That smug, can’t-catch-me grin. Those wee flailing hands, attempting to punctuate facts that don’t exist. That whiny voice huffing, “The biggest. Ever. Believe me.” I’ve long thought it true, but now statistics prove it: There’s something about Donald Trump standing at the presidential podium that makes women want to run.
They’re not running away from politics, though; they’re sprinting toward it — in vast, pissed-off, let’s-do-this numbers. Attendance was 66 percent higher than usual at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics’ “Ready to Run” workshop in March, for women interested in seeking office; they had to turn folks away. EMILY’s list, a group that helps pro-choice Democratic women get elected, talked to 900 women who wanted to run during the 2016 election cycle; this year they’ve heard from 11,000.
“After this election cycle, I think a lot of women were just like, ‘You know, it’s enough. I need to find a way to get involved and make my political voice heard,’” says Maimuna Syed, the brand-new executive director of Emerge California.
Emerge is a national organization that identifies, encourages, and trains women to run for office — and to get elected. Trainees undergo 70 hours of in-depth candidate coaching: from public speaking to fundraising, networking, cultural competency, and ethical leadership. Their list of alumnae makes you want to scrap your life and start over as a warrior princess. This week, the Golden State branch graduated its largest class of 57 women — nearly double its typical size.
The U.S. ranks 96th in the world (behind China and Pakistan, mind you) for percentage of women in elected office. Less than a fifth of our Congress is women. Studies blame the fact that women here are less likely to be recruited or encouraged to run, are still responsible for the majority of child care in their families, and, most significantly, tend to believe they aren’t experienced enough.
“I never felt like politics was accessible as a minority immigrant woman — a Muslim woman — like it was somewhere I could fit in,” says Syed, who will speak at the Women and the Environment Conference in Santa Barbara on May 17-18. “I think a lot of women feel this way, like they’re not visible.”
Syed planned to go to med school after college but got an internship with Hillary Clinton in 2007. She spent the following years in the labor movement, directing massive unions before returning to Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 election. Like many women, the stunning loss spurred her to action. How could such a qualified woman not be elected, she thought? Why aren’t qualified women being elected to every office?
“In California, women only make up 22 percent of the legislature, and yet we’re 52 percent of the voting population!” she said. “That gap is what I decided to focus my effort on. Not just to have gender parity but to stress the issues that elected women are going to advocate on behalf of.”
Not only is it crucial to have people at the decision-making table who will actually be affected by those decisions (hello, room full of old white men deciding the fate of women’s reproductive rights), Syed says, but also women are often a different kind of politician — the kind we need more of right now.
“Women tend to be problem solvers and, in that sense, are more willing to compromise on issues,” she says. They say, “‘Explain how this affects you,’ and ‘What can we do to fix the problem?’ rather than just making unilateral decisions.”
Syed hopes that Emerge’s next few cohorts will produce a fierce, fearless class of female leaders who no longer feel restricted by “the social implications that women have been facing for generations: not having their voices heard and feeling like they have to be the smartest, loudest, most articulate voice, and yet simultaneously the most rational person, in order to succeed in politics.”
If Trump has done nothing else for our country, at least he’s disavowed us of that notion.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.