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A Woman’s Place

Female candidates are turning gender and motherhood into political assets in the midterms.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

It starts more like a Nike commercial than a political ad. The camera pans over a wintry landscape, and a woman appears, wearing a hot-pink racing jacket, hair in a ponytail, music building as she runs. Her voice comes in, telling the story of a race she ran with her father as a young girl: Just as a boy and his dad moved ahead of her, her father asked if she was going to let the kid beat her. “I was like, ‘Hell, no!’ ” she says. “We sped up, and ran really hard, and beat them.” The woman is Erin Collier, candidate for Congress. After touting her family’s eight generations in upstate New York and her work as an agricultural economist for the Obama administration, she says, “I’m a woman, I’m an economist, I’m a farmer, I’m a triathlete, I’m a feminist. I’m not going to let those boys beat me.”

It’s an extraordinary ad, and not just because of its girl-power, pink-sneaker aesthetic. Collier doesn’t just embrace her gender. She speaks to a woman who has rarely existed before in the American political imagination: ambitious, successful, and, most notably (even jarringly), competitive.

A record number of women are running for office this year. A few are Republican, but the vast majority are Democrats. Many of them, like Collier, are banking on a lesson they learned from Donald Trump: Novelty can win, and tribalism gets voters to the polls. With women making up just 20 percent of Congress, they’re political outsiders—an asset in a deeply divided country, where “Washington is broken” seems to be the only thing people can agree on. Likewise, many of today’s most vibrant social movements have come not from Trump’s MAGA partisans but from Democratic women. It’s only logical that the nearly 600 women competing for House, Senate, and gubernatorial seats this fall are latching on to two cultural and political zeitgeists—feminism and outsiderness.

This isn’t entirely new. In 1992, the year that put a record four women in the Senate, Washington’s Patty Murray called herself “a mom in tennis shoes” and California’s Dianne Feinstein, in one ad, rocked her grandchild to sleep in a pink crib. Back then, bringing motherhood into a campaign was a radical step. Women had always been told to emulate male politicians if they wanted to win. Former Senator Barbara Boxer, for example, lost her first campaign—a 1972 race for the Marin County Board of Supervisors—in part because she was raising children. “Even my next-door neighbor said that she couldn’t vote for me because I had two young kids,” she told me in a 2015 interview for Cosmopolitan.

Voters, the thinking went, wanted politicians who exuded strength, rationality, and competence, not mothers, who were seen as soft and sentimental, and who might neglect their elected duties for their children, or—worse still—neglect their children to pursue their political ambitions. These views, deeply ingrained in American society even today, put mothers in a political double bind. Often, women would simply opt to wait until their kids were older to run, at which point their male peers had amassed decades more political experience.

House of Representatives

83 women: 19.1%


23 women: 23%


6 women: 12%

Number of women running this year

House: 330
Previous record: 298
in 2012

Governor: 46
Previous record: 34
in 1994

Senate: 33
Current record: 40
in 2016

Source: Rutgers’s Center for American Women and Politics

Things didn’t change for many years. In 2006, when Hillary Clinton was making plans to run for president, her adviser Mark Penn wrote that Americans didn’t want their president to be “the First Mama.” His disdain for the “soft stuff,” as he called it, was so deep-seated that when Clinton’s advisers, huddled in a New Hampshire hotel room the night before the primary, learned that she had cried during a round-table discussion with women voters, they started cursing, convinced she’d just blown the race with a sign of womanly weakness. They were wrong: It humanized Clinton, helping her beat Obama in the state’s primary and temporarily salvaging her campaign.

Eight years later, Clinton didn’t shy away from gender in the face of her opponent’s hypermachismo shtick. And when she lost, many Democratic women channeled their anger into the women’s marches and the sexual harassment reckoning of #MeToo.

These new female candidates seem to be counting on the idea that it’s no longer a liability for a woman to show competitiveness on the campaign trail, despite its impact on Clinton and the ways in which it continues to dog other ambitious women such as Kirsten Gillibrand. The #MeToo movement may have played a role in that shift: Suddenly, women weren’t just getting angry in public; they were also speaking directly to one another as a group. That some of the women running for office talk openly about “beating the boys” suggests it’s seeping into politics: Candidates now believe large numbers of female voters will see a competitive woman and, to borrow from Erin Collier, say Hell, yeah.

That doesn’t mean the old tropes about feminine compassion and maternal determination have disappeared entirely—they’re just being put to different uses. Kelda Roys, who is running in the Democratic primary for Wisconsin governor, put out a campaign ad in March that includes gentle piano music and gauzy close-ups of her two adorable children. Wearing a soft pink sweater, Roys talks about her work banning toxins in baby bottles and sippy cups. But even these maternal stereotypes are reframed when Roys starts to breastfeed—a maternal act that puritanical Americans have long demanded be hidden from the public eye. Krish Vignarajah, running for governor of Maryland, breastfeeds in one of her ads, too—between shots of her with her immigrant parents, her graduation from Yale, her time working with Michelle Obama, and her speeches at the United Nations. Women aren’t being shunted out of politics to have children: Their kids are part of their campaigns.

Even more surprising than the imagery is the language candidates are using. They offer facts to argue for more women in office and then leverage their own experiences to explain why they’re the woman for the job. “As an economist, I believe in evidence-based conclusions,” Collier says in one ad. “And the only conclusion I can draw in 2018 is that women are completely underrepresented.” Vignarajah says having more women in office “isn’t just about representation” but policy, noting that health care, education funding, and incarceration rates are all better in states where women occupy positions of power.

A year and a half after the prototypical smart girl lost to Donald Trump, this approach might seem odd. But these Democratic candidates finally seem to have realized that their party’s most loyal supporters are female and college-educated: 56 percent of American women and 58 percent of college graduates identify as or lean Democratic (compared to just 37 and 36 percent for Republicans, respectively). So instead of trying to convince the mostly men who cast their ballots for Trump to vote for more liberal women, they are targeting the women in their districts and saying, I’m like you: educated, successful, and competitive. Besides, with 75 percent of female House candidates running as Democrats, the logic is simple: If you want to run as the anti-Trump, there may be no better way to do it than by being female.