By Ann Sullivan
WIPP Chief Advocate
When reviewing the election results in this year’s November elections, my initial reaction was that it was no big deal – the Democrats got some wins that weren’t expected in an off-election year. So what? My second thought was that Democrats would take these wins and blow them out of proportion – citing an electorate mandate for Democrats. I also expected that Republicans would shrug their shoulders, calling it an anomaly, and go about their tax reform plan.
But what I missed the first time around was the major story—the large number of women that ran and won. Equally fascinating are the stories about their motivations to run. Since hearing WIPP’s annual meeting speaker, Jennifer Lawless who heads the American University’s Center for Women and Politics, I haven’t stopped talking about the importance of women leading this nation. It is my firm belief that women in office will change the trajectory of partisan politics regardless of party affiliation. While much of the media centered their attention on the racial diversity and sexual orientation of these women, the fact is their victories also speak to the underrepresentation of women in local, state and federal offices.
There were some serious victories for women in Virginia. A record number of women were on the ballot in Virginia—53 to be exact, up 18% from the previous 45. In the Virginia House of Delegates, the number of women increased about 50%. There will be 27 women serving in the lower chamber next session (1 race is still too close to call).
In New Jersey, women also showed up on the ballot, with 79 on this cycle, which is a 10% increase from 2013. But the numbers are not just impressive- there were many “firsts” during this election cycle for women, as well as women of color.
Milledgeville, Georgia elected its first Black female mayor, Mary Parham-Copelan. Santa Barbara, California, elected its first Latina Mayor, Cathy Murillo. Aurora, Colorado elected Crystal Murillo, a 23-year-old recent graduate who defeated a 79-year-old incumbent. New Jersey elected its first Black lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver. Charlotte, North Carolina elected its first black female mayor, Vi Lyles. Manchester, New Hampshire elected its first female mayor, Joyce Craig. Seattle elected a woman mayor, Jenny Durkan. Topeka, Kansas elected its first Latina and second woman mayor, Michelle De La Isla.
The stories behind these wins are inspirational. Ashley Bennett who won a County council seat (called Freeman in NJ) was motivated to run after hearing the incumbent “joke” that women belong in the kitchen. She told the Washington Post that his meme in reference to the March on Washington asked, “Will the woman’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?” When she complained to her family, they encouraged her to run for the seat. She won.
Or Vi Lyles, the first African American female mayor of Charlotte, NC who outworked her opponent even though she was outspent. Saying that Charlotte should be the city of opportunity and inclusiveness, she cited her father’s lack of a high school diploma.
Seattle picked a female mayor Jenny Durkan. The significance in that race was that it was an all-woman mayoral slate in a major US city.
Michelle De La Isla, the new mayor Topeka, Kansas came to office in an environment which would have discouraged most. Homeless at 17 and pregnant at 19 in Puerto Rico, her degree at Wichita State University propelled her life in a different direction. She told the New York Times, “All these experiences I’ve turned into blessings,” Ms. De La Isla said. “It’s easier to serve people when you’re not judging them from the get-go.”
The nonpartisan She Should Run organization says 15,000 women have inquired about running for office this year – a record number. Given that there are around 500,000 elected positions in the United States to fill, 15,000 inquiries seems like a drop in the bucket but a good start. Not everyone has to run, but women are needed to assist in campaigns and provide much needed financial support for those who are.
Ashley Bennett, cited above gave some advice to women who are considering running for office. “Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not your turn,” she said. “If you’re fearful about it, do it afraid and see it through. Because you never know what could happen.”
Our time is now.