Another Year of the Woman? Lessons from the 2018 Midterm Elections

Last Tuesday, I sat on my friend’s cushioned sofa at her off-campus apartment, eyes fixed on the flat-screen TV as zealous cable news anchors reported on the incoming midterm election returns. As each state poll closed, starting with Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. and continuing one by one until the final tallies on the West Coast and Alaska trickled in past midnight, we switched furiously between CNN and Fox News, comparing Wolf Blitzer’s shrewd and simple remarks with the more, um, impassioned commentary of renowned man-boy Tucker Carlson. We learned of Democratic victories in key governor’s races in Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Maine, and more. Republicans wrestled three seats away from Democrat incumbents in Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri, solidifying their Senate majority. The House—in a greatly anticipated turnover—flipped from red to blue for the first time in eight years. As of Wednesday morning, 14 races were still too close to call.

Still, the “blue wave” that the Dems promised America ultimately resembled something more like a “blue ripple.” Although the liberal party won over many moderate-to-conservative suburban districts where President Trump’s severe rhetoric tended to alienate college-educated white voters, conservatives still took the lead in rural areas—a phenomenon reflected in the distinct party breakdowns of each chamber. And while it’s true that Democrats have reason to remain cautiously optimistic about the upcoming two years, there is another demographic, one that transcends party affiliation, which deserves even more credit for their midterm accomplishments: women.

Women won competitive races across the nation in record numbers. 110 women were elected to Congress—the highest number in American history. 43 of these women are non-white, 42 in the House and one in the Senate. Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar made history as the first Muslim-American congresswomen, and Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids share the honor of being the first Native American women elected to the House. Alexa Ocasio-Cortez, representative-elect from New York’s 14th District, will become—at 29—the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress. On this historic battle for firsts, it was women who emerged victorious. As Rep. Dave Brat (who lost his reelection bid to Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th District) eloquently noted, “The women are in my grill no matter where I go.”

But the complex issues that voters are forced to address in election years transcend mere identity politics. Elections often result in complex, value-laden decisions with serious consequences for Americans down the road. And though women did win a larger share of federal legislative seats than ever before, this overall progressive shift was not necessarily mirrored in the attitudes of individual voters on the state level. Such was the case in West Virginia and Alabama, where a majority of citizens voted to pass ballot initiatives adding anti-abortion amendments to their state constitutions, ostensibly in preparation for the massive jurisprudential shift that would result if the now conservative-dominated Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade. These states join four others—North and South Dakota, Louisiana, and Mississippi—that have already passed comparable “trigger bans,” laws that would immediately go into effect to ban abortion “except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest,” as required by federal law. Women in these states seeking safe and legal abortions could soon suffer the consequences of these midterms, depending on the high court’s decisions in upcoming sessions.

Moreover, it is clear that now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings last month added still more controversy to our brewing culture war concerning the intersection of U.S. law and politics. This dispute looks to have benefitted neither sexual assault survivors nor swing state representatives who voted against Kavanaugh on their behalf in October: last Tuesday, every single Democratic senator in a competitive race who voted against Kavanaugh lost. Every. Single. One. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill lost. So did Bill Nelson of Florida, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Conspicuously, Joe Manchin, the single Democrat from West Virginia who supported Kavanaugh, won his own bid for reelection. While the hearings may have motivated some newly-impassioned citizens to vote for leaders who would actually listen to their accusations of sexual misconduct, it seems as though they actually did more—at least in key Senate races—to drive infuriated conservatives to the ballot box.

In the wake of the midterms, women have a lot to celebrate. But in the upcoming months and years, we have far more work to do. Politics aside, female representation is at an all-time high in the United States—but we are still significantly underrepresented in leadership roles compared to the demographic makeup of our commonwealth. Politics considered (sorry, couldn’t help myself), women tend to make competent, forward-thinking, dare-I-say progressive leaders, capable of reaching across the aisle to make compromises that benefit the largest possible share of the American public. I would argue that in today’s frigid political climate, our presence is needed on the national stage now more than ever before. So to all you brilliant, badass women out there, I beg of you: get involved. Run for office, read the news, canvas and phonebank for candidates you support, vote in upcoming elections, including on the state and local levels (seriously! please!), and spread the word. Because tell me—once we start, who’s going to stop us?