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Outraged and inspired, women join political fray

Michael Tackett, International New York Times, Dec 6 2017, 0:11 IST
Thousands of protesters take part in the Women's March in Washington, Jan. 21, 2017. The day after what many had assumed would be the inauguration of the first female president, hundreds of thousands of women flooded the streets of Washington, and many more marched in cities across the country, in defiant, jubilant rallies against the man who defeated her. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Thousands of protesters take part in the Women's March in Washington, Jan. 21, 2017. The day after what many had assumed would be the inauguration of the first female president, hundreds of thousands of women flooded the streets of Washington, and many more marched in cities across the country, in defiant, jubilant rallies against the man who defeated her. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

For Wendy Gooditis, a Northern Virginia real estate agent, the crystallising moment in her decision to run for office was when she heard her state delegate suggest that he had fought gerrymandering in Virginia when his record said otherwise.

For Mai-Khanh Tran, a paediatrician in Southern California, it was the day after the presidential election in 2016 and she looked into the eyes of a young patient with a brain tumour whose family had only recently obtained health insurance.

For Andrea Ramsey, the president of a nonprofit children's health clinic in Kansas City, Kansas, it was in May when her local congressman voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

None of the women had seriously contemplated entering politics before. They had no money or organisation. But they were dismayed with the direction of the country, they said, starting with the election of President Donald Trump, and finally decided to act.

They have been joined by hundreds of other women across the nation, with the number seeking elective office rising at every level, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. They were angered by Trump's election and energised by the Women's March in Washington the day after his inauguration, and are now even more driven to get involved after the flood of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men.

Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List, the largest national organisation devoted to electing female candidates, said that in the 10 months before the election in 2016, about 1,000 women contacted her organisation about running for office or getting involved in other ways. Since the election, she said, the number has exploded to more than 22,000.

"We have never seen anything like what we have seen over the last 12 months," Schriock said. "If you could underline that four times, that's what I mean."

Gooditis won her race for the Virginia House of Delegates in November, defeating a three-term Republican incumbent, Randy Minchew. She was one of 11 women who flipped seats in Virginia state legislative races, and women across the country took notice of the wave.

Democrats are the overwhelming beneficiaries of the surge in women's activism, and even hope it could lead to retaking the House if candidates like Tran and Ramsey prevail over incumbent Republicans. Their optimism will be tested in primaries early next year and throughout the summer, but the early signs indicate that female candidates are raising significant sums and building strong organisations.

"If you look at 2017, I think it becomes a historic year of the woman," said Anita Dunn, who served as communications director for President Barack Obama. She said it began with the Women's March, where the scale of the movement showed great potential for continued engagement. "Then the year is ending on this note of women who are stepping forward, finding their voices, in many ways doing the classic, 'We are mad as hell, and we aren't going to take it anymore.' It's sort of a primal scream."

The largest increase by far is in the number of female House candidates, 354 - 291 Democrats and 63 Republicans - according to data from the Rutgers centre. The number of women challenging incumbents is almost four times the number at the same period in 2015.

In the Senate, there are almost double the number of female candidates - 25 Democrats and 13 Republicans - than there were at this point in 2015, and about 10 times the number in the 2012 and 2014 elections.

Celinda Lake, a pollster for Democratic candidates, said: "I think we will see more women running, more women voting for women, more women turning out to vote. It makes women change agents and a powerful part of the formula for 2018 races."

Trump's defeat of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be a major-party candidate for president, jolted women to become more active. "It was Donald Trump and the way that he sort of embraced masculinity, but even more specifically, misogyny, in his rhetoric and behaviour," said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

"To make a statement against that and the policies he espoused sort of pushed them over the edge to not just think about running, but to put their names out there."

The number of male candidates has also increased, she said, so the proportion of female
candidates has not ballooned. But many of those women are running as challengers, meaning
that if they win, they would substantially alter the balance of power in statehouses and Congress.

The revelations about sexual assault and harassment have only added to the power of the moment. "Look, these instances, by and large, almost entirely, are being perpetrated by men, and there is something to say here about the value of having women in institutions like Congress to challenge the dominance of masculinity," Dittmar said.

"I don't think that it is a partisan story," she added. "Republican women as well as Democratic women equally know what it is like to be harassed."

Finding their voices

Many of the women are decided long shots, challenging Republicans in some cases where no Democrat has run in a decade.

The results in the House of Delegates in Virginia, which included the election of the first Latinas, the first Asian-American and the first transgender candidate, provide the most tangible indication that women are poised to make substantial gains next year.

It did not take Gooditis long to find her path. She was distraught about Trump's election, and could not bring herself to watch the inauguration. She attended the Women's March and a week later started an Indivisible group.

After hearing Minchew imply at a town hall meeting that he opposed gerrymandering, she said, she later told a local gathering of Democrats, "Somebody has to run against this guy." Then, she added, her neighbour Kathy Smart said, "You run, Wendy." "And everybody started yelling, 'You run Wendy,'" Gooditis said, "and my husband started poking me, and then, I guess, I am in."

On April 30, she had $700 in a campaign account and no staff. By Election Day she had a staff of eight and had raised almost $500,000. She defeated Minchew by about 1,000 votes out of more than 29,000 ballots cast.

On the day after the election, Tran, a paediatrician for 25 years, said she did not feel like going to her medical office. "But I did what most women do: get up, take care of things and take care of people," she said.

One of her first patients that morning was a child with a brain tumour whose family had only recently been able to obtain coverage through the Affordable Care Act. She said she thought that "now is really the time to stand up
and fight and protect the people we care about." She added, "I think it's time that we speak up, get involved and get a seat at the table."

Tran is one of five Democratic challengers to Republican Ed Royce, but the only woman. "Women are ready to be at the table now on issues that are so current and vital to women now," she said. "Our healthcare, our reproductive rights, also our safety and our dignity."

While healthcare is a dominant issue for many of the female candidates, according to exit polls, it is the president who may be the prime motivator. "I just say as long as Donald Trump is in the White House, there will be oxygen in this movement," Dunn said.

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