On the heels of a presidential race that pitted the female first major-party presidential nominee against a man accused of sexually harassing more than 20 women, it’s hard to see how any election could be more pivotal for women than 2016. But the 2018 midterms just may be.
To start, this election gives voters an opportunity to elect more women to Congress than ever before. A record-breaking 257 women are running for federal office this year—an increase of 68 candidates over the last election in the House alone. Several pollsters predict these races will result in historic gains for women, bringing their ranks in the House and Senate closer to 115 or 120.
While those numbers wouldn’t give women equal representation in Congress—women make just 20 percent of the current House and Senate— any increase would have a demonstrable impact on everything from policy pursuits to the tone and tenor of political debates.
Numerous studies have found that female legislators are more likely than men to sponsor bills on issues like education, child care, and family health legislation—issues that are especially important to female voters. They’re also more likely to speak on the House and Senate floor about women’s health and family issues, and less likely to vote for war or military spending.
Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, said having more women in office would mean “changing the image of political leadership as well as changing the conversations that are being had within these institutions.”
“Being able to see more women in leadership can inspire more women to be engaged in American politics and perceive the political system as better representing them and the issues and priorities that matter most to them,” she said.
But the story of this midterm election for women is about more than the numbers. This will also be the first election since the start of the #MeToo movement, which—while sparking large-scale cultural change—has resulted in little change at the national political level. Congress has failed to pass a single sexual harassment bill into law since the movement started, and still requires accusers to receive 30 days of counseling before moving forward with a sexual harassment complaint. Interns and fellows have no formal options for reporting harassment.
The midterm elections could change that. Several women running for office this year have spoken publicly about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and many more have pledged to address the issue if elected. Katie Hill, a Democrat running for California’s 25th District, released an entire campaign ad about being sexually assaulted after then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was publicly accused of just that.
"I feel like every single woman I meet comes up to me and says they've experienced [sexual assault]," Hill told Bustle of her video. "I feel like we have to have that as a critical segment of the population moving forward that needs to be represented."
The election offers a chance to more fully grapple with the fallout of the Kavanaugh hearing by ushering in more candidates like Hill who could shore up the gains of the #MeToo movement.
It certainly could provide a corrective to the conventional wisdom that set in after the Supreme Court confirmation fight. According to a recent NPR poll, more than 40 percent of voters feel the #MeToo movement has gone too far. An Economist survey found a growing number of Americans think women who complain about sexual harassment cause more problems than they solve, and that false accusations of sexual assault are a bigger problem than those that go unreported or unpunished.
Speaking after the Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in October, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Democrats’ focus on his sexual assault allegations had produced “an incredible surge of interest among these Republican voters going into the fall election.”
Julie McClain Downey, senior director of campaign communications for women’s political action committee Emily’s List, said that this was a common and problematic misperception. Polls, she noted, generally tighten as the election approaches. But for many, Election Day will still be seen as a referendum on whether the #MeToo movement has angered male voters, or—as Downey put it—“poured fuel on the fire” of thousands of already motivated women.
The midterms also offer voters a chance to weigh in on another issue affecting women: abortion. In Oregon, a referendum on the ballot would prevent state money from going toward abortions, meaning women on Medicaid not would be covered for the procedure. In West Virginia and Alabama, voters are considering referendums to immediately outlaw abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade.
Leslie McGorman, the deputy policy director for NARAL, told The Daily Beast that anti-abortion groups are using these measures as a test of which policies resonate most with voters. If the referendums pass, she said, voters across the country can expect these groups to “dump more money into these ballot initiatives wherever they think they will be successful.”
“They are definitely considering this as a way to open the door to ban abortion,” she said.
While the pink pussy hats may be off and the protest signs stored in the garage, these issues still seem to be getting women’s attention. According to a Public Religion Research Institute and MTV survey, young women were much more likely to say they’d signed a petition, donated to a political campaign or gone to a public demonstration than their male peers.
And if early voting is any indication, that passion is translating to the voting booth as well: As of Wednesday morning, women had cast more votes than men in all available states besides three—in some cases, by ten percentage points more. A presidency may not be at stake. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is.