As soon as Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, could pick her "jaw up off the floor" on November 9, her first concern was that women nationwide would "flee" politics forever. "I worried that they would be so discouraged and depressed and disgusted with the process that they'd just witnessed that they would just kind of crawl under the covers and sit it out," she says.
But then the emails poured in. Within a few months, so many hundreds of women had paid to attend the organization's annual Ready to Run candidate boot camp that Walsh needed to rent a bigger space. And CAWP isn't an outlier. Since the election, more than 15,000 women have reached out to EMILY's List alone to find out how to run for office. At Emerge America, an organization that trains women to compete in down-ballot races, staff and volunteers have hustled to keep up with outsize demand.
A'Shanti Gholar, Emerge's political director, tells me she and her team launched a webinar after the election to teach women basic campaign skills. The first session of "Dare to Compete" netted 300 viewers. The second time, 500. The third time, more than 1,000 women tuned in. In Nevada and Virginia and Pennsylvania and more, the organization's in-person candidate classes have reached capacity in a matter of days. In Massachusetts, there's been so much interest that Emerge had to launch a second class to accommodate all the well-qualified women who wanted in.
For decades, research has shown that women need to be asked not once but up to seven times to run for office. And while the recent flood of candidates upends that conventional wisdom, Walsh, at least, thinks her work has been validated. "We have found, over and over, that men run to be politicians, and women run to fix a problem," Walsh says. "Well, thousands of women have seen the problem, and they want to contribute to the solution." Going forward, she and Gholar both place the onus on our political parties to recruit and train women who've put themselves forward. "A million women can all step up," Walsh says, "but without that institutional support, it's really, really tough."
Walsh, for the record, believes women will continue to turn out. This isn't some blip that can be conveniently overlooked, she says. "It's like we've always said in politics: 'If you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu.' I think it's become really clear to women what their lives will look like if they're on the menu."
Here, we interviewed three first-time Emerge America–backed candidates about their experiences in politics so far. Their stories will leave you livid, impressed, and inspired. And then, you tell us: What the hell are you planning to do about it?
Like more than 65 million Americans, the outcome of the presidential election horrified Katie Sponsler. But it didn't surprise her. "I've spent most of my career in male-oriented worlds, and so I don't really expect women to be given respect and a fair shot," she says. And in the end, it happened just as she'd feared: "People decided, no matter what was on the other side of the aisle, it was still preferable to a smart, qualified woman."
Sponsler grew up just outside Youngstown, Ohio, a witness to the Rust Belt's economic crisis decades before it would become a media obsession. She graduated from high school and married almost immediately, giving birth to her first child, a girl, soon after. When it became clear that waitress gigs wouldn't begin to cover tuition for school, she joined the armed forces and trained as an Air Force mechanic.