From councils to Congress, onrush of women seeking office

Both the interest level and number of candidates see spikes

Newly elected Coralville City Council member Meghann Foster (from left) takes the oath of office Jan. 9 from City Attorney Kevin Olson during a City Council meeting. The Coralville councils is one of five in Johnson County that has a majority of women. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Newly elected Coralville City Council member Meghann Foster (from left) takes the oath of office Jan. 9 from City Attorney Kevin Olson during a City Council meeting. The Coralville councils is one of five in Johnson County that has a majority of women. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Before her successful run for the Coralville City Council, Meghann Foster took a training program that teaches political skills to those hoping to become progressive candidates and campaign workers.

While Foster had previous experience helping on local campaigns, she said she took the Camp Wellstone class to sharpen her skills. There she learned about big concepts like strategy, as well as the smaller aspects of running like proper vocabulary.

“For me, Camp Wellstone was just kind of to help me shift into the role of candidate,” Foster said. “That was probably one of the biggest challenges that I faced was that I was so used to being behind the scenes.”

Foster is by far not the only woman emerging on the political stage locally or around the county. She is part of an onrush of women running for office in 2017 and 2018 amid the “#metoo” movement and the Women’s March, which marks it anniversary Saturday.

On the local level, more women in 2017 ran for and got elected to Johnson County’s city councils than in at least the four previous election cycles. On the national level, there are far more women running for Congress this year than since at least 2012.

“What me and my colleagues across the country think is that this is sort of another tsunami of women not only being interested in running for office, but voters being interested in electing women,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette



Foster’s Coralville council is one of five in Johnson County that are majority female after last year’s elections. The others are North Liberty, University Heights, Hills and Oxford.

During the 2017 municipal elections in Johnson County, a total of 23 women ran for council seats, with 16 being elected. Four years before, where about the same number of seats were up, 14 women ran while just seven won election.

“I think it’s really kind of great to have this type of representation and reflection of different perspectives and backgrounds coming out in a different way. ... I’m hopeful that this is inspiring to other women who want to make those steps forward and take on those leadership roles,” said Jennifer Goings, a newly-elected North Liberty council member.

While Bystrom said the ISU center currently is in the process of collecting information on the number of women council and school board members in the state, a number of last year’s “Ready to Run Iowa” participants said they intended to run for local government in 2017.

Ready to Run is a national non-partisan program that teaches women about campaigning for public offices.

“What we’re seeing here is really the first opportunity for women to run for office came in 2017,” Bystrom said. “We’re seeing so many women taking the first opportunity they have to run for elected office.”

Christine Peters, a newly-elected Hills City Council member, said she never really planned to run for public office but she saw it as a way to make a positive impact.

“I think some of the trends did probably encourage me,” Peters said. “I think regardless of what your politics are, you could probably look to the state of discourse and see some negative impacts.”


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Foster said her run for office was more because the timing was right than a desire to join a larger movement.

“I think that my running, like the timing for me, just kind of coincided with the wave that has happened,” Foster said, who added she’d always been interested in running for office. “I could definitely see it happening. I could sense that there’s was going to be a shift.”


Iowa has experienced some gains in the number of women in elected office in recent years — seeing its first female governor in Kim Reynolds and its first female U.S. senator in Joni Ernst. But beyond those high offices, the status of elected women at the state level is much lower.

In January 2017, just six of 50 state senators and 27 of 100 state representatives were women.

Those numbers may change after this year’s elections, if Ready to Run Iowa’s statewide participation is any indication.

The program’s 2017 participation saw a major spike. Bystrom said it had to be moved off ISU’s campus to a hotel conference room, thanks to the number of participants.

She said the program, which has six different sessions, saw 172 unique visitors and Ready to Run’s roughly 20 state chapters all saw record enrollment.

North Liberty’s Goings said she ran for office because she saw an opportunity to engage her community and had strong women to look up to, like former Mayor Amy Nielson, who is now a state representative.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette


“In general, women have been more willing to step into those formal leadership roles, whether they’re at work or in the community and in government,” Goings said. “Specifically, in North Liberty, I was definitely aware that if I was to win in November, I would make the council majority female, which is something I’m pretty proud to be a part of.”


The Center for American Women and Politics is seeing a spike in women running for Congress and governorships.

The center put together a report one year out from the 2018 midterms giving the number of female candidates with intentions to run for office in this election cycle. The report showed jumps in female candidates for Senate, House and governorships.

In the November report, “we did see significant increases comparably in the number of women candidates,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics and assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden.

The biggest increase comes in U.S. House candidates, which spiked from 181 in the 2016 cycle to 354 candidates this time, according to the report. On the Senate side, the in the same years, the number of candidates doubled from 19 to 38.

During this cycle, 36 governorships will be contested, the same number as in 2014, according to the report. Four years ago, 28 women were running for those offices. This time, 68 women have been identified as potential candidates.

Despite the spike, female candidates are underrepresented when compared with the population, Dittmar said. She said the increase in candidates is happening among men as well.

“That means that women still are underrepresented in the total candidate pool at least at this point in the election,” Dittmar said. “It’s not to discount the energy among women. It’s just to say that that energy, a lot of it that is on the progressive side, may also be fueling men’s candidacies.”


Number of women running for Congress


For the most part, the rush of women running for office nationally are Democrats. While women make up almost 29 percent of potential Democratic U.S. House candidates, they are just over 11 percent of Republican candidates, according to the report.

Bystrom said women tend to less be conservative than their male counterparts. She said there have been some Republican women who decided in recent years not to run because they’re more moderate than the party has trended.

Anecdotally, many Republican women who are choosing to run did so after seeing President Donald Trump, who had no political background, get elected. Bystrom said it told some Republican women they didn’t need to have been in politics their entire career to be qualified to run.

Additionally, Bystrom said those who are running are a bit younger, realizing they won’t always be able to rely on figures like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren to carry the torch.

“There seems to be all this political energy and activism, not only among women but also among younger women,” Bystrom said.

Dittmar said her organization does not collect demographic data on hopefuls until they become official candidates closer to the election, but she “optimistic” that the candidate pool will be more racially and ethnically diverse, too.

The United States has had only had two women of color serve as governors in its history. However, she highlighted two gubernatorial candidates — Stacey Abrams from Georgia and Michelle Lujan Grisham from New Mexico — who could change that.



Dittmar said that she can see female candidates emphasizing platform issues to voters that they have firsthand experiences with, such as pay inequality, child care or gender power dynamics.

“I think candidates, especially the most savvy candidates, are smart enough to look at what is most salient in the environment and in some cases those are going to be gendered issues, especially in the environment we have today around sexual harassment issues and sort of power dynamics between men in women. So I don’t doubt that women candidates will use that to their advantage in this next election,” Dittmar said.

Despite the preparation, Dittmar said many of the women who intend to run may have an uphill battle. A large number of women who plan to run for Congress in 2018 are challengers rather than incumbents, or are vying against others for open seats.

A total of 198 of the U.S. House female candidates out of 354 overall are challenging for a seat. That number is up from 57 in 2016, according to the group’s November report.

“That’s significant in looking at what does that mean for outcome in the fall. So if you have a high number of women challengers, it doesn’t mean they won’t win, it just means that the likelihood of success is lower for challengers. It’s just always harder to run against an incumbent member of congress,” Dittmar said.


The current rush of women draws parallels to 1992’s “Year of the Woman.” Like today’s #metoo movement, the Year of the Woman also had its roots in sexual harassment.

“The 24 women who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time that November comprised the largest number elected to the House in any single election, and the three women elected to the Senate tripled the number of women in that chamber,” according to a U.S. House History, Art and Archives article.

Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas brought to light lawyer Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual harassment against him.


Despite Hill’s testimony, Thomas was confirmed by an all-male judiciary committee — triggering a number of women to run for Senate.

“The spectacle of an all-white, all-male U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee treating Anita Hill as if she were on trial rather than Clarence Thomas, it really got a lot of women mad,” Bystrom said. “Percentage wise, 1992 still stands as the election where the percentage of women in congress increased by the largest number.”

Bystrom said she believes 2018 elections are going to be much like the 1992 elections because women are similarly organized and active.

“They ran for office in record numbers. And we’re seeing even a bigger record this year nationally,” Bystrom said.

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