In its 400-year history, the US state of Virginia’s House of Delegates has never been led by a woman.
There is a good chance that might change soon. Two women are among the contenders for the powerful role of House speaker after Virginia Democrats continued their winning streak under US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, seizing control of both the House and Senate from Republicans for the first time in more than two decades.
“Long overdue,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, a top candidate for the job.
It is just one example of the gains made around the country by women — most of them Democrats and many of them women of color — who have aimed their energy and political might at Trump since the 2016 election.
The surge of female winners that continued on Tuesday was a troubling signal for the president ahead of his re-election bid, but it also revealed political shifts already under way.
Tuesday’s results also mean women would hold majorities in places such as the Boston City Council, long seen by many as a “boys’ club,” and lead communities such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, where voters elected the city’s first female mayor, just weeks before she’s due to give birth.
A cyclist who lost her job after she flipped off a Trump motorcade won a seat on a county board in Virginia in a district that is also home to one of Trump’s golf courses. In Maine, a 23-year-old Somali American woman was elected to the Lewiston City Council, defeating another Democrat and what she described as “Internet trolls,” who lobbed racist and sexist attacks via social media in the campaign’s final weeks.
While Republicans have struggled to match Democrats in electing and elevating women in office, Tuesday’s elections did show a bright spot in Trump territory.
Republican women were behind record wins in Mississippi, where 12 women — eight Republicans and four Democrats — won seats in the state Senate. The previous record was nine, set in 2016.
However, there is little doubt the increased involvement of women in politics is poised to benefit Democrats in the near term.
Trump’s victory over former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton prompted millions of women across the US to march in protest and organize against him and his policies.
Women also began running for office in larger numbers, picking up seats in the 2017 election and in last year’s midterms, when a record 102 women were elected to Congress, helping Democrats win House control. A record number of women then jumped into the race for the Democratic nomination for president.
The latest wins show that what happened in 2017 and last year was not just a moment, but has created lasting change, said Amanda Renteria, interim president of Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.
She noted that women first elected in 2017, such as Virginia Representative Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature, were re-elected on Tuesday.
“Women continue to win, but we are now here to stay,” said Renteria, who was national political director for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “We absolutely believe this is a warmup for 2020.”
Virginia has been a hotbed for the trend. The Virginia General Assembly, for centuries dominated by white men, has been dramatically reshaped over the past two election cycles, due in large part to gains by Democratic women.
A record number of women — 30 Democrats and nine Republicans — were elected to the legislature on Tuesday, topping the previous record of 38 in 2018, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute. The shift could mean passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia, which activists argue would put the constitutional amendment passed by Congress in 1972 over the threshold it needs for adoption.
Tuesday was an extension of the blue wave in 2017, when Democrats picked up 15 Virginia House seats, with 11 won by women. The next year, three women in the state defeated incumbent Republicans in the US House of Representatives.
One of those women, Representative Abigail Spanberger, said the campaigns in Virginia have not just been won by women, but they have also been powered by female volunteers and animated by issues women prioritize — such as gun violence and health care.
Spanberger read Tuesday’s results as evidence of the success of centrist, pragmatic politics. She advised Democrats with national ambition to “pay attention.”
“People want us to act, to focus on solving problems, not be the most ideologically pure. People are not expecting perfection. But they are expecting you to try,” she said.
The growing ranks of women in power have also meant growing diversity.
Ghazala Hashmi, a first-time candidate who unseated a Republican incumbent to help Democrats flip the Virginia Senate, would become that chamber’s first Muslim female member.
Hashmi said her campaign was determined to prove that “women of color, in particular, are electable, that we can compete aggressively in the area of fundraising and that there are just so many more opportunities for women to participate in the political arena.”
While fundraising has been a hurdle for female candidates in the past, the former community college administrator did not want for cash. She raised over US$2 million, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, in line with her Republican opponent. She beat him by about 9 percentage points.
Shelly Simonds, who lost in 2017 after her Republican opponent’s name was pulled out of a bowl to settle a tie in a Virginia House race, flipped the seat this time. She said she spent a lot of time knocking on doors and talking to people about issues such as gun control, health care and clean water.
Many voters were upset about the daily news coming out of the White House. Simonds compared it to daily “electroshock therapy” that made voters want to do something to get Trump out.
Trump’s approval rating among women has been lower than with men throughout his presidency.
Pew Research Center data show Trump’s average approval rating over his first two years in office was 44 percent among men, compared with 31percent among women, a gap in presidential approval wider than for other former presidents, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Juli Briskman, the cyclist who went viral for her gesture at Trump, said women in Virginia have been working “night and day” since Trump was elected — generating campaign volunteers, writing postcards, making phone calls, encouraging young women to get involved and stepping into leadership roles in local political committees and grassroots organizations.
“I just have to say that women have played a huge role, and I think that women will continue to be reckoned with as we move forward into the 2020 election, for sure,” she said.
Briskman said her run-in with Trump inspired her to get involved in politics, which led to her deciding to run for office for the first time.
“I think this administration has done that for a lot of women,” said Briskman, a single mom. “They’ve just decided, ‘OK, if someone like this can get elected, something is very, very wrong, and we need to start speaking up and changing it.’”
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