It’s been a record-breaking election season for women, and not just in numbers. We’ve seen big changes that will smooth the path to political parity.

It’s been a historic two years for women. From the day Donald Trump was elected to the outcome of this week’s elections, we have seen women breaking records — as candidates, as activists and as voters.

As a result of the midterms, at least 123 women will serve in the U.S. House and Senate and at least nine women will become governors. While the numbers measure important gains for women, we’ve also seen significant successes from this election that transcend the numbers and portend continued growth for women’s representation. Here are four ways Election 2018 was a success for women:

► It challenged our conventional wisdom of how women candidates make the decision to run. Over the years, the Center for American Women and Politics has asked women and men who serve in state legislatures if they were recruited or if they ran without being asked. As recently as 2008, 53 percent of the women state representatives we surveyed told us they had not seriously thought about running until someone else suggested it. For men, that number was 28 percent. This cycle we’ve seen a different story.

To be sure, some of these women were tapped by their party to run, but this year many women candidates stepped up and ran without encouragement and, in fact, quite a few faced resistance to their decision. This year’s crop of women candidates weren’t willing to “wait their turn.” They ran because they wanted to make sure voices like theirs were heard in Washington and in state capitols across the country. If this is the new norm, we’ll see more women running in the future, and more women running means more women winning.

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► We expanded the potential pool of women candidates. We’ve seen military veterans, physicians, scientists, college professors, activists, teachers, business owners, nurses, CIA operatives, prosecutors and more emerge as candidates for office. A third of all the women running for the U.S. House were women of color, as were five of the 16 gubernatorial candidates. In addition, 13 LGBTQ women nominees ran for the U.S. House and Senate, and three ran for governor. 

There is one key caveat to this story, however: the growth this year for women candidates and officeholders has been almost exclusively on the Democratic side. This “Year of the Woman” did not bring positive change for Republican women;in fact women will be an even smaller proportion of the House RepublicanCaucus than they are in this Congress. Gender parity in government will never be achieved unless we see growth on both sides of the aisle.

► Women had more freedom to run as themselves. For decades, women candidates have had a narrow, proscribed path to navigate. Wear a suit, don’t talk about your young kids and certainly don’t share any of your human vulnerabilities. But this year we saw women running more authentically, bringing all their experiences as women to the table.

They’ve shared their own #MeToo stories and talked about growing up with a drug-addicted parent, carrying student loan debt, siblings struggling with mental illness, and experiencing homelessness firsthand.  And they’ve looked different, whether bearing tattoos, wearing a military uniform or kickboxing in their ads. Running as themselves makes these candidates more accessible and more relatable to voters. It’s allowed this crop of women candidates to show voters that when elected, they will understand the challenges their constituents face because they have faced them as well.

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► Women scored a structural win that has the potential to help more women run in the future. House candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley of New York successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to use hercampaign funds to pay for campaign-related child care costs. Following this change, candidates running for state offices have asked for the same right and, so far, approximately seven states and New York City have permitted this use of campaign funds. This benefits all candidates with young children but has greater resonance for women, who continue to be the primary caregivers at home, as they consider a run for office.

This election cycle is only a down payment on the future of women’s representation in office. We’ll need more than this one year to get to political parity for women. The multiple successes of this year — the increase in candidates, the growth for women office holders, as well as the changes we’ve seen in the why and the how women have run — are the foundation for longer-term change. The challenge now is keeping this momentum going.

Debbie Walsh is the Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter: @DebbieWalsh58

 

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