What it will take to turn the women’s wave into an ocean

Unless you’ve spent time in Michigan, you may never have heard of the city of Ypsilanti. So you probably don’t know that Theresa Maddix ran for a seat on the Ypsilanti District Library Board of Trustees — and won.

The untold stories such as hers are just as significant as the congressional races that dominate  headlines. In fact, they are what will make the “women’s wave” a permanent ocean. With 519,682 elected seats across the country, expanding this rising tide of women requires more women running for office at the state and local level, as well as electing firsts to Congress.

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My organization, VoteRunLead, has played a role in many of this year’s historic wins for women up and down the ballot. Among our network, 210 alumnae ran for office and 95 percent of our winners came from state and local races. They include Congresswomen-elect Ilhan Omar and Lauren Underwood, African-American women breaking barriers as the first Muslim woman and the youngest black woman elected, respectively. Gerri Cannon and Brianna Titon are two of the three openly transgender women elected to statehouses this year. Twelve women will enter the Colorado House and Senate, many under 40 years old.

This year, women of color and LGBTQ leaders made historic gains across America, and 2018 marked more female veterans stepping up to serve in a new way. This broad swath of women running and winning is a mandate that must continue.

But diversity also requires a diversity of thought. Women from the right also must run and win. Currently, left-leaning women from are leading the charge to change the status quo and create a more diverse and inclusive democracy, from grassroots organizing to barrier-breakers in Congress. The midterm elections brought us one step closer to having a Congress that truly represents the diversity of the American public, but the GOP isn’t coming along. While women now hold at least 128 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, an all-time high, only 13 are Republicans, the lowest since 1994.

According to a national poll conducted by Change Research for VoteRunLead, 53 percent of Republicans told us they believe that electing more Republican women would be beneficial to the party. The change we need requires an investment in women on both sides of the aisle. Without Republican women, the agendas of women, progress for women, and the leadership of women become a partisan football. Many of us know of a time when moderate Republican women were vital to the women-centered legislation that changed lives, including the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.  

For those who think the gains of the 2018 election didn’t make a strong enough statement against misogyny or racism or voter suppression, we must trust women to lead the way. Women on the left are active and loud in their calls for change, exemplified by Stacey Abrams’ non-concession speech in the Georgia governor’s race and her immediate founding of Fair Fight Georgia, an organization to stop voter suppression. We must hold our parties accountable to a new standard, and implore our Republican sisters to take their rightful place in GOP leadership and redefine what their party can be in an increasingly diverse America.

As Laura Elder, author of “The Right Women,” told FiveThirtyEight, “The Republican Party itself and the increasingly conservative ideology it has come to embrace is the biggest barrier to women’s representation within the party.” With only 12 percent of young people identifying as conservative, their opportunity is now.  

While gateway pundits already are placing bets on 2020, the rest of American should not forget that there are over 19,000 school board seats alone up for election, along with three gubernatorial elections, and 10 big-city mayoral elections happening next year, as well as municipal elections.  We need to focus on these local elections and ensure that women run and win seats.

To turn this year’s rising tide into an ocean, we must stand together to support women — of all parties and backgrounds, and up and down the ballot. When a true diversity of women lead, our democracy works better for all of us.

Erin Vilard is the founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, the country’s largest and most diverse training organization for women to run and win.