When Ashley Bennett saw a Facebook meme shared by a male New Jersey freeholder mocking January’s Women’s March on Washington, asking if the protest would be “over in time for them to cook dinner,” she was furious — so furious, in fact, that she decided to run for his seat. On November 7, 2017, Bennett ousted the longtime politician from office and became one more woman helping to close the gender gap.
Gender disparity isn’t a secret in American politics. In 2017, women represent just 20% of Congress, 24 percent of statewide offices, and 25 percent of state legislatures. This gender gap has nothing to do with failure to get elected. In fact, women generally win elections at higher rates than men. No, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women winning, it’s that there aren’t enough women running. We don’t have a competence gap — we have an ambition gap.
Underlying this issue is a lack of confidence that’s holding us back. In a recent study, men were reported to be 60% more likely than women to consider themselves “very qualified” to run for office, while women were more than twice as likely as men to rate themselves as “not at all qualified.” As for the men who didn’t think they’d ever be qualified to run for office, they were still 50% more likely to consider running than women with the same self-doubt.
“We tell our kids that they can be anything, but I’m not sure that we’re always taking that same advice ourselves,” said Tedra Cobb, a candidate in New York’s 21st congressional district. “And the reality is, we can.” As Cobb pointed out, “Statistically when women run, women win.”
Further contributing to the gender disparity in politics is a persistent recruitment gap. Research shows that when women are tapped to run for office, they react as positively as male candidates. Unfortunately, women are far less likely than men to be encouraged to run for office (by anyone).
But is the tide starting to turn? Since the November 2016 election, there’s been an incredible surge in women raising their hands to run, and much of this momentum is building online.
Following the Women’s March on Washington, an event launched on Facebook that has since become a worldwide phenomenon and transformative movement, women have expressed an interest in running for public office in record numbers. The number of women contacting EMILY’s List, an organization helping to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, went from 920 to more than 19,000. Applications to Emerge America training courses for women candidates increased by 87%. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the number of women who filed to run for the Virginia Legislature went up 75% over the last cycle, setting a record number of women running—and now, a record number of women will serve.
Why now? Plenty of anecdotal evidence points to the 2016 presidential campaign and the outcome of that election. Facing divisive rhetoric, misogyny, and potentially dangerous public policies, women have decided to turn their anxiety and frustration into action.
“Things look so dark, and you think, what can you do? And what you can do is run,” said Melissa Ryan, a veteran Democratic digital strategist and the author of the popular weekly newsletter Ctrl Alt Right Delete. Ryan points to movements on social media that have sprung up to help solve the gender recruitment and confidence gaps in our politics.
After the 2016 election, Democratic operatives Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto launched Run for Something, which seeks to recruit and train millennial progressives. The organization is connecting with potential candidates anywhere and everywhere, from YouTube and Twitter to podcasts and Gchat. Of the 72 candidates backed by Run for Something on November 7 this year, 32 were elected to office, including Virginia’s Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender state legislator.
Also following last year’s election, journalist Lily Herman has taken up a side project, offering volunteer services herself and creating a “volunteer army” that helps women running for office, a group she’s organizing almost exclusively through word-of-mouth on social media.
“When you’re on the fence and you see that you have a potential social media army behind you, that’s huge,” said Ryan. “Social media, when it works best, is an organizing and community building tool. So much of 2016 was shouting a lot of people down and having the loudest voice. Since then, we’ve been seeing more of an effort to use social media to collaborate again.”
In July 2017, She Should Run, the non-partisan organization that helps recruit and train women to run for public office, launched #250kBy2030, a campaign that aims to achieve gender parity among elected officials by the year 2030.
“The tremendous rise of women, of all political stripes, to run for office is the natural evolution of those putting their name forward since the 2016 election. The elections in New Jersey, Virginia and around the country have proven that women are running and winning in numbers that we have never seen. I have even more faith today that we will achieve 250KBY2030,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run. “The wave of women is real—there is so much more to come.”
In this conversation about why more women are running, it’s also important to make the argument for why need more women in elected office in the first place.
“There’s a growing awareness, particularly among millennial women, especially of color, that the system we have has a lot of dysfunction and the reason for that dysfunction is that many of our elected officials are older, white and male,” said Ryan. “We need more diverse representation. We need it to look more like what America is, and what we want America to be.”
“Research shows that when there are a certain number of women in a group, more than three, that’s when the communication style begins to shift,” Cobb explained. “If we want to change our culture, we need more women involved.”
Emphasizing the need for a culture shift, Cobb recalls the sexism she faced the first time she ran for public office, going up against a powerful male politician in the county legislature. “Throughout the entire campaign, he referred to me as ‘that girl.’ He’d go up to people and would ask them why they had ‘that girl’s’ sign in their yard. And you know what? That girl won.”