Panel explores #MeToo and female candidates
— Given the current political climate created by President Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement, a large number of women are running for office, according to a panel discussion held March 22 at Washington College. Melissa Deckman, political science department chair at the college, moderated “Women on Fire: How Trump and the #MeToo Movement are Shaping the 2018 Elections.” The panel included political science professor Kelly Dittmar, journalist Vanessa Williams and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah. Deckman said the Center for American Women in Office at Rutgers University reports that 465 women are running for Congress this year, which is a jump of 67 percent compared to 2016. Additionally, last year 11 male legislators were replaced by women in Virginia and there is a record-break- ing number of women running for governor this year. Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden. She said that, in a survey completed by the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, women cited their motivation to run as a desire to change public policy, whereas men typically respond with “I have a longstanding desire to be in elected office.” “The shorthand for that is women run for office to do something, men run for office to be somebody,” Dittmar said. Dittmar said many of the women running have worked outside government and now see it as not working for them. The desire to see a change had then led them to run for office. “I think there’s something different this year where women are saying, ‘ You know what? These institutions are flawed and I have to be part of the solution and I have to be part of the change,’” Dittmar said. Similarly, Williams said the influx of women, and specifically women of color, running can be attributed to anger. Williams works as a journalist for The Washington Post, where she follows women of color who run for office. Williams said many of the women she’s talked to are already very involved in their communities whether that be in their churches, as an activist, working with children in schools or at rape crisis centers.
“These women are incredibly active and they are just really afraid that the causes and the people that they care about are going to be hurt in the climate that has overtaken Washington and a lot of statehouses as well,” Williams said. She said these female candidates are worried about education, particularly public schools, health care and criminal justice reform. Vignarajah said her decision to run for governor was similarly fueled by emotion. She previously served as policy director for first lady Michelle Obama and worked at the State Department as senior advisor under secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Vignarajah said a lot of nonpartisan issues she had worked on did not remain in Trump’s White House. “We had a complacency on this assumption that we were good. I think Nov. 8 kind of awoke us from that. And part of what has been so exciting is that I think it awoke a sleeping giant,” Vignarajah said. Williams said she sees a lot of women have the passion, but not the technical support for their campaigns. Additionally, there often is a structural component to why women do not run. “There’s been a lot of older white men in office for a long time and it’s so hard to get those opportunities,” Dittmar said. Dittmar said money also is an issue for any women seeking office. In particular, for women looking to run in the Republican Party, there is less organization to help provide information on the process of running and for fundraising assistance. “We see empirically that it takes a lot of work to raise that same amount of money. And then there’s some research that demonstrates that it might actually cost more for women to run because they have to do more work to prove that they are qualified to serve in this office,” Dittmar said. However, she said there is little proof that women and women of color are not as electable as white men, but there is a lot of remaining reservation to back them. “They look at a system that has been male-dominated for so long and it looks like it’s hard to break in,” Dittmar said. Dittmar said the supportive environment created by the #MeToo movement may have contributed to women feeling as though they have a backing if they decide to run. She said while historically, politics have been maledominated, there is little research to suggest women will not be supported by voters. Dittmar said Vignarajah’s recently released video advertisement for her campaign, which features her breastfeeding her 9-monthold daughter, reflects the appealing aim of being authentic to voters. Vignarajah said she decided to have the ad be her first because it represents her reality and why she’s running. “I wanted this campaign to be very authentic to me and part of why I am running is because I’m a woman and I’m a mom,” Vignarajah said. Dittmar said there is a misconception that male candidates do not deal with gender in their campaigns. She cited Trump’s campaign, which was focused on his masculinity. “We are never going to get beyond that lack of diversity in political leadership if we continue to reinforce those norms,” Dittmar said.
Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University–Camden, discusses the influx of women running for office this year. Krish Vignarajah, who is a candidate for governor in Maryland, is pictured to the right.
Journalist Vanessa Williams, left, speaks about the structural obstacles women of color face when running for office during Washington College’s panel on women in politics during this year’s elections. Seated next to her is political science professor Kelly Dittmar.