Much of the excitement over so many women running for House seats and even (gosh!) running against each other should be filed under “anticlimax.” After Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton and with the female powerhouses now serving in the U.S. Congress, a woman vying for elective office should not be that big a deal.
There was a time when few American women ran for office.
Jennifer Lawless, who directs American University’s Women & Politics Institute, blamed the dearth of female candidates on women’s lack of confidence rather than any voter preference for men. She found that when women do run for office, they are as likely to win as men.
The days of political reticence have clearly ended. In 1992, only 298 women ran for the House. This year, 476 have. Women, meanwhile, have won about half the House Democratic primaries held so far, which would seem to back Lawless’s thesis.
As for the #MeToo phenomenon, the exposure of serious sexual misconduct, ranging from violent rape to workplace harassment, may have lifted female enthusiasm this year. But antipathy toward Trump and his Republican enablers provided the rocket propulsion. The massive women’s marches the day after the inauguration were all about Trump.
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/ Marist poll shows female voters favoring Democrats this fall by more than 20 points. Suburban women prefer Democrats by nearly 30 points. And though white women put together voted for Trump in 2016, polls say they now want Democrats.
That’s wind in the Democrats’ sails, but it’s not a magic carpet ride into office for female candidates. And chaining oneself to MeToo poses its own set of problems.
For example, exactly what compelled Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — crowned the “#MeToo senator” by “60 Minutes” — to hound the Minnesota Democrat Al Franken out of office? Yes, a grinning Franken was photographed pretending to cup a sleeping colleague’s breasts. But he apologized to the woman, and the woman accepted the apology. He hadn’t broken any law, and the disrespect shown was a shadow of the contempt Trump world regularly heaps on its female conquests.
But Gillibrand led a posse demanding Franken’s head and got it. Franken resigned, and the Democrats lost a popular progressive in a purple state who knew how to talk back to Trump.
The #MeToo movement was a response to a genuine mistreatment of women. The work is not done. But like every other publicized movement, #MeToo has attracted some cruel or unbalanced individuals exploiting it to hurt others.
We hear of women going after some schlub in the office because he leered at them or simply asked for a date. An awkwardly placed compliment or hug would get a guy hauled into the personnel office. These stories have tarnished the #MeToo movement in the eyes of many men — and women, too.
Voters want to know the candidates’ positions on health care, defense, infrastructure. Some issues are women’s issues. Most are not.
Our smartest female leaders have long known that they are selling the “smarts,” not the “female.” They understand that gender is a description, not a qualification. Many women, your writer included, resent the notion that some would vote for a candidate because she is female — or any other identity.
With that off our chests, Democrats should declare the following: May the best women, or men, represent us in the midterms. And pray they win.
Froma Harrop can be reached at email@example.com.