By Marcy Rothenberg
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And … in the new code of laws … I desire you would remember the ladies. … If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
— Abigail Adams, writing to her husband John Adams during the Constitutional Convention, March 31, 1776
If this quotation makes one thing clear, it’s that American women have been asking for equality and inclusion for a long time — longer, in fact, than we’ve been a nation.
I’d be willing to bet that Abigail Adams would be surprised — and more than a wee bit disappointed — to learn that we’re still asking.
Suffragettes marching during America’s first wave of feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries asked.
“…There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”
— Susan B. Anthony
Yet it took nearly 150 years from the date of our founding for American women to gain the right to vote.
Women’s liberation activists marching during America’s second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s asked.
“This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers.”
— Gloria Steinem
Yet America still hasn’t dismantled those barriers.
We still haven’t ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Equally educated, experienced and skilled women still don’t earn the same pay for the same work as men. Women are still far from equally represented in the power centers of business and government.
But recent political events suggest strongly that the days of “asking” are fading away.
Women running – and winning
Rather than discouraging American women from seeking public office, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss has galvanized their determination to play an equal role in the political process.
The January 21 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the country, sparked women’s activism to a degree not seen since 1992, which pundits at the time dubbed “the year of the woman.”
Two national women’s political organizations, EMILY’s List and She Should Run, both report that record numbers of women are now mounting campaigns for local, state and national office.
She Should Run is mobilizing behind those candidates as part of its goal to achieve gender parity in public office by 2030, when it hopes to see 250,000 women in the nation’s approximately 500,000 public posts. And EMILY’s List’s ongoing efforts to identify and support female candidates nationwide feeds that effort, by helping women candidates garner the financial and volunteer help they need to wage winning campaigns.
In Virginia’s state elections this fall, women asserted power as never before: the state’s 100-member House of Delegates will go from 17 women to 27, thanks to wins by 10 women over their male opponents — a number of whom were seemingly “safe” incumbents. Many of the newly elected women pointed to the Women’s March as the event that inspired them to run.
Women, said Toni-Michelle Travis, a professor of political science at Virginia’s George Mason University, in an interview with radio station WTOP, “felt they were disrespected by Trump. And they said, ‘Well, maybe we can run and get into office.’”
So they did.
Looking toward 2018, we see the same thing happening nationally.
Currently, just 19 percent of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are held by women. But, reported the Center for American Women and Politics in November, there are already 353 declared female candidates for House seats — 291 of them Democrats, 183 of whom are challenging Republican incumbents.
Those numbers easily swamp the level of activism seen back in 1992, when less than half that number of women ran for House seats.
Looking at the U.S. Senate, three women are mounting strong campaigns to join Congress’ upper house, two in states that have never elected female Senators.
Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake announced his retirement this fall upon facing double-barreled challenges from Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and from ultra-conservative Kelli Ward in his own party. Unless other candidates announce, it will be a woman vs. woman race in that state.
In neighboring Nevada, GOP Senator Dean Heller finds himself squaring off against first-term Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, in a state whose voters have been trending “blue” in recent elections.
And in Tennessee, GOP Representative Marsha Blackburn is running to replace the retiring Senator Bob Corker. Her election would bring the number of female GOP Senators to six.
Wins by women in those three states would bring the total number of female Senators to 24. And the pending departure of Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken will bring another woman to the Senate, with the already-announced appointment of Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith to the seat.
American women are taking note. The Pew Research Center reported in July that 58 percent of women said they were paying more attention to politics than they had in years past, compared to 46 percent of men.
And anecdotal evidence suggests that the membership of newly formed grassroots activist groups like Indivisible and Sister District skews decisively female.
“Look around the room at an Indivisible phone bank or voter canvass,” said local activist Heidi White, a member of San Fernando Valley Indivisible who is active in Congressional District 25 election efforts, “and you’ll see nine or ten women for every man. We are leading the charge.”
Marcy Rothenberg is a local writer and political activist who advocates on community, environmental and women’s issues, and whose graduate research analyzed endorsement, messaging and financing disparities in women’s and men’s political campaigns in California. As a member of then candidate Barack Obama’s National Urban and Metropolitan Policy Committee in 2008, she served as a rapid response writer for the campaign.