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Women in Politics: The New Normal

The 2018 midterms saw the election of a record-breaking number of women, many of whom achieved historic “firsts” as individuals. To name a few, Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the youngest woman elected to Congress, and Kyrsten Sinema the first openly bisexual senator. There are currently 102 women serving in the House of Representatives and 25 in the Senate. One of the key figures that helped facilitate these numbers was Emily Cain, who serves as the Executive Director of EMILY’s List.
On Thursday, Mar. 7, Emily Cain visited Bates and gave a presentation entitled “Women in Politics: The New Normal.” Her talk touched on the founding and history of EMILY’s List as well as its role today in expanding the representation of women in office. Upon graduating from Harvard, Cain was elected as a member of the Maine House of Representatives in May 2004 and served in office from 2004-2012. While a member of the Maine House of Representatives she served as a Minority Leader from 2008-2010 and as House Chair of the Appropriations & Financial Affairs Committee from 2010-2012. She was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 and 2016 but unfortunately lost both races. Cain was elected the Executive Director of EMILY’S List in June 2017.
EMILY’s List was created in 1985 and has been working for 34 years to fund campaigns for pro-choice Democratic women. Before 1985, there had never been a democratic woman elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right. Ellen R. Malcolm, who founded EMILY’s List, recognized that the primary obstacles women faced when running for office were a lack of funding and an exclusion from influential social networks. Therefore, she built her organization with the motto: “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (it makes the dough rise). What began as a small group of women writing letters to their friends and encouraging political participation has become a national community of more than 5 million members supporting the voices of female candidates.
This year, 23 candidates endorsed by EMILY’s List ended up flipping seats in the House to help secure the Democrats’ majority. Emily Cain describes these exciting results as the arrival of a “new normal.” In defining this phrase for the audience, she said, “To me, the new normal means we will always have multiple women running for president. It means you should never turn on the TV and watch a story about Congress and not see a diversity of women on the screen.”
She continued, “It means that more women will be running for office up and down the ballot across the country. It means 2018 was not a wave year: 2018 was the start of a sea change for women in politics across the country.” She continued, saying “The political system needs women’s voices. It is not about being perfect. It is not about getting trained in all the ways you think you need to. It is not about the perfect resume. It is about how hard you are willing to work and whether or not you are willing to listen to the people you want to represent so you can really speak to them and advocate for them.”
While the beginning of her talk focused on the recent successes for women in politics, Cain also made sure to emphasize how much work there is still left to be done. After all, the United States has only had one woman as Speaker of the House, one as a majority party nominee for president, and has never seen a woman as president. Even with all of the progress for women in 2018, there have been several setbacks, notably the national reaction to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony regarding Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s history of alleged sexual assault. Whether as candidates running for office or as brave individuals fighting against the culture of sexual violence, women are still treated differently than their male counterparts.
For example, Cain compared the questions that women and men receive on the campaign trail, highlighting the particular discrepancies regarding childcare. “Mothers, particularly of younger children,” she explained, “get asked the question: ‘How are you going to take care of your children if you win?’ Male candidates are not asked these questions.” Similarly, Cain drew attention to the inconsistent conversations in the media about women and men as potential politicians. During the 2016 election, the media flooded voters with articles and TV segments surrounding Hillary Clinton’s personality and “likeability.” Even though Trump and other male candidates in the primaries did not face these concerns, the media claimed that their comments weren’t sexist and instead, specific to Hillary Clinton. However, as more and more candidates announce their intentions to run for the 2020 presidency, we once again see stark contrasts between media analyses of men and women. Frontrunners such as Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar have already been the subjects of pieces that question their “electability,” “likeability,” and “authenticity.” Emily Cain explains that these are “all code words for ‘this is a type of candidate I have not encountered before.’ In other words, that is called sexism.” Cain and her colleagues have been working to fight against these sexist patterns and report those responsible for unequal treatment of women.
“One of my personal mantras is: Let’s just tell the truth. It is easier to keep track of. And that is really the same with campaigns. Just be yourself,” Cain said. “Don’t be what you think a member of Congress should look like or don’t be what you think a member of Congress sounds like or says. Speak your truth. Many women have incredible personal stories of overcoming obstacles. Dealing with health-care. Struggling with poverty. Struggling with illness. Having a family to take care of. Struggling in their careers. Facing sexism. Facing discrimination. Women across America have the same things happen to them in their lives every single day. Therefore, in telling your truth and being yourself, that is how you connect with people.”
To conclude her talk, Cain reminded the audience that the “new normal” does not just apply to politics. “The momentum for the fundamental shift in the role of women can ripple beyond government,” she stated. She mentioned the importance of women in business and was upset to share that there were only 32 women CEOs for the companies listed on the 2018 Fortune 500 list. Women should also be leading in education, medical fields, and technological innovation. The new normal means that women and girls should never feel as though they must have separate aspirations from men. Cain hopes to guide the next generation of women away from their fears about being “qualified” and needing training. She believes women should recognize that they have the same potential to be great politicians, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and engineers as any man would.