The surprising silver lining to Trump’s presidency
As Americans head to the midterm election polls, it seems Trump’s divisive and controversial leadership has had one positive side effect: a surge in women running for office to defend female rights. Jane Mulkerrins reports
from the separation of immigrant children from their parents to the moves to roll back transgender rights, every week in US politics since the election of Donald Trump two years ago this week brings new controversy. But as the nation limps, divided and fractured, towards the halfway point of Trump’s four-year presidency, one positive side effect has materialised: the unprecedented tide of women running for office in the midterm elections.
A record 527 women have launched campaigns for seats in Congress and the Senate in the midterms this week. ‘ This uptick in the number of women running for office is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,’ says Alexandra De Luca, spokesperson for Emily’s List, an organisation that helps pro-choice Democratic women candidates.
‘In 2015 and 2016, we heard from 920 women who were interested in running. Since Donald Trump’s election, we have heard from 42,000 women who are interested.’
This is not a response to Trump alone, she says. ‘It’s also in reaction to the attempts by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and access to reproductive health care; and to their forcing Brett Kavanaugh on to the Supreme Court, despite the anger from women all over the country. The #Metoo movement has really inspired women to come forward and make their voices heard, too.’
It’s not the first time women in the US have risen up to run for office in response to a sense that the powerful patriarchy was ignoring their protests. In 1992, a then-record 24 women were elected to the Senate, increasing female representation by 60%, leading to it being dubbed The Year of the Woman. Back then, the increase in female candidates was closely linked to lawyer Anita Hill’s testimony the year before against Clarence Thomas, who she accused of sexual harassment and who, like Kavanaugh, went on to be elected to the Supreme Court after being nominated by George W Bush. ‘It’s a very similar impetus this time around,’ says De Luca. ‘ Women feel their voices aren’t being heard. Women see a problem and want to do something to solve it.’ Both Thomas and Kavanaugh denied the allegations against them.
A huge number of those running are first-time candidates. ‘ There are so many women who are eminently qualified, who thought before that it wasn’t the right time. They are realising that there is no right time – the right time is now.’ So, here are the names you need to know…
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO- CORTEZ
The 29-year-old from the Bronx became the breakout star of politics this year when she caused the biggest surprise of the midterm race so far, winning her primary against Joe Crowley, a long-standing member of Congress for New York’s 14th district. This ‘seismic political upset’, in the words of TV network MSNBC, was in spite of the fact that Crowley spent $1.09 million on his campaign whereas Ocasio- Cortez spent just $127,000.
Until recently making her living as a bartender and waitressing in a taqueria, Ocasio- Cortez also worked as an organiser for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. Her policies include abolishing the often-brutal Immigration and Customs Enforcement – known as ICE, introducing Medicare for all and tighter gun control. She says of Trump: ‘I don’t think he knows how to deal with a girl from the Bronx.’
Not content with being a hugely successful tax lawyer, 44-year-old Abrams, the daughter of Methodist ministers, is also a published romance novelist under her nom de plume, Selena Montgomery – she finished her first book while still at Yale Law School. Now she is running to become the governor of Georgia, too – with the potential to become the first African American female governor in the entire United States.
She’s a Democrat and was endorsed by Barack Obama; her policies include increased spending on education, protecting abortion rights and the decriminalisation of small amounts of marijuana. She has held public office for the past 15 years, first as the deputy city attorney for Atlanta, then as a member of the Georgia State House of Representatives. And, since 2011, she has served as the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. And yet, in a recent tweet, Trump – who had never held public office until January 2017 – called Abrams ‘totally unqualified’.
GINA ORTIZ JONES
Gina Ortiz Jones, 37, is not only the first woman to potentially represent her district (the sprawling 23rd Congressional District in Texas) but, should she be successful today, she’ll
also become the first Iraq war veteran and the first Filipina-american in Congress, plus the first openly gay woman from Texas ever to serve her state.
She was raised in San Antonio by a single mother who came to the US from the Philippines as a domestic worker. ‘I think that the fact that I can – 40 years later – run for Congress, is an honour,’ says Ortiz Jones, who, in her military career, served as an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force. ‘I had already served in countries where women and minorities are targeted, and I have seen what happens when democratic institutions are under attack,’ she adds. ‘I wanted to see what good I could do from within.’
Born in Mogadishu and raised in her native Somalia until the age of nine – when her family fled the country’s civil war, spending the next four years in a refugee camp in Kenya – Ilhan Omar now looks set to become one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to the US House.
She is the Democratic-farmer-labor Party (a socially liberal party, affiliated to the Democrats) congressional candidate for Minnesota, where she already sits in the State House of Representatives, and is the first Somali-american woman ever elected to political office in the US.
Omar, 36, a child nutrition expert, arrived in the US when she was 12 with her six siblings, her father and grandfather ( her mother died when she was very young). The only words she knew in English at that time were ‘hello’ and ‘shut up’ – but she spoke fluent English within three months. Like Ocasio- Cortez, she is committed to dismantling ICE, the agency tasked with enacting the harsh immigration policies of the government. ‘I’ve always seen how it was created out of fear, and how it became a tool to dehumanise and treat Muslims as second-class citizens within this country,’ she says.
Running unopposed in her congressional district in Detroit, Michigan, 42-year-old Rashida Tlaib can pretty much count on being the first Muslim woman elected to Congress this week. The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and the eldest child of 14, she credits her heritage with forming her commitment to activism.
‘I want people across the country to know that you don’t need to sell out,’ she says. ‘ You don’t have to change who you are to run for office.’ She has also vowed to ‘fight back against every racist and oppressive structure that needs to be dismantled,’ telling constituents: ‘ You deserve better than what we have today with our President.’
A member of Moms Against Trump, Tlaib put her money where her mouth is, heckling the then-presidential candidate during a speech in Detroit in August 2016. After questioning Trump accepting a military medal from an elderly veteran – in spite of having never seen active duty – she was physically escorted from the room.
Growing up in what she has described as a ‘tough neighbourhood’ in Chicago, Ayanna Pressley was raised by a single mother – her father was ‘in and out of prison’ throughout her childhood but eventually became a college professor. She made it to Boston University, but had to drop out before graduation to support her family after her mother lost her job. She has also spoken about being sexually assaulted at 19. After nine years on Boston’s City Council, 44-year-old Pressley is now set to become the first African American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.
Ahead of the vote confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Pressley called for him to step aside if he had ‘an iota of decency’ and spoke of ‘the disgrace to our nation, that survivors are never given the justice they are deserved’.
Six of the record 527 women campaigning for seats in Congress