Metro, News

Number of women in statewide, national races up since 2016

R.I. candidates, advocacy organizations push for more representation of women in politics

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2018

More women are running for office in the Rhode Island General Assembly in this election cycle than previously, according to Rhode Island Public Radio. On a national level, more than twice as many women are running for Congress this year compared to 2016, according to NPR. While the reasons these women have for running vary, the uptick is consistently linked to the 2016 election and misogyny in political discourse, which have acted as catalysts for their political involvement.

Among local women running for office for the first time is Justine Caldwell, Democratic candidate for state representative of District 30. A key reason that Caldwell decided to run was a lack of diverse representation in Rhode Island politics. “A lot of the people at the State House are older; they’re mostly white, they’re mostly male and they’re mostly rich, and I don’t think that … is representative of the population in Rhode Island,” Caldwell said.

“The election of Donald Trump and the loss of Hillary Clinton (were) really a wake-up call for women to see that we have to get involved, and if we continue to stand on the sidelines, then we’re never going to have the seat at the table that we deserve,” she said.

Specific policy issues can also play a role in motivating women to run. “Standing up for women’s health and women’s rights” is one of the priorities that has driven more women to run for office, Caldwell added.

Even with the increase in candidacies, Caldwell noted that women continue to face unique challenges in running for office. Especially as first-time candidates, “there’s a fight to be taken seriously, which men often don’t have,” Caldwell said. This can result in a distortion of the policy issues they champion, including access to abortion and birth control. “Women want to come out about those things because we know how much they matter, and (they) get pigeon-holed as only caring about these issues, which is difficult to overcome,” she added.

Terri Cortvriend, who is running for state representative of District 72, echoed this sentiment, stating that though “reproductive rights in the state of Rhode Island” are “underrepresented,” she does not want her campaign to center on this topic.

Bridget Valverde is running for Rhode Island State Senate in District 35. She currently serves as vice chair of the Women’s Caucus of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, which was created last year partially in response to the 2016 election and aims “to ensure gender equity in our laws and in our representation,” Valverde said.

“We need to elect more women. So I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and run for office,” Valverde added.

“In the Rhode Island General Assembly, less than 31 percent of the seats are held by women, but women make up 52 percent of the Rhode Island population,” Valverde said. “And we’re actually doing better as a state than we are nationally,” as women hold less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress, she added.

However, many organizations are fighting to increase the national representation of women in upcoming elections. EMILY’s List, which contributes funding to the campaigns of female pro-choice Democrats early on in the election process, has observed an enormous increase in demand for their support since 2016.

“Since Election Day 2016, we’ve heard from over 34,000 women who are interested in running for office at some point in their life,” said Alexandra De Luca, press secretary for EMILY’s List. “It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before in our history.”

“When women are at the table, you get equal pay legislation; you get maternity care; you get legislation on choice; you get legislation on immigration, because the majority of immigrants are women and families,” De Luca said. “You get good legislation on the environment, because women are very concerned about being able to pass on an earth to their kids.”

But hesitancy has kept some women from running for office, De Luca said. “Men wake up in the morning and they look in the mirror and they see a congressman,” whereas women “think that they have to be a lawyer; they think that they have to be previously in office; they think that they have to have $10 million in the bank account in order to run for office,” she said. In fact, all they need to run is a passion for improving their communities, she added.

It is also important to acknowledge that “all across the country, it’s definitely not just women who are coming forward and working to either elect women or to stand up for women’s rights; it’s a lot of strong male allies, and I think we’re going to continue to see that going forward,” De Luca added.

Adjunct Lecturer in International and Public Affairs Vibha Pinglé emphasized that running for office should not be viewed as the final objective. Rather, an increase in female representation should be viewed as the first step in implementing systematic change in politics to safeguard women’s rights. However, Pinglé said that the #MeToo movement “might still peter out” and result in the election of “a few … women and not do much more, because the women who are elected sort of become part of the system and end up playing by the rules of the system rather than transforming it.”

Despite expressing support for a progressive agenda, Pinglé said the greatest challenge to female involvement in politics is learning to reach across the political aisle. “We can’t just speak to women who are like us and ignore women who are not like us; that’s true for women of color, or women of certain economic background, a certain nationality, or ethnicity, or … political view,” Pinglé said.

The organization She Should Run holds a mission in precisely this vein, as it is a nonpartisan funder of women’s campaigns. She Should Run has also experienced a dramatic uptick in the number of women expressing interest in running for office. “Prior to the 2016 election, the goal was to have about 400 women in this program, with steady growth, and with the 2016 election happening, we now have around 13,000 women,” said Sofia Pereira, mayor of Arcata, California, and community manager for the organization.

Women must overcome barriers to becoming leaders “whether they’re internal barriers of questioning our qualifications and our readiness to run, (or) external barriers of people underestimating us or not thinking we’re qualified enough or the sexism that can exist on the campaign trail,” Pereira said.

De Luca imagines a future in which organizations such as EMILY’s List are no longer necessary.

Maggie’s List, an organization that contributes to conservative women’s campaigns, and The Rhode Island Federation of Republican Women could not be reached for comment.

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