This Life with Gracie: Women’s gains at ballot box are part of a movement

At the end of Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globe acceptance speech early this year, the media mogul declared to rousing applause that “a new day” is on the horizon.

That night, she acknowledged the significance of becoming the first black woman to win the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement.

I couldn’t help remembering that moment a couple of weeks ago when Stacey Abrams became the first black woman to win a major party nomination for governor.

But it wasn’t just Abrams making history. Women across the country were winning big at the ballot box.

Twenty-two Democratic female candidates, including four incumbents, won their respective primaries. Five Republican women, including three incumbents, were declared winners.

Republican Carol Miller won the nomination for West Virginia’s 3rd District U.S. House seat, and Beverly Goldstein captured the party’s nomination for Ohio’s U.S. Congress District 11 seat. Paulette Jordan, a Native American, won the nomination as the Democratic candidate for Idaho governor. Lupe Valdez became the first openly gay person and Hispanic woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor of Texas. The list goes on and on and on.

What we’re witnessing, according to Katie Vigilante, senior political science lecturer at Oxford College of Emory University, is the movement of women from silent grievance to spoken and heard empowerment.

It’s about time.

“Abrams visited nearly every single county in Georgia,” Vigilante said. “She is now the recognized face of the Democratic Party, which is fitting given that Democratic victories often rely on African-American women.”

Vigilante noted Abrams won predominantly white counties against Stacey Evans, a white woman, so it wasn’t just about her gender or race.

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“Her groundbreaking 50-plus-point victory over Stacey Evans is owed to her ability to mobilize and excite the Democratic base,” she said.

Katie Vigilante, senior political science lecturer at Oxford College of Emory University, says women’s recent victory at the ballot box is evidence of a movement from silent grievance to spoken and heard empowerment. CONTRIBUTED

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According to a recent Time magazine article, nearly 80 women are exploring runs for governor this year, potentially doubling a record for female candidates set in 1994, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The number of Democratic women likely challenging incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives is up nearly 350 percent from 41 women in 2016.

Deirdre Condit, associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, is what you might call a feminist political theorist.

She believes we may well look back on the November elections as a “Kilauea moment, in which women of color and white women candidates erupted into American electoral politics in new and exciting numbers.”

While women are running for public office in record numbers, Condit said that what’s most intriguing is where she sees the greatest possibility for change — local election politics.

“Women are running for school boards and city councils and mayors and seats in state legislatures,” Condit said. “The ratio of Democratic women candidates has significantly outstripped that of Republican women candidates, and that is a consistent phenomenon since the early 1990s.”

That kind of gender sweep isn’t happening on the national level, however.

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“The Georgia race is fascinating because it may signal a particular surge for women of color in electoral races, and that is an important phenomenon in and of itself,” Condit said. “But this isn’t surprising: Women have always been more likely to run at the local level, and our research on gender and electoral politics has strongly demonstrated there is a differential ‘quality candidate’ effect for women than exists for men. These women, running at the local level, many of them are getting in the pipeline for one day seeking higher office.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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David McLennan, a political science professor who studies women in politics at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said women are entering politics in unprecedented numbers because they feel under attack socially and politically.

In addition, he said, the #MeToo movement convinced many women that change was possible and serving in elected offices at all levels would be a way to change laws to further protect women.

Thanks, in part, to women’s successes in special elections, such as those in Virginia in 2017 where women candidates ran and were elected to more legislative seats than at any time in Virginia’s history, women no longer perceive winning electoral office as just a possibility, McLennan said. It is a reality.

“The election of Abrams in Georgia or Jordan in Idaho would have ramifications beyond 2018,” McLennan said. “The election of Abrams would convince African-American women, even in the South, that traditional barriers to electoral success are falling.”

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