Women Candidates Rewrite the Political Playbook

October 23, 2018

The impact of record numbers of women candidates has already been felt this election cycle. The #MeToo movement and anger about the outcome of the 2016 presidential contest has driven women to break free from some of the conventions that have constrained them in the past. The political playbook that dictates how campaigns are run, which was largely written by men for men, is increasingly being set aside as women run on their own terms.

Win or lose in November, here’s how women have disrupted the midterms and what this means for 2020.

Personify Certainty

It used to be that women had to be asked repeatedly to run for office before they would even consider the idea. It took years of prodding before Senator Kamala Harris first ran for attorney general in California. The self-doubting questions – Does my resume measure up?  Do I know enough about the issues? –  may be gone for many women in 2018.  A new mentality was summarized by Virginia delegate Danica Roem, “All Donald Trump’s election showed me is that there is literally nothing in my background that disqualifies me.”

Women candidates audaciously refuse to take no for an answer. They ignored bigots who said black women can’t win and jumped into races when told to wait their turn. Bartenders, small business owners, moms, military veterans, and nurses have looked at their lives and said to themselves and aloud “I measure up.”

Controlling the Narrative

Like the #MeToo silence-breakers, newcomers are telling stories that haven’t been heard before. Groundbreaking ads feature young children, same-sex partners, breastfeeding, and pregnancy. No longer satisfied with cookie cutter advice, women are presenting themselves in diverse ways; in 2018 campaign ads, women candidates are shown scuba diving, getting ultrasounds, driving mini-vans, displaying tattoos, and flying fighter jets.

This authenticity makes them better candidates and reflects the distinct value and styles of women’s leadership in American politics. Many women haven’t enjoyed the smooth career trajectory of the old boy’s network – college, followed by law school, and then being handpicked to run for office. Women take time for the people in their lives and that results in delays in education, gaps in work histories, and the need to play catch up. This messiness will be invaluable when women are making policy decisions about pre-existing conditions, minimum wage, sexual harassment, and family leave.

The Chisholm Effect

Well before Barack Obama, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) was the first woman and African-American to challenge the concept of what an American president could look like. The boldness of her 1972 presidential campaign is reflected in efforts to expand the power of black women candidates. Voicing discontent about being taken for granted, these candidates are creating new paths to victory.

In Boston, Ayanna Pressley defeated a white, male incumbent without the support of the Congressional Black Caucus. And the Democratic Party’s state and national organizations provided little pre-primary support to the over 50 non-incumbent black women who sought congressional seats this year. For example, Jahana Hayes won the Democratic nomination in Connecticut’s 5th congressional district without receiving her state party’s endorsement. Early on in the cycle, Lauren Underwood of Illinois was the only non-incumbent Black woman backed by the DCCC. Underwood and Hayes, like gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia, are testing another convention – they are running in places where the clear majority of the electorate is white.

Calling Out Bias

In past cycles, most campaigns didn’t deal with sexism or racism because white, male campaign managers didn’t relate to the corrosive effects of bias. Further, the media didn’t consider the stories newsworthy and some gatekeepers condoned bad behavior. One example, former MSNBC commentator Mark Halperin, who several co-workers accused of harassment, had dismissed reports that Trump groped women.

Now, more diverse campaign teams and women candidates call out bias and harassment. Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) who is a sexual assault survivor read “mean tweets” she’s received from men who tell her to “get back in the kitchen” and disparage her appearance.  Women in the media are treating stories of abuse seriously. Female reporters, editors, and producers have told the ugly truth about threats of rape and death. The New York Times reported how the abuse many women face is amplified on the campaign trail especially for women of color.  With Trump leading the Republican ticket in 2020, candidates at all levels will need to be ready to handle gender and racial attacks.

Respect the Hustle

Pressley’s victory and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset in the Bronx surprised pundits who aren’t familiar with the history of women organizers. The 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment which extended the vote to women will be marked in 2020. The historic gain wasn’t bestowed by benevolent male lawmakers. It took 70 years of organizing and protesting on the part of suffragists to persuade men that it was in their interest to expand voting rights. Only then did the measure pass.

Women are doing the hard work of identifying and turning out new voters. After her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez displayed the sneakers she wore out while going door-to-door. The New Yorker reported her volunteers “made one hundred and seventy thousand phone calls, knocked on one hundred and twenty thousand doors, and sent one hundred and twenty thousand text messages.” Pressley defeated a better funded opponent by expanding the electorate with canvassing and phone banking and social media videos that were less expensive than traditional TV ads.

2018 will go down in history for the diverse slate of women who stepped up. Just as significant are the news ways women are exerting control over their campaigns and the image they present to voters. This new playbook written by and for women ensures the face of politics will continue to change.

Speech coach Christine K. Jahnke is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out: How to Use Your Voice to Drive Change (October 2018).