A photo from a protest with a sign that says, "The Rights of Women and Girls is the Unfinished Business of the 21st Century"

Making 2018 Count

Women Are Trying to Save Our Democracy

There are a record-breaking number of female candidates. And The American Women's Party is determined they all get into office.

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In the year and a half since the 2016 election, and more women—and in particular, Democratic women—than ever are running for office in 2018. The number of Democratic women who are likely to challenge U.S. House of Representative incumbents has risen by 350 percent from 2016. A record-breaking 500 women are likely to run for Congress, with 200 considering running for statewide offices.

To Mia Brett, a co-founder of the American Women’s Party, this is what she calls “the Hillary effect.”

“A lot of people are calling it the ‘Trump effect’ in that people are reacting to having Trump in office,” Brett said. “But I think it’s people seeing how [Hillary Clinton] was treated, how far she got, and being mobilized to follow in her footsteps.”

Founded in the wake of the 2016 election, the American Women’s Party has been a part of this hard-fought change through organizing and education efforts. The organization is built around one quintessential goal: the political empowerment of women of all backgrounds and experiences.

“There’s great organizations that exist already—EMILY’S List, Run For Something—that are helping people run for office and doing endorsements,” Brett said. “While we care about endorsements and candidates, we’re starting from a different perspective of educating and involving voters.”

In addition to mobilizing their members to vote for selected female candidates, they also inform, educate and engage members to call their representatives and be a part of policymaking. They provide calls to action that include digestible breakdowns of what anyone and everyone can do day-by-day to make their voices heard. With an emphasis on intersectionality, they work to fight voter suppression and ensure everyone is included in decisions being made by their governments.

Brett calls the organization’s approach “education connected to direct action.”

“It’s great to educate people about voter suppression, but then we need to say, ‘So now call your secretary of state and tell them you want to fight for felon enfranchisement, or sign this petition, or take a neighbor to get a voter ID and go to the polls,” she said.

One reason the group emphasizes women’s inclusion in every aspect of the political progress is that, according to Maya Contreras, another co-founder of the AWP, representation can be a deciding factor in policymaking.

“This idea that they [male lawmakers] were ever going to consider us or put our issues on the same playing field hasn’t worked, even for the more compassionate male legislators,” she said. “We have seen unequivocally that if you don’t have those women in the room, or making those policy decisions, they’ll just be left out.”

And according to Brett, without women in the room, their rights and experiences are, at best, regarded as an afterthought. “It’s always, ‘Well, let’s worry about health care and we’ll include reproductive rights after,’” she said.

In other words, representation isn’t just symbolic. Congress is presently 80 percent male, and men make up three quarters of state lawmakers. Some of these men may be strong allies, but as Contreras said, this isn’t always enough. There’s clear evidence that representation affects policy, and what female lawmakers bring to the table is both unique and important.

Of the 167 anti-abortion bills introduced in the first month of 2017, 71 percent were introduced by white Republican men. The most recent study of Congress since 2009 found female legislators had an average of 2.31 of their bills enacted into law, compared with male lawmakers, who averaged 1.57 bills. Other studies show female lawmakers tend to focus on issues like civil rights, education, health care, paid leave and other important domestic issues.

Among the thorough list of issues the AWP focuses on, Contreras and Brett agree voting rights are a top priority.

“We’ve seen voter suppression is the most insidious issue, in how it’s stripped our democracy stripped away,” Contreras said.

Brett added that in the absence of voting rights to allow for the election of progressive candidates, little else can be done for the enfranchisement of people of color, and other groups who are affected by voter suppression. “If we can’t improve our democracy and ensure people are voting, we can’t talk about any of the other issues—we can’t get anything passed on reproductive rights, we can’t get anything passed on climate change,” she said. “We can’t pass anything if people can’t vote.”

And of course, in the vein of the AWP’s “emphasis on the impact of existing laws on women,” as they note on their website, both women pointed out how voter suppression disproportionately affects women who change their last names due to marriage, in addition to affecting other marginalized groups.

As for the candidates enfranchised voters should vote for, the group “advocates on behalf of political candidates that align with [their] progressive priorities,” and Brett and Contreras have a lot to say about the concept of supporting Democrats who oppose abortion rights.

According to Brett, the AWP’s support for candidates who make inclusivity, tolerance and human rights priorities isn’t “ideological intolerance,” as the likes of the New York Times’ Mark Lilla have suggested.

It’s unfair to expect all women or all members of any marginalized group to have the same opinions about everything. But issues like abortion and reproductive rights affect every woman’s “bottom line,” she said, and to not prioritize this is to sacrifice human rights, bodily autonomy and women’s economic enfranchisement.

In 2018, the AWP has its eye on the future. And Brett and Contreras know what it will take to get there. From launching a podcast to educate about the issues to engaging and mobilizing students across the country with their Step Up and Vote initiative, from registering students to vote at next week’s March for Our Lives rally to hosting their “Win with Women” conference in May (an occasion that will include a roster of progressive icons as speakers), project-by-project, the organization is paving the way for change.

The road to success for women in this country—and, in particular, LGBTQ women, women of color, low-income women and women with disabilities—is one paved with injustice, abuse and oppression. But it’s also a road that both women believe could have a happy ending.

“Equal pay, equal access, equality—that’s what we want now,” Contreras said. “That’s what the response to this administration has shown we can have.”


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