Election night 2016 was devastating for Democratic women who had hoped to elect the first female president. But it was doubly so for the organizers committed to electing Democratic women to office. They worried Hillary Clinton’s loss – to a man who boasted on tape about grabbing women – would repel female candidates from entering politics. But then the sun came up.
“It really started immediately,” said Andrea Steele, the president and founder of Emerge America, a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “The next day our phone began to ring and it didn’t stop. Emails poured in. Women all over the country woke up and decided to take some action.”
Since the 8 November election, Emerge America has reported an 87% increase in applications to its training programs.
Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to helping elect pro-choice Democratic women, said more than 16,000 women have expressed interest in running for office since the election, while that number was 920 during the entire 2016 election cycle. Similarly She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization that trains female candidates, said 15,000 women inquired about running in an election,compared to about 900 during the same period last year.
Donald Trump’s election has led to a surge in political activism among Democratic women, according to a June survey of college-educated voters by Politico, American University and Loyola Marymount. But so far, the survey found, that energy hasn’t totally translated yet into more women wanting to run for office.
Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University and the co-author of the study, said backlash to Trump may have “planted a seed” but that it could take “several more election cycles for that seed to bloom”.
Organizers agree that political parity is still years away. But even so, they’re optimistic the interest will usher in another “year of the woman”.
“We look at this not just as our crop of candidates for 2018, because they’re not all going to run right away,” Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock told reporters earlier this summer. “This is an extraordinary pipeline of future candidates for the next decade.”
The Guardian spoke with a handful of candidates who are putting their names on the ballot for the first time from school board to congress, and asked what drove them to run.
Elissa Slotkin, congressional candidate for Michigan’s eighth district
A few months into the Trump presidency, Elissa Slotkin was still on the fence about running. And then her congressman Mike Bishop voted for the House Republican healthcare bill.
Slotkin said she was shocked that he would cast such a consequential vote without at least holding a town hall and hearing from the constituents.
“Too many politicians in Congress have forgotten that they are public servants, that they are voted in by people and that their one responsibility – their one job – is to improve the lives of their constituents,” Slotkin said. “It just seemed like a hell of a lot of people who had forgotten that.”
Slotkin, a former intelligence official, worked at the Pentagon, the state department and the CIA during the Bush and Obama administrations. As a Middle East analyst at the CIA, she served three tours in Iraq.
During her 15 years working in intelligence and defense, she said no one ever asked her party affiliation. And that’s the approach she’s taking to her campaign.
Voters are surprised that she is openly critical of the national Democratic party, but she reminds them that her job was to give frank assessments of a controversial war to two presidents with very different perspectives.
“I think they take that as a sign that I still understand how to speak truth to power,” she said.
Throughout her career, Slotkin said she was often one of the few women in the room – or in the combat zone where she deployed.
“I have really worked hard to be in some instances twice as competent and twice as capable,” she said. “But I’ve always found that if you know your stuff and you’re willing to put yourself out there then people respect that and your gender means less than your competence.”
Jena Griswold, candidate for Colorado secretary of state
After the election, Jena Griswold watched in horror as Trump claimed – without any basis – that millions of people had voted illegally, costing him the popular vote. And then he convened an election integrity commission to prove it.
Griswold, a former voting rights lawyer for Obama’s 2012 campaign, decided she couldn’t stay on the sidelines.
“We saw firsthand how our election could be affected,” she said, referring to the conclusion by the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the US election, which Trump has repeatedly doubted.
“And now this commission should have us all on high alert. We need secretaries of state who will stand up and say: ‘No, we’re not going to roll back our democratic institutions on false allegations’.”
She noted that after the commission started requesting voter data, hundreds of Colorado residents canceled their voter registrations, and that county elections offices reported a flood of calls from voters concerned about their data privacy.
“Our democracy requires participating and when people are taking themselves out of voter rolls, we’re decreasing participation,” she said.
Before launching her campaign, Griswold spent hours mulling the decision with fellow female politicians. Griswold had questions about what to expect from running at such a young age – and though she felt qualified to do the job, this would be her first campaign.
Eventually, she said, a mentor told her: “If you’re excited about this, you should run. Maybe not having run for office before will be a benefit.”
At just 32, Griswold is running her first campaign and pitching her youth as an asset.
“Younger people are being turned off by how our politics work,” she said. “I understand that. And as a younger person running, I have innovative ideas and a fresh perspective on how to change that.”
January Contreras, candidate for Arizona attorney general
For most of her career, January Contreras has disregarded the calls to run for office, choosing instead to serve in other ways. That is, until now.
“It became clear that we’re at this very important crossroads,” Contreras said of her decision to run. “I decided to step forward and give Arizona a choice that they can trust.”
Contreras said special interests have been “pulling the strings” for too long and that, if elected, she intends to shift the focus of the attorney general’s office back to fighting for working families and small businesses.
“I came into the race feeling like I have to fight hard for all of these people in vulnerable positions because I know the choices they have to make,” she said.
“But what I have been surprised by since starting the campaign is that there are a lot of people who have a good home, have a job but are afraid of their government.”
Though she’s a political novice, Contreras has a lengthy resume with a record of public service.
She worked as an assistant attorney general in the office she now hopes to run, an ombudsman with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and a senior advisor to Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano. In 2013, she founded the nonprofit Arizona Legal Women and Youth Service, which provides no-cost legal services to survivors of sex and labor trafficking and vulnerable children.
Contreras said she has been fortunate to work for and with female leaders throughout most of her career, like Napolitano, who was one of Arizona’s four female governors.
“Seeing other women step up to run for office has been inspiring,” Contreras said. “If we achieve getting more women elected, we’ll see more work across the aisle and more problem-solving because let’s face it, moms get stuff done.”
Kim Schrier, congressional candidate for Washington’s eighth district
Kim Schrier spent election day on the phone pleading with voters in Florida to turn out for Hillary Clinton. Hours later the state would fall to Trump, along with the rest of the south and a large swath of the midwest.
“The election was a real wake-up call for me,” said Schrier, a pediatrician in Washington state. “It felt like the world changed overnight.”
The next morning, her eight-year-old son asked if they were going to have to move to another country.
“I knew right away that this was one of those times when you’re called upon to stand up and protect everything you love,” she said.
The idea of leaving her practice where she has worked for the last 16 years to seek elective office would have sounded absurd a year ago, she said. But as she watched Republicans lead the effort to repeal Obamacare, Schrier saw an opportunity.
“As a pediatrician in Washington [DC] I could serve all the children of the country – far more than I could serve one ear infection at a time in my office,” she said.
The final straw was when her congressman, Dave Reichert, refused to hold town halls with his constituents as the healthcare debate raged in the capital. In a campaign video, Schrier announced her candidacy next to an empty chair meant to symbolize Reichert’s reluctance to meet with voters.
If elected, Schrier said she would naturally gravitate toward issues involving healthcare and science. She noted that there are currently no female doctors serving in Congress.
“I think having a woman doctor at the table is an important perspective, especially during discussions of women’s health and reproductive rights,” she said.
Mikie Sherrill, congressional candidate for New Jersey’s 11th district
When Mikie Sherrill told her family she was considering running for Congress, the former Navy pilot expected to be called crazy. Instead, they wholeheartedly agreed.
Now the Democrat is running to take on Trump and the district’s nine-term Republican senator, Rodney Frelinghuysen.
“I started this campaign because I was really disturbed by Trump’s attack on the institutions of our democracy,” Sherrill said, adding that Trump’s equivocating response to the deadly violence in Charlottesville have brought his presidency into sharp relief.
“I think now there is a feeling things have come to a head and this is simply not who we are as a country.”
As a US Navy pilot, Sherrill spent nine years flying helicopters in Europe and the Middle East. After leaving the Navy, Sherrill attended law school at Georgetown University and later became a federal prosecutor with the US attorney’s office in New Jersey.
During the 2016 election, Sherrill said she was especially appalled by Trump’s treatment of Gold Star families and his disregard for Senator John McCain of Arizona, who spent more than five years in captivity during the Vietnam war.
Sherrill said she is encouraged but not surprised that so many veterans are running for office.
“Veterans at one time in their life have signed up to serve their country,” Sherrill said. “What’s happening to this country now is a grave concern to a lot of people but veterans in particular feel the need to get engaged and help protect this country and the institutions of our government.”
Sherrill said knowing she is joining a fleet of Democratic women around the country in seeking office in 2018 has been empowering.
“I’ve always found being a woman to be a double-edged sword,” Sherrill said. “I’ve run into corners where I’ve experienced some veiled sexism and some not so veiled sexism. But after this election the women are so engaged and that support has really gotten my campaign to where it is.”
Olivia Scott, candidate for Charlotte school board – district three
Olivia Scott thought she was too young, too inexperienced, too soft-spoken for politics. The thought of running had crossed her mind but she quickly dismissed it as a“far-fetched dream”. But then Trump won and that equation changed.
“I thought, if he can win the presidency I can definitely win a seat on the school board,” Scott said.
At just 25, Scott said she’s running for school board to try to change the trajectory for young students in Charlotte, where children born into poverty have little chance of escaping it.
As an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Scott studied English with a concentration in children’s studies. She now works as a director-in-training at a five-star child care center in Charlotte and is a volunteer with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Scott said she is the right person to serve on the District 3 school board because she attended a similar school growing up. As a student, Scott said she was acutely aware of the disparities between school districts.
“I couldn’t figure out why the schools I went to were so depressing on the inside or why students I went to school with didn’t always succeed,” she said.
Scott has a three tier platform that she believes will help address some of the obstacles that exist, especially for the poor African American students in her district, including improving communication skills and boosting test scores in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Being young can seem like an obstacle sometimes, but it’s also an opportunity, she said.
“I get a lot of ‘How old are you again?’” she said. “Most people are extremely supportive. When I introduce myself to millennials, a lot of them are impressed and ask how they can get involved.”
Hala Ayala, candidate for Virginia House of Delegates district 51
Like so many women, she marched and now she’s running.
Hala Ayala has been active in Democratic politics for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until after she helped organize a contingent of Virginia women of the Women’s March on Washington that she saw her name on the ballot.
“We woke up the next day and I don’t even know if this is clinically correct but we had political depression,” she said. “But then I went to the march and the experience, marching with these women, it really energized me and inspired me to take the next step.”
For years, Ayala has worked to promote women in politics and civic life. She revived her county chapter of the National Organization for Women and serves on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Council on Women.
As a single mother of two, one of whom was born with a serious medical condition, Ayala relied on welfare and Medicaid for support. At one point, she worked as a cashier at the local gas station before enrolling in a training program that put her on a path to a career in cyber security.
Ayala recently left her job as a cyber security specialist with the Department of Homeland Security to join a record number of women to seek a seat in the Virginia legislature. The decision was not without risks and she said she still occasionally wonders if it was the right decision for her family.
“There is a lot of sacrifices that we make to run for office and those are not taken lightly,” she said.
So far this risk has been rewarding. In June, Ayala won her primary. She is now among 31 Democratic women running for currently Republican-held seats in the Virginia House of Delegates.