What the Midterm Election Means for Women in Politics

Becky Armstrong reports on the record number of women elected to Congress in the US midterm elections.

Winter blues setting in? Blown your student loan on vodka and Pringles? Trump mania got you glum? Well, lighten up folks because this week has given us reasons to be cheerful. Who’d have thought with the current state of American politics regressing dizzyingly away from the direction of progress into a white patriarchal hellfire, that the midterm election would see women make history in an ultimately profound sense.

On Tuesday more than a hundred women were elected to Congress, a figure which is historically unprecedented. Moreover, it was the first instance where Muslim women were elected to the house with Ilhan Omar being elected for Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib for Michigan. Omar is also the first Somali American elective, not to mention the fact that she is a refugee, whilst Tlaib was previously arrested for participating in a march against Trump. It was the first occurrence that Native American women were amongst those who were elected as well, with Deb Haaland representing New Mexico and with Sharice Davids becoming Kansas’ first lesbian congresswoman. Other successes include the election of Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia as the first two Latinx’s to represent Texas, Susan Wild being elected in Pennsylvania which before had solely male representatives, the election of Leticia James who has been outspoken in her opposition to Trump and the election of Ayanna Pressley who is the first black woman ever to represent Massachusetts.

So why has this happened? And why now? If we look back to Trump’s election in 2016, it is no coincidence that the largest protest march in all of American history, The Women’s March, was staged within 24 hours of the president’s election. Furthermore, the emergence of the #metoo movement has also inspired an extraordinary number of women to stand as electoral candidates. The cultural context that frames this election is one of a heightened discourse surrounding the oppression of women as the internet has been mobilised to discuss and embolden the movement to expose sexual violence, all of which has had a significantly negative impact on Trump and has reflected badly on Republicans in a wider sense. A similar phenomenon occurred in 1992 which was later coined ‘The Year of the Woman’ when Clarence Thomas came under fire following allegations from Anita Hill and underwent a number of court hearings regarding multiple instances of sexual assault. As a result, a huge number of women then ran for Congress in a similar fashion to what we have seen this week. Unsurprisingly, the recent surge in women candidates were largely Democrats and the number of Republican women in the house is predicted to decline. Democrat women have had several successful victories over male Republicans: for example, Gretchen Whitmer over Bill Schuette and Abby Finkenauer over Rob Blum. It is important to note that many of these women felt compelled to run due to the current state of politics in America, which exemplifies not only what empowered women are capable of, but what we could achieve in the future.

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Furthermore, this year’s midterms have seen an emboldened use of the word ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ which has historically been smeared in US politics as a divisive and dirty word. M.J. Hegar’s campaign ad takes a clear feminist stance where she talks about her mother’s courageous escape from an abusive marriage, whilst emphasising her own battle as a woman to achieve her dream of becoming an Air Force Pilot where she completed her training at the top of her near all-male class. Likewise, when Amy McGrath was asked whether she was a feminist she responded ‘Hell yeah, I’m a feminist!’ And the statistics support this shift with 74% of Democratic women and 70% of Democratic men saying they support candidates who identify as feminists, and with 51% of independent women and 49% of independent men confirming the same question. It is not surprising that a greater number of Black and Hispanic women voted for candidates who had declared themselves feminist than white women did, which demonstrates how there is still a major issue with the white woman’s vote in America. The movement towards voting for feminist candidates has been mostly a result of younger generations with three-quarters of women under the age of 34 supporting the election of more feminists. Overall, the demographics of those who have been credited as most influential in turning this year’s vote are African-American women, single women, Latinx women and white women who are college educated.

This goes to show that despite the rise of dangerous right-wing politics, women still have power and will continue to assert their power and demand justice in the face of oppression. The midterms have seen women mobilise this power since they are not simply winning elected office, but the context in which they have done so shows a clear rejection of anti-feminist powers, and more specifically of white supremacy with an unprecedented number of women of colour being elected to the house. However, we can’t be complacent as women still only hold a quarter of seats and there must still be an accountability for anyone who fails to support women’s rights. There is an opportunity to establish a firm place for women in US politics who can then bring women’s rights to the forefront; however, this is something the recently elected candidates must fight to sustain. That said, she came, she saw and she flipping well got elected.

Artwork by Mae Farrow.

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