• Politics
  • nation

A Year Ago, They Marched. Now a Record Number of Women Are Running for Office

19 minute read

Erin Zwiener returned to Texas to settle down. At 32, she had published a children’s book, won Jeopardy! three times and ridden roughly 1,400 miles from the Mexico border up the Continental Divide on a mule. In 2016, she moved with her husband to a small house in a rural enclave southwest of Austin with simpler plans: write another book, tend her horses, paint her new home blue.

One day last February, she changed those plans. Zwiener was surfing Facebook after finalizing color samples for her living room–sea foam, navy, cornflower–when she saw a picture of her state representative, Jason Isaac, smiling at a local chamber of commerce gala. “Glad you’re having a good time,” she commented. “What’s your position on SB4?” After a tense back-and-forth about the Lone Star State’s controversial immigration law, Isaac accused her of “trolling” and blocked her. That’s when she decided to run for his seat. Zwiener never got around to painting her living room. She’s trying to turn her Texas district blue instead.

Zwiener is part of a grassroots movement that could change America. Call it payback, call it a revolution, call it the Pink Wave, inspired by marchers in their magenta hats, and the activism that followed. There is an unprecedented surge of first-time female candidates, overwhelmingly Democratic, running for offices big and small, from the U.S. Senate and state legislatures to local school boards. At least 79 women are exploring runs for governor in 2018, potentially doubling a record for female candidates set in 1994, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The number of Democratic women likely challenging incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives is up nearly 350% from 41 women in 2016. Roughly 900 women contacted Emily’s List, which recruits and trains pro-choice Democratic women, about running for office from 2015 to 2016; since President Trump’s election, more than 26,000 women have reached out about launching a campaign. The group had to knock down a wall in its Washington office to make room for more staff.

It’s not just candidates. Experienced female political operatives are striking out on their own, creating new organizations independent from the party apparatus to raise money, marshal volunteers and assist candidates with everything from fundraising to figuring out how to balance child care with campaigns.

Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse with a heart condition, decided to run for the House of Representatives in Illinois after her Congressman broke a pledge on the health care billMarzena Abrahamik for TIME

It’s too early to tell how the movement will change Washington. But outside the Beltway, a transformation has already begun. In dozens of interviews with TIME, progressive women described undergoing a metamorphosis. In 2016, they were ordinary voters. In 2017, they became activists, spurred by the bitter defeat of the first major female presidential candidate at the hands of a self-described pussy grabber. Now, in 2018, these doctors and mothers and teachers and executives are jumping into the arena and bringing new energy to a Democratic Party sorely in need of fresh faces. About four times as many Democratic women are running for House seats as Republican women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics; in the Senate, the ratio is 2 to 1.

But not all women vote Democratic–not by a long shot. White women helped lift Trump to the presidency, voting for him 53% to 43%, according to exit polls. Among white women without a college education, the gulf was even larger: 62% to 34%. November’s midterm elections will be a crucial first test of whether the new crop of female candidates and the well-oiled advocacy groups behind them can overcome that deficit. In the balance: control of the House and Senate, which is likely to come down to a few races where female voters could prove decisive. “Women candidates help energize women voters,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “And in close races, you win with women voters.”

Democratic women have reason to be hopeful. For starters, the movement is driven not just by revulsion for Trump but also by some of the same forces that helped elect him: frustration at a nonresponsive government of career politicians who seem to care more about donors than the needs of ordinary families. It also helps that the GOP’s embrace of accused sexual predators like Trump and Alabama’s Roy Moore has alienated some conservative women and motivated liberal ones. (In December, Trump’s approval rating sank to 24% among women, according to a Monmouth University poll.) Although a majority of white women in Alabama voted for Moore even after he was accused of preying on teenage girls, many others who typically vote Republican stayed home in disgust. That trend, coupled with a massive turnout of black women, helped Democratic candidate Doug Jones spring an upset. Republican strategist Katie Packer Beeson calls Trump and Moore a “one-two punch” that has “disillusioned many Republican women and caused them to ask themselves whether or not there is a place for them in the 2018 GOP.”

Now thousands of progressive women are hoping to help Democrats win in November. But their goals are bigger and broader than simply shifting the balance of power in Congress. They’re hoping that a wave of women pouring into public office will elevate issues that draw support from women in both parties and reshape how women think about their role in American politics.

Like all political transformations, this one sprang from dozens of small private choices. For years, the hardest thing about getting women elected has been getting women to decide to run. But sometime over the past year, while lying awake at night or comforting a crying friend or in hushed conversations with their spouse, each of these women came to the same conclusion. They could no longer pin their hopes on icons like Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren to represent half the American population. Instead, they would step up and do it themselves. “I always thought this was for other people, and I was not qualified,” says Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran and business executive who is running to represent Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District, where the incumbent Republican won by 14 points in 2016 but Clinton won narrowly. “There was this wake-up call of, Why not me?”

“Women,” Alexandre Dumas wrote in Queen Margot, “are never so strong as after their defeat.” So when a former female Secretary of State lost to a male business mogul who bragged about the size of his penis in a debate, it led to a nationwide reckoning with the politics of gender. Furious women have marched by the millions, tangled congressional phone lines for weeks and released a torrent of sexual-misconduct allegations that continue to reverberate through Hollywood, Washington and Silicon Valley.

On election night, Zwiener watched the returns with two lesbian friends; by the following morning, she was helping them plan to hastily marry, fearing the Trump Administration would target LGBTQ couples. The morning after the election, in Glen Allen, Va., university consultant Abigail Spanberger’s oldest daughter bounded down the stairs as if it were Christmas morning and asked if there was a female President yet. In Yorba Linda, Calif., pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran dragged herself out of bed and put on her white coat. One of her first patients of the day was a 4-year-old with a brain tumor whose mother, a nail-salon worker, could afford health insurance only because of the Affordable Care Act. “We cried together,” Tran recalls. “And it dawned on me that we needed to get beyond the tears and speak up and fight.” Now she’s running for Congress to replace Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who recently announced his retirement.

Mai Khanh Tran fled Saigon at age 9, worked through Harvard as a janitor and started her own pediatrics practice. Now she’s running for California’s 39th Congressional DistrictIlona Szwarc for TIME

Like citizens enlisting in a sudden war, ordinary women turned into hardcore activists. Houlahan, 50, organized a bus that took 53 people from southeastern Pennsylvania to the Women’s March in Washington. Spanberger, 38, dressed her three young daughters in bright yellow T-shirts so they could find each other if they got separated among the throngs on the National Mall. Kim Schrier, a 49-year-old pediatrician, dispatched her husband to ferry protesters to and from the local bus stations while she walked with her 8-year-old son in the Seattle Women’s March. For women old and young, the marches–which drew some 4 million participants, likely the largest single-day protest in U.S. history–were a transformative event. Weeks later, Spanberger recalls, she heard something unusual on her baby monitor. Her 2-year-old was chanting, “Love not hate makes America great!” from her crib.

Skeptics wondered if the people who marched would go home and sink back into their ordinary lives. Instead, they began to lobby their local representatives. As the GOP-controlled Congress sought to repeal Obamacare, rage against Trump was redirected at Republican members of Congress. Celinda Lake surveyed 28,000 activists who contacted Congress last year through a calling service on their cell phones: 86% of them were women.

For some of those women, the idea of male Representatives trying to strip health care from millions of families spurred the transformation from activist into candidate. “It was a clear picture of how important it was for us to be there,” says Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor who is challenging Republican Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen for his seat in northern New Jersey. Schrier, the pediatrician, was among a group of doctors who met with Republican Representative Dave Reichert’s staff to explain how the health care bill would harm patients in his district. When Reichert voted for an early version of it in committee anyway, Schrier decided to run for his seat. Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer who is challenging Republican Representative Will Hurd in Texas’ overwhelmingly Hispanic 23rd Congressional District (which Clinton won), puts it this way: “I’m sure a lot of people are saying, ‘Look, I can do at least as sh-tty of a job as that guy.'”

Many are campaigning in the face of obstacles. Two months pregnant and fighting morning sickness, Zwiener canvassed on college campuses for hours at a time with nothing in her stomach but Pedialyte. Tran cut down her patient hours and explained to her 5-year-old why she had to miss her ballet recitals. Jennifer Carroll Foy gave birth to premature twins on the campaign trail, then won a seat in the Virginia house of delegates.

When one woman runs, others often follow. Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse who worked as an adviser in the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services, decided to challenge her Representative, Illinois Republican Randy Hultgren, after he promised not to vote for a health care bill that excludes pre-existing conditions, then voted for the GOP plan anyway. Underwood, who has a pre-existing condition called supraventricular tachycardia, which keeps her heart from maintaining a normal rhythm, then went a step further. She encouraged a high school acquaintance, Anne Stava-Murray, to launch a bid for the Illinois house of representatives. Stava-Murray, a 32-year-old mother of two, had met 45-year-old Val Montgomery at the Women’s March in Naperville, Ill. They started a local Women’s March group together, and ultimately Stava-Murray persuaded Montgomery to run for a neighboring seat in the Illinois house. One woman’s campaign turned into three. “Women have been running Naperville forever, but we haven’t necessarily held elected office. Now we have this idea that we can lead,” says Underwood. “It’s like this ripple effect.”

When Erin Zwiener decided to run for office, she had no idea where to start. She knew about horses and mules, not fundraising and media strategy. Going it alone, she might have given up early, daunted by the logistics. But she wasn’t. A new network of women-led grassroots groups are giving Zwiener and others like her the tools to hire staff, raise money and get their campaigns off the ground.

Many of the women who built this new progressive infrastructure are the same ones who spent 2016 trying to stop Trump. Eighteen months ago, Amanda Litman was running the Clinton campaign’s email outreach. Now she’s recruiting liberal millennials to run for state and local offices through Run for Something, an organization she co-founded. Catherine Vaughan, a former field organizer for Clinton in Ohio, co-founded Flippable, which aims to turn state legislatures blue by targeting vulnerable seats. Nina Turner, a top adviser for Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016, now runs Our Revolution, which supports Sanders-style progressives. Jess Morales Rocketto, who spent 2016 sending the Clinton campaign’s text messages to supporters, helped build GroundGame, a tech platform to help organize volunteers, donors and voters and manage data. “This loss was a true ‘f-ck you’ to women,” Litman says. “You just can’t turn that off.”

Zwiener didn’t know how to ask for money or marshal volunteers. She had only recently moved back to Texas, didn’t have deep pockets or rich friends and hadn’t worn a blazer since she was part of Model U.N. in high school. But Litman’s strategy is to run every race, including the long shots that Democratic campaign committees–long the gateway into party politics–have tended to discard as a waste of resources. So Run for Something paired Zwiener with a mentor who walked her through setting up a fundraising platform. Zwiener was endorsed by Our Revolution Texas, which pledged to mobilize members to canvass and phone-bank for her campaign. And neighbors with the local chapter of the grassroots organization Indivisible held house parties for Zwiener to meet constituents and find donors.

The Avengers Time Magazine Cover
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME. Photographs courtesy of the subjects or shot for TIME.

Founded shortly after the election, Indivisible is one of the groups widely credited with organizing progressives to turn up and protest wherever Republicans held town halls to discuss the health care bill. The outpouring of anger mirrored the tactics of the Tea Party, which announced itself as a force in U.S. politics in part through its own angry demonstrations at President Obama’s health care bill. “The women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Republican Representative Dave Brat of Virginia complained early last year after he was criticized for refusing to hold a town hall. Spanberger is running for Brat’s seat.

Indivisible says it now has at least two local chapters in every congressional district and more than 6,000 groups nationwide. Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, who co-wrote a book about the Tea Party and is now studying Indivisible, says the anti-Trump progressive uprising already has more local groups than the Tea Party did at its height. At its strongest, she says, the Tea Party had roughly 900 local groups and some 250,000 core activists. “Almost all the [Indivisible] chapters I’ve seen are generating people who are planning to run for office,” Skocpol says. “I think it’s at least as great and probably greater than the Tea Party popular upsurge.”

In her research, Skocpol found that Indivisible groups are roughly 70% female. That’s not unusual: an informal poll of volunteers with the group Swing Left, which directs money and volunteers from safe districts to nearby battlegrounds, found that 68% were women. Sister District, which pairs volunteers from liberal areas with contests in conservative districts, was founded by an all-women team. “Who do you think has been organizing things in America?” Skocpol says. “It’s women.”

While Democratic stalwarts like Emily’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee focus largely on national-level races, the new generation of progressive startups often target the less glamorous down-ballot contests that the party has ignored at its peril. “We’re willing to fail,” says Litman. “Most of the old guard is not incentivized to take risks.”

Female donors are doing their part as well. Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue raised $523 million for candidates over the course of 2017–more than double the amount that came in during 2015–and 62% of the donors were women. Women have donated $91 million to Democratic candidates and progressive causes going into 2018, up from $51 million last cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a number that doesn’t include donations to presidential candidates or presidential PACs.

The smattering of off-year elections last November prove that the formula can work. Support from female voters helped lift Democrat Ralph Northam to victory in the Virginia governor’s race. Northam won women by 22 points just a year after Clinton won the same group by 17. Of the 15 seats Democrats picked up in the Virginia house of delegates, 11 were won by women. (One of them was Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender woman elected and seated to a state legislature.) Overall, Flippable won 16 of the 20 races it targeted in Virginia, Washington State and Florida. And in a special state senate election on Jan. 16, Democrat Patty Schachtner won a rural Wisconsin district that had voted Republican for almost two decades.

To candidates and organizers, those victories are a harbinger. “It was an army of women taking on an army of out-of-touch men,” says Lina Hidalgo, 26, who is running for Harris County judge in Texas to improve flood management in the Houston area. “And that’s what we’ll see here next year.”

The movement is about more than the midterms. It’s about how our national priorities would change if more women had a hand in shaping them. A 2016 study in Political Science Research and Methods found that women are more likely to sponsor bills about issues affecting women and families. “Just imagine if Congress was 51% women,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said in a speech at the Women’s Convention in October. “Do you think we’d be fighting for access to birth control?”

Nations with a higher proportion of female representation may provide a glimpse of how the political landscape could change. After the proportion of women serving in Iceland’s Parliament rose to 48% in 2016, the government passed a law requiring companies to prove that men and women receive equal pay. In Sweden, where the gender split in both the ministry and Parliament is almost equal, all parents are entitled to nearly 16 months of paid family leave. Finland, whose Parliament is 42% female, has heavily subsidized child care and a high-performing public education system. According to the World Economic Forum’s rankings of gender equality, the U.S. is ranked 49th, behind Nicaragua, Cuba and Belarus.

Of course, electing more women in Congress would not necessarily lead to an instant federal paid-family-leave plan or national child care, especially given that extreme partisanship makes broad consensus difficult and neither party wants to raise taxes widely. But female lawmakers of both parties tend to elevate issues that men ignore. In the current session of Congress alone, Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, sponsored a proposal to help businesses finance paid family leave. Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington State, introduced a bill to expand access to affordable child care.

Women also tend to reach across the aisle to pass this type of legislation. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin sponsored a bill to establish a national strategy to support family caregivers. It was co-sponsored by six female Senators from both parties (along with several men) and passed the Senate unanimously in early January. “Women in the Senate who have caucused together say frequently that they’re able to talk to each other, reach understandings, are more able to find compromises,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

But women have a long way to go to get to parity in American politics. They hold less than 20% of seats in Congress, just 25% of those in state legislatures and only six of the nation’s 50 governorships. Even in a year with a surge in female candidates, not only is a matriarchy unlikely, but significant Democratic gains are far from assured. The vast majority of first-time candidates challenging incumbents lose.

Some, like Sherrill in New Jersey and Spanberger in Virginia, have raised plenty of money. Others, like Underwood in Illinois and Tran in California, have had to get used to asking for donations. Jones has a tough primary race against a well-connected Democratic opponent. Zwiener has generated enthusiasm from students on the Texas State University campus in her district, but one local newspaper editor had barely heard of her.

Nor is it yet clear whether Trump outrage alone will be enough to buoy unknown Democrats, especially when 401(k)s are healthy and unemployment is low. “Which party can better explain what it did over the last two years?” says Republican consultant Joe Brettell. Even if everything breaks right, the gains women make in 2018 may disappoint the devoted. In 1992, a then record number of women–251–ran for office after Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male Senate panel that then Judge Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Observers dubbed it the Year of the Woman. But in the end, women won 47 seats in the House and five in the Senate–significant numbers, yet still far less than what they’d hoped for.

Most of this year’s Democratic women have concluded that the key to victory in their races is to drive up turnout among liberals and swing voters. Zwiener is focusing on registering college kids and other underrepresented voters instead of trying to persuade her conservative neighbors to cross the aisle. Young people–who tend to vote for Democrats but often don’t show up for the midterms–had a 34% turnout rate in Virginia’s election, a figure that was a third higher than the last governor’s race and double the turnout in 2009, according to a research group at Tufts University.

Litman calls this a “reverse coattails” strategy: investing in compelling down-ballot candidates creates more voter contact, which brings more people to the polls. Elliott Woolridge is a 25-year-old student at Texas State University who took one of the hundreds of flyers Zwiener passed out to students on a sunny day shortly after Thanksgiving. Woolridge has only ever voted for Obama, but that’s about to change. “My voice didn’t get heard,” he says of sitting out the 2016 election. He plans to vote in the midterms “just so I can feel like I did something.”

That is the same sense of history and urgency that propels the candidates. “A lot of the women I talk to who are mothers were thinking, What will I tell my kids in 30 years?” says Vaughan, the founder of Flippable. “Will they be able to say that they did something?”

They will be able to say they did.

On the cover: Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME. Photographs courtesy of the subjects or shot for TIME. Photograph of Bushra Amiwala by Aron Gellman.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com