2017 was a year filled with both jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring moments surrounding the world of politics. Beginning with the historic 2017 Women’s March to NFL players kneeling in protest of police brutality, all the way up to the birth of the #MeToo movement, more and more people became involved in the political uprisings throughout the year. One would think that the new life breathed into the feminist movement would properly reflect the number of women in office. It only makes sense that the gender that comprises more than half the US population (50.8 percent to be exact) would join the UK, Rwanda, Germany, India and Cuba — among the countless other countries — in electing women to top leadership positions.
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Yet, women are still underrepresented at the local, state and federal level. As of 2017, 105 women serve in the US Congress; 21 are in the Senate and 84 are in the House. That’s roughly 19.6 percent of Congress. Even more so, there are no Colorado women elected to the US Senate and there is only one Colorado woman in the US House. This vast underrepresentation doesn’t just reflect at the federal level. There has never been a woman elected to the Colorado Governor seat and our Colorado House has 26 women out of its 67 members; 18 are Democratic and eight are Republican. And to top it all off, our State Senate has a total of 35 Senators, yet only 11 are women.
With the recent Women’s March, the progress of feminist movements and an overall sense of urgency for women in positions of power, shouldn’t more women be running for office — and winning? One of the many reasons there is this sizable difference between women and men in office has to do with money; specifically, fundraising money. “Men have held the power and the money and it takes a lot of money to run for office,” stated Heather Lurie of the Electing Women’s Political Action Committee here in Denver. “That has been one of the largest barriers facing women candidates and [trying] to remove that barrier. Men are generally the political donors.”
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How do women overcome this barrier? Especially as women are becoming more politically active. We wanted to take a look at how Colorado organizations tackle these issues and what challenges women continue to face as we head into the 2018 election cycle.
Who’s Fighting for Women Candidates?
When it comes to funding and supporting female candidates, organizations committed to getting women elected are among the biggest supporters. Electing Women PAC is just one of the many organizations here in Colorado that help women become involved in politics through educating, training and fundraising. “The mission of EWPAC is to raise money for pro-choice women running for US Senate and Governor seats,” said Lurie, who is a long-time consultant for EWPAC.
EMILY’s List is another organization that raises money and campaigns for Democratic women in office while simultaneously training women to one day be able to run. Other organizations include Emerge America, our local chapter Emerge Colorado, Colorado Federation of Republican Women and many others.
IGNITE is among the non-partisan organizations that train young women to run for office in their local communities, and She Should Run is another non-partisan “dedicated to expanding the pool of elected female leader by women inspiring each other to get involved with politics.”
“One of the many reasons IGNITE is non-partisan is that most young people don’t necessarily identify with a particular party and are not necessarily registered to vote for that party,” said Anne Moses, Founder and President of IGNITE. “What we’re seeing with young people is that they’re a little more nuanced than party identification which I think is a wonderful thing. So they will register independent or decline to state and they’ll register. They get more issue by issue rather than party line which is because it’s actually a more thoughtful stance.”
While some organizations are non-partisan, there does remain a party divide when it comes to electing women. Overall, Democratic women organizations are supporting Democratic women candidates whereas the GOP women organizations tend to also support candidates of the opposite sex. While there’s nothing wrong with women organizations supporting male candidates, GOP women might need more support since fewer women get elected in the GOP when compared to the democratic party.
Republican vs Democratic Candidates – The Divide
“Democrat and Republican women, they’re running mainly by three to one,” said Moses. “If you look at some of the most powerful and largest programs in the country that is dedicated to funding female candidates at the early stages, there is no such powerful organization on the right. And I don’t think it’s accidental.”
Women not only face the obstacle of gender when running for office, but they also face a barrier among the parties: there are more Democratic women in office than Republican women. Of the 19.6 percent of women in Congress, 78 are Democrats but only 27 are Republicans. In our Colorado State Senate, of the 11 women in office, two are Republican and nine are Democrats.
Organizations funding and supporting women play a significant role in candidates being elected. But what happens when there are more organizations funding Democratic women because there are more Democratic women running? Where are all the Republican women?
The numerical difference between women running in both parties may not be all that surprising. A recent study revealed that on circumstances involving Trump and the election, Democratic women were more affected than Republican women, resulting in them choosing to do something about it. In this case, signing up to run for office. In “self-reported changes in political interest and activity since the 2016 election,” studies showed 40 percent of Democratic women becoming more politically active to the eight percent of Republican women. As for 2018, 2020 and future elections? Ten percent of Democratic women “definitely plan to run,” while two percent of Republican women say they will do the same. And most notable yet, when shown the gender and party gap between political recruitment, four percent of recruitment came from a women’s organization for Democratic women, but only two percent came from Republican women.
“I can tell you that there is no such pact on the right like Emily’s List at the local level at the state level or at the federal level. There is no path [on the right] that is nearly as powerful,” said Moses. “There are a whole bunch of new ones right now but they’re newer and they’re smaller and they just don’t have the volume of power.”
However, despite the difference between Republican and Democratic women in the Colorado State Senate, Colorado ranks fourth among the state legislatures for the proportion of women in office. Thirty-eight percent of the Colorado State Senate are women. Organizations across the nation have seen a huge increase in women signing up for training to run for office. Women feel like they have the voice and the power to do so. And the support.
“The loss of the 2016 election was incredibly frustrating,” said Lurie. “But that frustration does not outweigh what we’re calling the silver lining of the election and that is this huge wave, new reinvigorated movement of women that coming out to engage in politics and run for office and to support other women.”
Overall More Women are Running
“We used to have to look for women who are running for governor and now we won’t be able to support them all there’s so many.”
Organizations that put their support behind candidates are doing just that: supporting. Networks and resources of hundreds and thousands of people go to one or two individuals to help fund and gain awareness of that candidate’s campaign — from grass-roots efforts of knocking on doors to volunteering on political campaigns. This power of support is necessary because it helps women go from just being politically active to deciding to run.
However, in an ironic twist, the election of a reality star changed what people, including women, thought of as the qualification for office.
“There’s no doubt that electing someone who is a reality television star, has changed what you think of as the qualification for office. If that’s one good thing that can come out of this, then that’s a great thing because the truth is that women – young and old – are holding themselves to a much higher standard than was essential to run for office,” noted Moses. “What I’m seeing with young women is that they have to just go for it. They’re like, all right, enough.”
As a result, organizations like IGNITE are seeing a heightened increase in interest to run and they aren’t the only ones. Before the 2016 election, EMILY’s List had an average of 900 women signing up for training. After the 2016 election? 25,000 and counting. It is important, however, to note that all of these women aren’t running for office, instead simply signing up to receive the training required for them to run.
This increased interest could cause a snowball effect. According to these organizations, women run if they can picture themselves in that position — which is often achieved by seeing other elected women.
“The point of wanting to have more women in those offices is that then more women who see themselves as those candidates run and will inspire others to run,” said Lurie. “I think a part of it is just more women seeing themselves in those positions. Studies have shown if women run, they win.”
All over Colorado, women’s political organizations are seeing a massive influx. IGNITE alone has seen an increase of almost five times the rate in women taking an interest. “Young women are very policy oriented. They have issues they deeply care about in their home communities but they don’t necessarily see the connection between their issue and the government,” said Moses. And policies and issues at the local level are where the change is made. “Local politics is about serving your community. A lot of really important policy is being made at the local level.”
Even at the local candidate level, Electing Women PAC has noticed a difference in the number of candidates they’re able to fund. “We used to have to look for women who are running for governor and now we won’t be able to support them all there’s so many,” said Lurie.“The reason we focus on the Senate and Governor seats is because those are the most visible top elected offices in the country. The point of wanting to have more women in those offices is that then more women who see themselves as those candidates, run and will be inspired to run. I think part of it is just more women seeing themselves in those positions.”
Eyes on the 2018 Colorado Election
The upcoming 2018 election in Colorado is a local election that may prove to have a significant impact. The Governor’s seat is up for grabs and for the first time ever, a female candidate may just take it. Studies have shown that women who run are elected – or at least perform just as well as their male counterparts. “If more women are running, then more women are winning,” said Lurie. If this is the case, Colorado’s next Governor might just be a woman.
Two Democratic nominees and one Republican are putting their name on the ballot. Cynthia Coffman (R ), Cary Kennedy (D) and Donna Lynne (D) are the three women among the slew of men vying for the Governor seat. In addition, the Colorado State Senate will hold elections in the 2018 cycle.
“Women are more than half the population so we should be at least half of the seats in the political office at all levels if we’re really going to have a representative democracy. And then there is the theory that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu. It makes more sense in our democracy to have actually all represented at the table. Studies show, women are more collaborative, more likely to work together and work across the aisle and they are more likely to speak for the under-represented. Fundamentally, I think it’s just a parody issue. We’re half the population, we should have half the seats at the table,” said Lurie
“Local politics is about serving your community and it’s about local issues. A lot of really important policy is being made at the local level.” Moses.
The Electing Women’s PAC focuses specifically on funding a candidate already running. “Each year we look at the women who are running for Senate and Governor and we look at the slate of candidates and then we make decisions about who we want to support. They’re all amazing candidates.”
Still, there is a glass ceiling. “Progress is slow and we still have a long way to go,” noted Lurie. “If you look at this #MeToo movement, it shows that patriarchy is incredibly powerful. It takes a long time to break it down.”
The reality is that women don’t just deserve to be in office, they are needed in office — women from both parties. Having more women in office not only upholds democracy and its values of “fairness” and a “representative government,” but more women legislators make a significant difference in policies that get passed. Policies on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention and incarceration — to name a few.
Other studies have found that women legislators— on both sides of the aisle — introduce more bills than men in areas like civil rights, education, healthcare and labor. Women elected officials have also been found to be more transparent, collaborative and effective.
If the study upholds that the more women run, the more they win — and women’s organizations continue to see a rise in women training to run for office — thus begs the question: will 2018 be the year of the women?