By Mark Cox
Anyone remember the historic election of 1992, when the number of female political candidates rocketed? Six women won Senate seats. More than 100 women ran for the House, and 24 were successful. A new era of gender parity beckoned.
And then it didn’t. The reason people still talk about the “Year of the Woman” today is because it was such a rare phenomenon, according to political scientists. Before long, a steady flotilla of older white men started shuffling back into the corridors of power. The status quo largely resumed.
But now it’s 2018, and American women are surging forward again. Just look at Colorado this year. Three women are running for the state Senate. Three more ran for governor – a 20-year high. More than half the women involved in primary races won them. And it’s not just female candidates making their voices heard. In those state primaries, 100,000 more women voted than men.
But still, we’ve been here before. In 1992, voters were energized by a combination of political, economic and cultural issues – including the Anita Hill testimony during the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. So if 1992 proved to be a false dawn, will things be different this time?
“Possibly,” says Amy Eckert, J.D., Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Women have more factors mobilizing them now than they had back then. Today, there are real threats to rights they have come to take for granted, such as reproductive rights. And members of the current administration – including the president – have made a number of discriminatory statements about women in the workplace and gender equality. This stuff counts.”
One Colorado woman who is not is not taking anything for granted is Lisa Cutter. Despite leading an already-busy life, the successful businesswoman and mother of three is running for state representative in House District 25.
“I believe that if you see something you’d like changed, you need to get involved and make it happen,” she says. “After the presidential election in 2016, I got involved with the Women’s March in Denver, and it felt really good to do something positive and empowering. So I decided to step up and support my community by running for office.”
Cutter, an MSU Denver alumna, is among many. Across the Centennial State, women are starting to make real political strides. And Robert Preuhs, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at MSU Denver, says it could be a lasting change.
“Keep in mind that Colorado has a long history of women involved in politics,” he says. “This was the first state to pass women’s suffrage via popular vote in 1893 and the first to elect women to the state legislature. That history, along with this new energy among female candidates, should maintain itself during future elections. Looking ahead, there should be an even deeper pool of interested and qualified women.”
Experts say a spate of recent developments – the last presidential race, policies perceived as unfriendly to women and the #MeToo movement – has helped drive the uptick in women’s political involvement.
“I definitely believe broader social trends have resulted in a concerted pushback by women, which is now taking various forms of political involvement,” Eckert says.
That might help spur women on to the polling booth. But, Preuhs says, there’s much more to it than that: “The big turnout by women in this year’s Colorado state primary races likely reflects a combination of factors – the current administration’s policies, discontent with normal partisan politics, a strong field of female candidates and a sense that it’s a time for change. All these things have aligned to push women to the fore of political activism.”
And Cutter says that’s vital for the health of our country.
“Women bring a different perspective and represent (51) percent of our population,” she points out, “so those numbers really need to be reflected in our legislature. I also hope to see more women of color be elected. Diverse voices and perspectives are so important in solving the complex problems facing our communities in a way that benefits all of us.”
Unquestionably, women have pushed themselves into the national political conversation this year. But in the end, all roads lead to Washington. And the ultimate glass ceiling – the U.S. presidency – is still very much intact. When might that finally come crashing down?
“There are real structural impediments to that happening,” Eckert says, “because our political system actively works against a woman winning the presidency. But I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we’ll see a woman president within the next three election cycles.”
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