American Women in Politics: 2018 Midterms Living up to the Year of the Woman?

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American politics has long been a male dominated arena, and women in the U.S. still remain largely underrepresented at the highest levels. The 2018 midterm elections saw a surge of diverse women running for office. As a result, the term Year of the Woman resurfaced.

The phrase was first used following a similar breakthrough election of female Senators in 1992. This year’s wave of women into the political platform has arguably been set in motion by Trump’s overtly discriminatory Presidency and the subsequent shift it caused in U.S politics. These midterms not only made history as the greatest number of women ever elected, but also represented a historical series of firsts in terms of unparalleled diverse female candidates. The large number of female candidates entering office undoubtedly holds significance for female advancement, but also for the future of U.S. politics. It is a noteworthy occurrence, not only its for its domestic impact, but also for its global importance. Apart from the positive effect of the events, less highlighted aspects, such as Republican women navigating the blue wave, are also in need of consideration, and thus one can raise the question; are the Midterms of 2018 truly living up to the year of the woman?

Rewriting how Women Campaign

Women have typically been encouraged to play by the man’s “rulebook” when running a political campaign, such as proving strength, qualification, and avoid sharing details of their personal lives. From a feminist perspective the political system is argued to have fundamental masculine characteristics, such as public activity or strength, posing constraints for how women act within in it in. In other words, to carry out a strong campaign, the expectation is to live up to the standard of the man. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that voters hold female candidates to a higher standard, demanding that they are both qualified and likable.  However, the midterms displayed a dramatic shift in how women campaign — breaking away from stereotypes and rewriting the “rulebook.” Instead of viewing gender as a barrier, female candidates embraced it as an advantage and changed how women are allowed to express themselves as a candidate. Women running for office brought their children on the campaign trail, breastfed in advertisements, exposed their tattoos, and shared stories from their personal lives, such as experiences of gender discrimination. Additionally, women went beyond topics typically reserved for a female candidate, this being health care, education, etc., to include tax policy and security. Ultimately, as demonstrated by the midterms, the old strategy of playing by the man’s rulebook is outdated. Studies conducted ensuing Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 put the old strategy to rest when it found that voters do, in fact, want to know about a woman’s personal life. Furthermore, female campaigns this year were trailblazing in that few women came from political backgrounds — rather, they spoke to the outsider appeal. Moreover, Liuba Grechen Shirley, who ran for Congress in Long Island, removed a barrier in how women campaign when she launched a petition resulting in the Federal Election Commission deeming childcare as a legitimate campaign expense. This enabled mothers (as well as fathers), to use campaign funds to pay for the childcare needed as a result of campaign activity. By lifting this barrier, Shirley enabled women more mobility when running for office – challenging the typical public-private dichotomy. This dichotomy associates femininity with the private and masculinity with the public, often preventing women from entering the public space. Proving this dichotomy as malleable by combining the public-private sphere, Shirley empowered women to act in both. Although she lost the race in Long Island, Shirley changed the way female candidates who are mothers can campaign in the future.

A Series of Historical Firsts for Diversity

Any discussion relating to women and the advancement of women requires a conscious approach to the classification itself. Although frequently used as an all encompassing term, the category “women” does not stand for a monolithic group. Therefore, it is important to recognise the diversity in the life experiences of various sub-groups of women the category represents — whether this be race, age, class, ethnicity or sexual orientation. This year’s midterms accounted for some of this diversity; the election of the first Muslim woman into Congress, first lesbian Congresswoman, and the youngest woman elected are just a few of many notable victories. The unprecedented appointment of diverse female candidates not only holds significance for intersectional feminism, but ultimately for U.S. politics in the way an increasingly inclusive representation is closer to a true reflection of America. However, one group where the scope of diversity does not fully extend to is in the representation of Republican women. The wave of women into political positions, ranging from state legislature to governors, was a predominantly blue one. It is perhaps this dominant democratic energy that caused difficulties for Republican women to enter as candidates. Where a record of 89 Democratic women were elected to the house, bringing the total of females in the house up to 102, the representation of Republican women in the house will be the lowest in 25 years. Moreover, Republican women tend to stick to the rulebook of campaigning. Unlike the aforementioned breakaway from stereotypes by Democratic women, Republican female candidates running in the midterms kept it traditional. Much of this can be attributed to how Republican women have long refrained from engaging in identity politics and, as a result, are unable to embrace gender as a credential influencing how they campaign. The Pew Research Center recently found that 70 percent of millennial women identify with the Democratic party, this signaling that there are few young Republic women pushing for gender parity. Additionally, Republican women are placed in a challenging situation of distinguishing themselves from President Trump’s sexist comments without losing Republican voters in districts where the President is highly favoured.

Flip Side of Victory: the Glass Cliff

Despite the undoubtedly positive victories, it is also important to critically evaluate how this wave of women into office came to be and the potential flip side to this success. Researchers Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter have presented the “glass cliff” concept. Whereas the more familiar concept of glass ceiling, referring to higher positions made unreachable for women due to limiting barriers, the term glass cliff refers to idea that women break through the glass ceiling primarily in periods of crisis or trouble. In other words, women are assigned problems caused by men with the expectation of fixing them. The current state of Washington is argued by many as critical: a President manifesting misogyny and bigotry with an administration making decisions accordingly. Consequently, the “glass cliff” idea can be an explanation for the sudden influx of females into office – arguably it is Trump’s presidency which animated voters to go beyond the status quo of the white, middle-aged, male candidate. Although this explanation behind the victories is not necessarily a negative thing, it indicates a disadvantageous side; these women will inevitably end up bearing the burden of responsibility that is repairing the current turmoil in U.S politics.  

Living Up to the Year of the Woman – what is next?

The increased number of female public officials raises question of the impact of their presence. The large number of women appointed and the diversity they bring pushes American politics towards a truer depiction of the U.S., and this undoubtedly has a positive impact as a representative democracy is a stronger democracy. After all, women in the U.S make up more than half of the population and the voters. Beyond the symbolic function of diversifying politics, politics change by women holding these positions as the female agenda is fronted and it becomes a more inclusive arena. Although the number of women in political positions continues to increase, as manifested by the 2018 midterms arguably living up to the Year of the Woman, women still make up less than one third of Congress and only six states currently have female governors – indicating that U.S. politics remains male dominated and needs to continue to strive for broader representation, including one of Republican women. Additionally, there needs to be a recognition that legal equality only goes so far – sexual harassment is still pervasive, demonstrating the need of a shift in attitudes towards females in political positions. Ultimately, the Year of the Woman should not be a phenomenon or an exception, instead we must seek to normalise female participation in politics, not only in the U.S. but on a global scale.    

Helena Wacko

Helena is a first year History, Politics and Economics student at University College London, writing as a contributor for Sensus.

Her particular interests of study and research include political theory and feminism.


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