Visible Women

“British women should be inspired by our US sisters – and stand for election”

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Moya Crockett
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A record number of women are running for office in the States. We need to see similar action in the UK, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett. 

In November, voters in the United States will cast their ballots in the midterm elections. Held halfway through a president’s four-year term in office, the midterms are a chance for the American people to show how they feel about the way the country is being run: while the president himself is not up for re-election, swathes of other politicians are, including all members of the US House of Representatives, a third of senators, 36 governors and many state legislature officials.

Traditionally, midterm elections don’t get a huge deal of attention outside the US. Voter turnout tends to be significantly lower than at presidential elections, and they generally lack the gladiatorial, easily-digestible drama of the race for the White House (plus, trying to keep track of all the different competitions for different offices in different states would give anyone a headache). But this year, things are different. If Democrats do well and regain control of Congress, they could gain new powers to investigate corruption in the Trump administration, block Republican laws they don’t agree with and pass new liberal state laws around the country. Some political commentators have even speculated that a Democrat-majority Congress could impeach President Trump. In other words, the midterms have never felt more important.

This sense of urgency has inspired a wave of American women to run for office for the first time. On 5 April, the Associated Press reported that 309 women have filed to run for United States House of Representatives seats in the midterm elections, beating the previous record of 298; earlier this year, Time magazine announced “an unprecedented surge of first-time female candidates, overwhelmingly Democratic, running for offices big and small, from the US Senate and state legislatures to local school boards”. Overall, there are three times as many Democratic women running in the 2018 election cycle than Republican women, supporting the notion that much of this is about taking down the misogynist-in-chief.

“I always thought this was for other people, and I was not qualified,” Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran currently running to represent Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District, told Time. Seeing Trump beat Hillary Clinton, she said, prompted “this wake-up call of, ‘Why not me?’”

Women dance at a Women’s March ‘Power to the Polls’ event in Las Vegas in January, aimed at increasing support for women in the midterm elections 

From the vantage point of the UK, US politics has long been something to gawp at with an ever-shifting mixture of horror and awe. (Since 2016, it’s fair to say the scales have tipped dramatically in favour of horror.) Even when an American president is widely adored in Britain, we tend to view US political culture as too different – too brash, too glossy, too big – for its lessons to be neatly transferred onto a UK framework. As a result, we don’t often seriously consider what we could learn about elections and governance from our cousins across the pond.

But women in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should look at the wave of women running for election in the US, and be inspired. They might have been spurred on by the election of a self-described pussy grabber, but it’s not as if we don’t have our own things to be furious about. There’s the gender pay gap, which we now know affects every single sector in the UK. There’s the fact that specialist domestic violence services and refuges have had their funding decimated in recent years, causing thousands of women and children to be turned away as they attempt to flee their abusers. Up to 1,000 children’s centres have closed since 2009, damaging social mobility and drastically reducing the support available to new mothers, while changes to Universal Credit and cuts to public sector jobs have increased the number of women living in poverty relative to men.

Beyond issues that explicitly affect women, there’s the confusion of Brexit, the crumbling NHS and the housing crisis to contend with (and that’s just for starters). We might shake our heads at the sorry state of American politics under Trump, but we would do well to get our own house in order first – and getting our house in order means getting more women into politics. Currently, only 32% of MPs are women, and until last year there were more men sitting in the House of Commons than women who had ever been elected to it. We might have a woman prime minister in Theresa May, but her cabinet is almost three-quarters male, and women make up just 33% of UK councillors. 

There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that a more gender-balanced government benefits citizens, and that women politicians are more likely than their male counterparts to focus on issues that women care about. But we don’t need academic or sociological research to point out what is obvious to even the most casual observer: our current political system, dominated as it is by middle- and upper-class white heterosexual able-bodied men, is not working for enough people, and it’s certainly not working for women. The logical response to that observation is to fight to get as many women of all ethnicities (as well as LGBTQ and non-binary individuals, other people of colour, and disabled and working-class people) into political office. Because why not? What do we have to lose? 

“Always remember you have something amazing to contribute – your experience, your views, your life,” Labour MP Chi Onwurah recently told, discussing the advice she would give to British women considering standing for election. “Those – generally men – who take up all the political airtime, they have no better right to speak than you and very often less to say of any use! Speak for yourself, and for all those whose voices need to be heard. If women are not in the room when decisions are made, women will always be disadvantaged. And if we are disadvantaged the whole of humanity loses out.” 

Local government elections will take place in England in May (the deadline for applications to stand closed on 6 April), and next year will see local elections in Northern Ireland. The UK is not currently expected to have a general election until May 2022 – but if last year’s unexpected snap election proved anything, it’s that the chance to run for office can arise at any time. Crucially, there are lots of support systems for women considering standing for election, notably 50:50 Parliament’s Ask Her To Stand campaign and various party-specific organisations (you can find a comprehensive list of groups and contacts here).

“Now is a great time for women to run for political office,” says Frances Scott, founder of 50:50 Parliament. “One hundred years after some women won the right to vote the need for equal representation has become increasingly clear. The #MeToo campaign has highlighted the routine derogatory treatment of women in nearly all sectors of society from entertainment and sports to business and politics, and the recent legislation asking companies to publish their gender pay gap demonstrates how women in parliament influence policy and what a positive impact they can have on women’s lives everywhere.”

There are understandable reasons why women might be hesitant about entering politics in the UK, from a lack of confidence to concerns about online abuse. But we should take heart from the women in the US who are standing up to Trump, and remember that now is a time for courage.

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