Women Take Their Case to the Ballot

By Luisita Lopez Torregrosa 
NEW YORK — This is the year when, after a long period of political stagnation, a record number of American women — feminists, liberals, pro-choice middle-of-the-roaders, conservatives — got off the sidelines and stepped up to run for office.
“We’d been going downhill,” said Karen Middleton, president of Emerge America, a 12-state donor-funded group that trains female Democratic candidates. “Now the number of women running for Congress could break all records” for women in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives — “if everybody wins.”
Back in the contentious early months of this year, when the “war on women” rallied many who believed that hard-right Republicans were threatening women’s reproductive rights, few predicted that scores of women would sign up to run for the Senate and the House.
This unusually diverse group includes a professional wrestling entrepreneur, a leftist consumer advocate, a lesbian, a former police chief and the first black female Republican to run for the House.
Out in Wisconsin, Representative Tammy Baldwin, a 50-year-old liberal Democrat, is battling former Governor Tommy G. Thompson, a hard-right Republican. If she wins, as recent polls suggest she will, she would become the first female senator from Wisconsin and the first openly gay senator in the United States.
In Florida, Val Demings, 55, is a first-time candidate, a black woman vying for a seat in Congress from a district that is overwhelmingly Republican and white. “Redistricting did me no favors,” she told me, laughing, over the phone.
She came out of poverty — her mother was a maid, her father a janitor — to become the celebrated first female police chief of Orlando, a tourist mecca in central Florida that is home to diverse ethnic and racial groups. Now, at the behest of her supporters, she’s running an uphill battle against a Tea Party incumbent. It’s a struggle not unlike her old fight against violent crime in her district, a war she won.
It’s not all a Democratic women’s game. Republicans are busily recruiting and training female candidates, and according to Kirsten Kukowski of the Republican National Committee, they expect to elect Mia Love of Utah, who would make history as the first black Republican woman elected to the House.
This lineup of assorted female candidates did not come together overnight. Over the past decade or so, activists had watched the number of women in Congress stall and the number of women in state legislatures fall. Alarmed at the slow progress, women’s research centers and advocacy groups like the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey and feminists like Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, have campaigned for women in public life.
“Women’s tendency is to think that politics is not for them,” Ms. Middleton said in a telephone interview last week. But women, she said, are realizing that by staying outside the political arena they are giving up responsibility to others. “It’s been a wake-up call. They say, ‘Oh, my God, unless I actually step up and do this, no one else is going to do it for me.”’
A rare set of circumstances is making this a potential new “year of the woman.” Twenty years ago, in 1992, a record 24 new women were elected to Congress, the largest class of freshman women ever. “What happened in 1992 is similar to this election cycle,” says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics. As in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, this is a year when congressional districts are redrawn according to population growth. Redistricting makes incumbents more vulnerable, creates new seats, and often results in more retirements. And presidential election years tend to draw more candidates and more voters, giving women more opportunities.
Ms. Walsh recalled last week that the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings had also happened around that time. “She had to testify in front of an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee,” she said, referring to Ms. Hill. “A lot of people, particularly women, saw how male the Senate was. We’ve had some of that in this cycle around the discussion about contraception. It might have had an impact on making people feel more energized and mobilized for the women who are running.”
Today, with the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns tussling fiercely for women’s votes, Democrats continue to hold an edge in women running for high office.
Twelve Democratic women and six Republican women are running for the Senate; 116 female Democrats and 47 Republican women are running for the House.
With just three weeks until voters go to the polls on Nov. 6, some voting surveys suggest that women are likely to make notable gains. Such a turnaround would help lift the United States’ standing in the world, where it falls well below many less developed nations in the percentage of women in parliaments. While Cuba ranked third, for instance, the United States tied Turkmenistan at No. 78, according to the U.N. Women’s 2012 rankings.
Ms. Walsh refused to predict who would win but proffered the number 20 as optimal in the Senate — “If all the stars align the right way.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 17, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune.