Working to Ensure the ‘Year of the Woman’ Is More Than Just One Year

More than a month after Election Day, a group of women is still going door to door in and around Atlanta looking for people who do not typically vote. They plan to continue at least until the State Legislature resumes in mid-January, to try to build opposition to restrictive voting laws.

After the polls closed in November, Katie Farnan, who started an Indivisible resistance group in Colorado in early 2017, waited just one minute to tweet out a countdown clock and a link to raise money to help unseat Senator Cory Gardner in 2020. Last week, the first Democratic candidate — a woman — announced her intention to challenge him.

And in February, a bipartisan coalition of women’s groups will kick off an effort to elect more women — Republicans and Democrats — in places where there are few in office, starting in Dallas County, Tex., where half the municipalities have almost no female elected officials.

Across the country, women who mobilized around the 2018 midterms are now mobilizing to make sure that the so-called Year of the Woman is not just that — one year. They want the energy that surged with the women’s marches after President Trump’s inauguration and powered a Democratic wave in November to continue not only through the 2020 presidential campaign, but until women make up at least the same proportion among lawmakers that they do in the general population.

“Nobody is going back to sleep anytime soon,” said Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and the director of strategy for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which this year helped start Care in Action, the group of women canvassing in Georgia.

There is precedent for the energy to fade.

The previous Year of the Woman, in 1992, saw what was then a record number of female candidates for state and federal office and about a 50 percent increase of the number of women in Congress, many inspired to run by the treatment of Anita Hill before an all-male Senate judiciary panel. But the number of women running for Congress dropped in the next election cycles, not rising above 1992 levels until 2010.

This year, although a record number of women ran and won, many lost, including campaigns that had revved up high hopes, like Stacey Abrams’s run for governor in Georgia. Republican women had particular reason to be discouraged: Just one was elected to a freshman House class that has 35 Democratic women, a record.

And for all the victories this year, women will occupy just 24 percent of seats in Congress come January — nowhere close to their proportion among voters or in the population, which is just over 50 percent. The numbers in state legislatures are not much better.

Those who have long worked to get more women into office say the conditions are different this time. The 2018 election was notable not just for female candidates, but for the women behind the scenes, with a surge of new activists and voters, especially among Democrats, working to elect candidates and speaking out on issues like health care, immigration and gun violence.

And many women became active in response to President Trump, who was elected with the largest gender gap on record.

“The trigger for so much of this starting is still sitting in the White House and will continue to speak, and say things that will continue to outrage,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “This will keep people engaged and thinking they have to keep fighting and take the big prize, which is the White House and the Senate.”

There is also outrage about votes not being counted in states like Georgia and Florida. Many of the women who won this year did so in districts where they will have to fight to hang on in two years. And there are multiple women eyeing a run for president in 2020 — all of which can help keep women’s eyes on the prize.

“People do see it as just, Nov. 6, women got elected in historic numbers — and then it’s done,” said Nikema Williams, a Democratic state senator in Georgia. “But it’s not actually done because now we have all these women we’ve engaged who are now paying attention.”

For Republicans the challenge is steeper; polls have shown women shifting their party identification to the Democrats by wide margins, and at least one analysis of exit polls showed that women of all education levels moved toward the Democrats on Election Day — even working-class white women who helped elect Mr. Trump. But women on both sides say that reaching gender parity in state houses and Congress requires electing more Republicans as well as Democrats.

“At the rate we’re going, it’s still going to take us 100 years to get to parity,” said Jennifer Nassour, the former head of the Republican Party in Massachusetts.

Ms. Nassour is the chief operating officer of ReflectUS, the new bipartisan coalition working to elect women. The groups involved say they want to help women be more methodical and discerning about where they run. This year, many Democratic women ran in districts where gerrymandering or incumbency made it almost impossible to win. ReflectUS is identifying races where women from either party have a better shot, and is working with local groups to find women to run for those seats.

“You’re always going to have your own views,” Ms. Nassour said, “but if we can help change the conversation and make this about equal representation and what the Constitution affords us as women, the divisiveness becomes less so because everyone’s working toward the same common goal: Getting more women elected.

“But also, we grab more people in the middle if we can get more women running on both sides and their views are not drastically different,” she added. “That will be a bit of healing for both parties.”

Many women who became active after the 2016 election said they would now focus on advocating policy in state legislative sessions. Some mentioned wanting to push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and for gun control laws. In Washington State, said Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, women are organizing to support a law creating a public long-term care insurance program.

“As women, we see it as, this is a time for us to speak,” said Diana Earl, who became an anti-gun violence activist in Texas after her son was killed in 2016. “We’ve got to continue speaking. Once we stop and slow down, that’s a little break for the opposition to come in and try to do something to reverse our progress.”

In Colorado, Ms. Farnan is organizing lobbying days, one Wednesday a month, at the State Capitol. Her group, like others across the state, has been eyeing Mr. Gardner, a reliable Republican soldier, since 2016, and saw the end of the 2018 midterms as the start of his 2020 campaign. “I’m exhausted for sure,” she said, “but I’m 100 percent in on dragging Gardner’s approval rating down to unapproachable levels.”

In New Jersey and Virginia, both states where women helped flip red districts to blue, women are already declaring candidacies for next year’s state legislative races; last week, Representative-elect Mikie Sherrill, in New Jersey, stood next to two Democratic women who helped get her elected as they announced their bid for seats now held by Republicans in a nearby legislative district.

Ms. Earl, who became a frequent presence on the trail for Beto O’Rourke’s Senate run in Texas, said she was also focused on keeping up the social bonds that developed out of the 2018 campaign. “Women need to be connected all the time, not just for politics,” she said.

Hillary Shields, who started an Indivisible group in Kansas City, Mo., shortly after the 2016 election and then ran and lost for State Senate in November, said she wanted to restart the Democratic club in Lee’s Summit, the suburb where she lives.

She was disappointed, of course, she said, by her loss and the loss of Senator Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent. “But it doesn’t mean that we stop,” she said.

Ms. Shields took a week off and went on vacation. But she also savored the advances she and her group made. She earned 45 percent of the vote in a district where Hillary Clinton won 36 percent in 2016. The state repealed right-to-work laws and passed a minimum-wage increase and an ethics reform bill, and approved medical marijuana.

“We want to keep building on that,” she said. “I love my community, I love where I live, I love my neighbors. I want to be active with them.”

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