The 2016 election is, in a word, historic — and not just because a woman is, for the first time, the presumptive presidential nominee for one of two major political parties in the United States. A slew of other Democratic women running for, or defending, political offices this year are also proven ground-breakers.
These women are campaigning in a time of highly-charged gender politics. Not only is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton running to become the first female president, opponent and Republican nominee Donald Trump has both made Clinton’s gender an issue — he argued she could not get elected without “playing the women’s card” — and lobbed numerous disparaging remarks at other prominent women.
Even so, the women on the left seeking election to Congress, Senate and state governorships are rising above the rhetoric — and many of them have already achieved prominent “firsts” for women in politics, as well as for the specific communities of which they are a part.
Calls for progress — for women, for people of color, for members of the LGBT community and other minority or marginalized groups in America — echo through their campaigns and messaging. Their words are especially powerful considering many of them know from personal experience how hard it can be to make a difference in our society, due to the systemic barriers that hold many back.
Take, for example, Army veteran Misty Plowright, who is running for Congress in Colorado’s fifth district. She proudly identifies herself as a transgender woman — one of two trans individuals running for office this year, and one of the few candidates on either side of the aisle to identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
In a move that’s emblematic of the influences of identity politics in Democratic women’s campaigns, she’s using her platform to take on issues that not only affect her constituents, but her directly. She says on her site that “her personal history has helped to shape her political philosophy, and she has reached a point in her life where she feels the need to stand up and speak for those who do not have a voice.”
The Left-Leaning Women of Election 2016
As we forge ahead with our project on the role women are playing in 2016 U.S. elections, we continue to keep our eyes on the 435 House seats on the line, as well as the 34 Senate seats (out of 100) and 12 governorships (out of, of course, 50) in play. Explore our interactive map of candidates from all parties, complete with individual bios.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, 76 women are running for — or trying to hold onto — seats in Congress. There are also 13 women running for Senate and two running for governor as Democrats. That compares to 33 Republican candidates for all these offices combined.
In terms of demographics, the Democrats very much resemble the field of Republican female candidates in that a significant portion of them are white, born in the United States and are between the ages of 45 and 70.
And like the Republicans, they largely support causes and beliefs that are in line with their party. For instance, the Democrats often speak out for more stringent gun control legislation, support access to legal and safe abortions, and recommend pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But their “branding” is notably different. While the GOP women play up their family lives and Main Street values, the Democrats are more focused on telling voters about their professional and political accomplishments — with particular emphasis on ground they have broken as women pioneers in the world of politics.
A Party of History Makers
“Many times in my career, I’ve heard the word ‘can’t,'” begins the bio of Senate candidate Kamala Harris, who is currently California’s attorney general. Harris is not only the first woman to occupy her current role, but the first African-American and Asian-American as well. “I’ve never been a fan of the word ‘can’t’ — aimed at me, or anyone else.”
This trailblazer’s determination is espoused by a number of the female Democrats involved in races this year. Arguably, that starts with House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the only woman to have served as speaker of the House and, to date, the highest-ranking female politician in American history.
Then again, women Democrats have been leading the charge for female representation in politics for decades. They were the first to shatter glass ceilings in both the House (Corinne Boyd Riley of South Carolina in 1962) and Senate (Barbara Mikulski of Maryland in 1987).
In terms of how today’s Democratic women candidates present themselves to voters, prominent incumbents and newcomers alike tend to lead with their political experiences and activist work. Like Republican women, some do play up their personal stories and familial roles as well. But many of them — particularly the women of color and youngest candidates — put the professional facets of their identities front and center, especially if they are a “first” in their field.
Grace Meng, a congresswoman from New York, is one example. “Grace is the first Asian-American Member of Congress from New York State, and the only Congress member of Asian descent in the entire Northeast,” is one of the first lines in her bio. “She is also the first female Member of Congress from Queens since former Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro.”
This isn’t to say that Republican women aren’t also leading the charge for women. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, says that “many of those Republican women are ‘firsts’ as well — whether or not they’re saying it.”
But even Democratic newcomers to politics without “firsts” to boast about are eager to tell voters about their credentials. Take small business owner and Virginia congressional candidate LuAnn Bennett, an entrepreneur who co-founded a small real estate business with her late husband, Rick.
In her official biography, her activism takes center stage. “LuAnn has … worked to help children and families throughout the region and across Virginia, serving on Virginia’s Climate Change Commission, the Virginia Health Care Foundation, the I Have a Dream Foundation, Turnaround for Children, and the National Children’s Museum.”
“There’s more activism on the Democrat side,” Walsh says, because “there’s more of a belief in identity politics — that women can best represent women’s issues, or that African-Americans can represent African-Americans more effectively.”
Rep. Maxine Waters of South Carolina, an incumbent who has been in the House for 13 years, is an example of someone who often uses her platform to directly address the pressing needs and concerns of various communities in America, including the African-American community.
Most recently, in a Facebook post published on the anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, she took time to note that “the congregation carries the heavy weight of history, as we all recall the days in our nation’s history when racially motivated attacks on the Black church were far too common.”
That willingness to not only embrace identity politics, but to package one’s own identity as a motivating factor in one’s work as a politician, seems to be defining characteristic of the female Democratic field — indeed, the Democratic field as a whole.
The ‘Hillary’ Factor
Clearly, identity politics are also playing a part in Clinton’s history-making nomination. USA Today and CNN both recently reported that women on both sides of the aisle are throwing their support — be it enthusiastically or reluctantly — behind Clinton. And a recent NPR report states that 51 percent of female voters would choose Clinton for POTUS, while just 38 percent would cast their ballots for Trump, marking one of the bigger gender divides ever observed in a presidential election.
Beyond dreams of a female POTUS, many women are responding to Clinton’s messages on key women’s issues, which include promises to fight for equal pay and affordable child care, and to confront efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and roll back legal abortion.
Many female Democratic candidates for office have now endorsed Clinton, including incumbent gubernatorial candidate Kate Brown of Oregon, Senate candidate and current governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina. So has Rep. Tammy Duckworth — another “firster,” if you will. She was the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress in Illinois and is also the first disabled woman — she sustained significant injuries as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot — ever elected to Congress.
Not all are so outwardly enthusiastic about Clinton, of course. “Maybe if you’re a Democrat in a very red state, that Democrat might push it away, to have some distance,” Walsh says.
“But by and large, you’re seeing that women in the Democratic Party are very supportive of her,” she adds. “With some exceptions, they’re excited about the idea of being the party that elects the first woman president — there’s some pride in that.”
Ready for the Future
A number of Democrat women are running important races in battleground states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Hampshire, including Adams and Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada’s first Congressional district.
The outcome of hotly contested Senate races, in particular, could make or break the success of potential Clinton administration, Walsh notes.
If the Democrats regain majority control of the Senate, “while it will still be hard to get legislation passed because of the House, it would be at least slightly less difficult,” she says. “What’s interesting about this is, it could end up being that the largest races with women in them could make that shift,” citing races like Hassan’s.
Indeed, how Americans vote on Nov. 8 will have a ripple effect for years to come. Yet already, Clinton’s nomination in and of itself will buoy the women who follow behind her — just as the accomplishments of other trailblazers have before.
Walsh believes there isn’t enough discussion or recognition of what has already been achieved by the soon-to-be head of the Democratic Party. Clinton’s presumptive-nominee status “hasn’t captured the public,” Walsh says. “I’m not sure if it’s because Hillary’s been around so long, or because she’s already been in the White House — so it doesn’t feel ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ — or if it’s because she ran in 2008 and she’s running again.”
Whatever the reason, she says, “there should be more attention paid to this historic moment — regardless of what happens in November.”