again.”
The Democratic Party’s women activists do acknowledge that progressives must also get to know the women who voted for Trump and why.
“Even if they are not offended by the blatant sexism, we have to make sure we are reaching those women,” Steele said. “Hillary won the election with women of color and 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump — mostly married women. And we need to work on them. When women were winning the right to vote a lot of women said it wasn’t a good idea. We just have to roll up our sleeves and do some work.”