DES MOINES — Mary Ellen Miller’s organization has an aggressive goal of gender balance in Iowa’s elected offices by 2020, and the group recently has been inundated with a sudden abundance of raw materials: women interested in running for public office.
The number of Iowa women showing interest in running for public office has spiked since the November 2016 elections, mirroring a national trend.
The national group Vote Run Lead, which prepares and trains women who want to run for elected office for any political party, says an unprecedented 7,000 women have reached out to the group since the election.
And EMILY’s List, a national group that helps Democratic women get elected, says it has been contacted by more than 12,000 women since the election after training just 10,000 in the organization’s previous 30 years.
The number of Iowa women who participated in a program designed to prepare and train women who want to run for public office tripled in the first event since the election.
“I think we most certainly are, yes. We are seeing more interest from more women talking about what it takes to run,” said Miller, who is executive director of the nonprofit organization 50-50 in 2020. “Clearly, there’s strong interest, and we’re glad to see that.”
Every odd-numbered year since 2007, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University has hosted Ready to Run, a series of training sessions for Iowa women interested in running for public office. Center director Dianne Bystrom said that in previous years, the highest turnout for the event was roughly 70 or 80 women; earlier this year, 172 people participated in at least one of the six sessions.
“I think there’s just a lot of interest among women in running in Iowa. It’s very positive,” Bystrom said. “Hopefully, we’re going to start seeing some of those results in 2017.”
'Call to action'
The spike in women interested in seeking public office clearly can be traced to the 2016 elections. The reasons are varied and sometimes partisan.
Bystrom said the center started getting emails at 9:30 a.m. the day after the election, and by the end of the first weekend after the election, the center had 50 emails asking about its program for potential candidates, which the center had not yet started advertising.
“People really saw it more as a call to action,” Bystrom said.
Many women say they were motivated by their disappointment in the results of the presidential election, in which Democrat Hillary Clinton, the first woman in U.S. history to earn a major political party’s nomination, was defeated by Republican businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump. This has created a boost in the number of Democratic women stepping forward to run for office.
“I think a switch flipped for a lot of women, who thought, 'If not now, when?'” EMILY’s List press secretary Alexandra De Luca said. “This isn’t just a huge increase. This is an unprecedented level of women who are coming to us.”
Miller and Bystrom, whose groups are nonpartisan and seek to help women of all political persuasions get elected, said it’s true many liberal women have been motivated to run by the 2016 election. But they said the increased interest has not been exclusive to Democrats.
Miller said she thinks the negative tone of the 2016 presidential campaign may have provided a breaking point for women. Miller said that in the past one of the most common reasons women gave for not wanting to run for public office is negative campaigns, but she thinks the 2016 election may have made women decide that instead of staying out of the fray, they want to get involved to change it.
“One of the challenges we see in getting women to step up and run is the negativity in politics,” Miller said. “They don’t want to expose themselves or their families to that. So you would think that kind of negativity in the 2016 presidential campaign would have turned women off even more.
"But it’s done the opposite. It’s motivated them. They’re saying, ‘We need to clean this up. We can do better than this.’ So it’s had a backlash.”
Miller and Bystrom said they hope their groups are able to capitalize on the sudden influx of women interested in running for public office at all levels, from school boards to city and county governments, to the state Legislature, to Congress.
Iowa has broken some glass ceilings in the past few years, but like all 50 U.S. states, it has not yet reached gender equity in elected positions.
Since 2014, Iowa has seen its first woman elected to Congress, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst; first woman speaker of the Iowa House, Rep. Linda Upmeyer; and first woman state auditor, Mary Mosiman. And soon Iowa will have its first woman governor when Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds replaces Gov. Terry Branstad, who is poised to become the next U.S. ambassador to China.
And the number of women running for public office was increasing even before the 2016 elections, Miller said. She said 2016 was the first time in Iowa that a woman was on at every level of the ballot — in the presidential race, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races, and legislative and local races — and that the 65 women on the ballot were the most in the state’s history.
Although women comprise 50.3 percent of Iowa’s population, they make up just 22 percent of its state lawmakers. That ranks Iowa 32nd in the country, a little below the national average of 24.3 percent.
“(Progress) is incremental,” Miller said. “It’s not overnight, but we’re seeing it move up.”
Reaching for goal
The programs operated by 50-50 in 2020 and the Center for Women and Politics not only prepare women to run for public office but also attempt to demystify some elected positions, especially in the state Legislature. Miller said women often say they do not think they are qualified to run for the Iowa Legislature, so her group hosts events that allow potential candidates to interact with current state lawmakers and staff, as well as reporters who cover the state Capitol.
Time is running short for 50-50 in 2020 to meet its goal, with just the 2018 and 2020 state and federal elections remaining before the group’s self-imposed deadline, which not coincidentally aligns with the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Miller said she hopes groups like 50-50 in 2020 and the Center for Women and Politics are able to capitalize on the sudden surge of women interested in running for public office, not just to meet their goal but to improve the state’s political atmosphere.
“More women have said, ‘I just can’t stand on the sidelines anymore.’ You saw that in all the marches. They just simply said, ‘Well, I’ve always been this type of person that never paid much attention to politics. Let somebody else do that.’ Now they recognize they can’t do that,” Miller said. “For a lot of us, we are so focused on just our daily lives — our work, our family — that it does take a little extra energy to pay attention to the world around us that’s broader.
"But I do think that last year woke up a lot of people, that they should be paying attention. And I think in the end that will be good for our country.”