Two days after Donald Trump swept the Super Tuesday primaries, Terri Bonoff was perched on the couch in her living room in Minnetonka, an affluent Minneapolis suburb, suffering through the eleventh Republican debate. Bonoff, a longtime Democratic state senator, knew what to expect by now. She had watched Trump feud with Megyn Kelly, bully Jeb Bush, and excoriate Hillary Clinton. But this time, Trump kicked off the proceedings by stretching out his hands for the cameras and boasting about his virility—“Are they small hands? I guarantee you. There is no problem.”
For Bonoff, something snapped. “I watched them have a contest about who could insult each other the most,” she recalls. “It became a calling to step forward and say that this isn’t right.” Soon after, Bonoff decided she was going to run for Congress.
She’s not the only woman Trump has inspired to jump into the fray. For the first time in recent memory, half of the challengers in GOP strongholds being targeted by Democrats—the 38 toughest, most competitive House races out there—are women. At the state and local level, hundreds of women are running for office, many in what political insiders say is a direct backlash against Trump. The man with the tiny hands, it turns out, may prove to be the best thing to happen to women since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
“Women have been empowered to jump in because they wanted to run a campaign that rejected the angry nature of the race that Donald Trump was running,” says Lauren Beecham, executive director of the Minnesota organization Women Winning. “There certainly has been a trickle-down effect from his candidacy, pushing women over the top. It’s turned the tables for women in politics.”
Representative Cheri Bustos, who oversees the Democratic effort to flip House seats held by Republicans, says Trump has been “our best recruiting tool.” During the GOP primaries, Bustos began hearing back from women she had been unsuccessfully courting as candidates for years. Suddenly, they were lining up to run. Trump’s unfettered sexism was a factor in their decision, women say, but not the only one. “I believe that words have power,” says Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese immigrant who decided to run in Florida’s seventh congressional district after Trump vowed to bar Muslims from entering the United States. “You cannot have somebody running for office at the highest level who speaks in such divisive terms.”
In most election cycles, convincing women to run for office is a notoriously hard sell. According to a study by American University, even the most highly qualified women—business executives, lawyers, educators, and activists—are 16 points less likely to consider standing for office than their male peers. Women worry about upending their families, about their appearance being picked apart, about their qualifications being questioned. Most of all, they worry they’ll get the Hillary Clinton treatment.
Christina Hartman, a first-time candidate vying for an open congressional seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, remembers the charges leveled at Clinton while she worked on health care reform in the 1990s. Seeing Clinton’s haircuts and velvet headbands get more media coverage than her policy positions made entering politics seem even more daunting. “People were saying she should be off baking cookies instead of governing,” Hartman recalls. “You see what folks go through. You know it’s going to be a hard road.”
Bonoff, the Minnesota legislator, knows how tough it is for women to run for office. In 2008, when a congressional seat in her district opened up, she had three years in the state legislature under her belt. A hard-charging former business executive, she sewed up the key endorsements from national groups and local politicians, including Minnesota icon Walter Mondale. But at the nominating convention, state delegates rejected her bid—and threw their support behind a younger man who had never run for office.
When women do run, studies show, they win at the same clip—or even more often—than men. But because they are less likely to run, they remain woefully underrepresented: Women currently hold fewer than one-fifth of all seats in Congress, and fewer than one-fourth in state legislatures.
Thanks to Trump, though, that could soon change. Back in 1992—the one true “Year of the Woman” in American politics—four new women were elected to the Senate and 24 to the House, a jump of 70 percent. Like today, women who ran that year were motivated by the cavalier behavior of men: Many had seethed as they watched the Senate Judiciary Committee grill Anita Hill about her accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
For Bonoff and other women, the 2016 campaign offers a daily reminder of why they belong in politics. “Donald Trump inspired me to run,” she says. “There’s no room for such a mean-spirited person as the leader of our country.” In her home state, Women Winning is on track to endorse more than 100 women running for office, the most in the group’s 35-year history.
“I don’t think there’s a single one of our candidates,” says Beecham, “that’s not motivated to get out and continue the hard work of campaigning every time Trump opens his mouth.”