Visible Women

“Why British women should be inspired by the results of the US midterms”

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Moya Crockett
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They happened on the other side of the world – but the US midterm elections can teach us an important lesson about women and politics, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.

In these fractured times, one could be forgiven for despairing about politics. From the bitterly chaotic fallout of the EU referendum to Donald Trump’s ham-fisted cruelty and the rise of the far right in countries including Sweden, Germany and Brazil, the political climate of the past few years has often felt frightening, overwhelming and devoid of anything worth celebrating.

But amid the disorder and hostility, there are glimmers of hope. The Republic of Ireland voting in a landslide to legalise abortion. The appointment of impressive, compassionate, capable female leaders around the world, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdottír and Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde. And now, the news that record numbers of female candidates have triumphed at the US midterm elections.

The midterms, which took place across the US on a state and local level on Tuesday 6 November, were widely seen as a referendum on Trump, though the president’s name was not on the ballot. And as election day approached, there was much discussion about whether a so-called “blue wave” – a surge of victories for Democratic candidates – would materialise, serving as an emphatic rebuke of the Trump administration

In the end, the Democrats secured the 218 seats they needed to regain control of the House of Representatives. This means they will now have the power to block much of Trump’s policy agenda, investigate criminal allegations against his administration, and even demand to see the mysterious tax returns that the president has so far stubbornly kept secret. 

But on the other side of the political divide, the Republican Party increased its majority in the Senate – something that will allow Trump to appoint more conservative judges to the courts. All in all, the results were mixed, with both the president and senior Democrats claiming victory on Wednesday. 

Ilhan Omar became one of the the first Muslim women elected to the US House of Representatives at the 2018 midterms

So the question of which party ‘won’ at the midterms is debatable. What is not, however, is the fact that this was a record-breaking moment for women in US politics. Two years after Hillary Clinton failed in her bid to become the country’s first female president, more women than ever before were elected to Congress, with at least 98 women set to take seats in the House and 12 more joining the Senate. Of those 110 women, many were first-time candidates and more than 85% are Democrats – apparently confirming that Trump was a key factor in motivating liberal women to run.

Women on both sides of the political spectrum broke down individual barriers to achieve historic political ‘firsts’, including many trailblazing women of colour. Democrats Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico will become the first Native American women to be elected to Congress, while Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota will be the first Muslim congresswomen in US history.

The state of Tennessee elected its first ever female senator, Republican Marsha Blackburn, and Arizona is set to do the same (while the results of the Arizonan senate race are still too close to call, the victor is guaranteed to be a woman). And in New York and Iowa, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abby Finkenauer – two 29-year-old Democrats – triumphed to become the youngest women ever elected to Congress.

The blue wave might be contentious, but the women’s wave is undeniable: a sign that women in the US are no longer prepared to sit by and watch male politicians run amok, particularly when callous misogyny is so central to the commander-in-chief’s USP. 

Sharice Davids, left, a lesbian Native American woman and an ex-mixed martial arts fighter, is one of the women who was elected to Congress in 2018.

I’ve written before about the strangeness of observing US politics as a woman in Britain, and how it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing we can learn from a country with a political system and style so very different from our own. If politics in American is big and brazen and uncomfortably cinematic, British politics often seems disorganised, antiquated and mildly-to-extremely embarrassing. Comparing the two feels rather like trying to find parallels between Netflix’s House of Cards and an old episode of Yes, Minister.

But as British women who want to see more diversity – including gender parity – in our own political system, there are lessons we can learn from the US midterms. And perhaps the most important lesson is that if we want more women in positions of political power, we desperately need more women to stand for election in the UK.

Here’s the thing: record numbers of women won at the US midterms because record numbers of women ran in the midterms, including many women who had never previously considered themselves as potential political candidates.

Look at Democrat and US Air Force veteran Chrissy Houlahan, who thrashed her male Republican opponent in the polls to be elected to the House on Tuesday. Earlier this year, Houlahan told Time magazine that she “always thought [politics] was for other people, and I was not qualified”. But after seeing Trump beat Hillary Clinton, she experienced a “wake-up call of, ‘Why not me?’”

‘Why not me?’ is the question we need women in the UK to ask themselves when it comes to entering politics. We know that far, far too many British women dismiss the idea of standing for election before they’ve even properly considered it: according to recent research by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, an overwhelming 90% of UK women would never consider getting involved in public life in a formal way, such as running for office. Some 43% of those women attribute their reluctance to the fact that they just don’t see themselves as the “type of person” who stands for election.

Scotland’s Mhairi Black is proof that there’s room for all kinds of people in UK politics 

But if the US midterms – and, indeed, recent elections in the UK – have proved anything, it’s that there is no one “type of person” who can succeed in politics. You can be a former secondary school physics teacher who feels passionately about state education, like Layla Moran (the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, the first female Liberal Democrat MP from an ethnic minority background, and the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since the 2017 snap election). You can be state-educated with a background in charity work and go on to become the first Muslim woman to speak from the House of Commons dispatch box, like the Conservatives’ Nusrat Ghani. Hell, you can get elected at the age of just 20 if you’re passionate, informed and committed enough: just look at the SNP’s remarkable Mhairi Black.

From a lack of provision for parental leave to the very real threat of online abuse, there are legitimate reasons why women in the UK might feel unsure about entering politics. But it’s difficult to change a political system if you refuse to engage with it – and given the shambolic state of male-dominated British politics at the moment, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that having a higher proportion of intelligent, empathetic women in power could make a difference.

There are lots of things about American politics that we shouldn’t aspire to emulate: the way that evangelical Christianity dominates political debate, the flagrant voter suppression, the influence of apoplectic right-wing TV pundits (we’ve already got Piers Morgan, and that, quite frankly, is enough).

But if there’s one thing we absolutely should be inspired by, it’s the wave of women standing up and standing for election. Women, the next UK general election is scheduled for May 2022. Time to get planning. 

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Getty Images