Government

Number of women running for office in Iowa surges

Since 2014, number of women running for state or federal office nearly doubled

Gov. Kim Reynolds, the state’s first female governor, and Linda Upmeyer, the state’s first female speaker of the House, share a light moment Jan. 9 after Reynolds delivered her Condition of the State Address to a joint assembly of the of Legislature. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Gov. Kim Reynolds, the state’s first female governor, and Linda Upmeyer, the state’s first female speaker of the House, share a light moment Jan. 9 after Reynolds delivered her Condition of the State Address to a joint assembly of the of Legislature. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Women who made history in Iowa over the past four years. An increase in training programs designed specifically for women. A national election that upset and angered many women. And a nationwide movement that has pulled back the curtain on sexual harassment in the workplace.

All of these things, experts say, have helped drive a significant increase in the number of women running for elected office across the United State, including in Iowa where the surge has been striking.

In the 2014 primary elections in Iowa, 51 women ran for state or federal office. This year, that figure nearly doubled to 98.

It is a trend hinted at by months of anecdotal evidence, but confirmed by the recent state deadlines for candidates to file to run for state and federal offices in Iowa.

“This is pretty amazing,” said Mary Ellen Miller, executive director of 50-50 in 2020, an Iowa organization that prepares women to run for office at all levels of government. “I kept wishing somebody would have found two more women so it would be a nice round number” of 100.

When Miller’s group was formed, it was so named for the goal of achieving gender balance among Iowa’s elected officials by 2020, the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

While the numbers have improved and there have been some historic achievements in the past four years, Iowa women remain underrepresented among the state’s governing bodies.

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Although women make up just more than half of the state’s population, they account for less than a quarter of the lawmakers in the Iowa Legislature, and hold just a third of statewide elected offices and one of six congressional seats.

While there is no guarantee the surge in women running for office this year will lead to victories and more women serving in elected office next year, the trend is encouraging, Miller said. She expects it to continue.

While the increase in women running for office has spiked across the United States in the past two years, the trend already had started in Iowa. From the 2014 to 2016 primary elections, the number of women running for state or federal office in Iowa jumped from 51 to 66.

The trend continued — and grew stronger — when the number of women candidates running in the primary elections leapt from 66 in 2016 to 98 this year.

The biggest increase has been in the number of women running to be state lawmakers.

In 2014, 43 women ran to serve in the Legislature. This year that has more than doubled: there are 87 women running to serve in the Statehouse.

“I’m super excited about it,” said Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, the first woman to serve as Iowa House speaker.

Upmeyer is part of a trio of Republican women who have made history in Iowa over the past four years. In 2014, Joni Ernst was the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Iowa, and in 2017 Kim Reynolds became the state’s first woman governor when former Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to become ambassador to China.

“The fact that I’ve had an opportunity to be speaker here, the fact we’ve had a woman governor and woman senator, I think maybe people are going, ‘Oh, that really is an opportunity,’” Upmeyer said. “I think more women are stepping up and seeing a path for success, not that there’s a wall at some point.”

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Experts said it helps when women see other women be successful in politics. In addition to the recent groundbreakers in Iowa, Miller pointed to Hillary Clinton, who in 2016 was the first woman to earn a major political party’s nomination for president.

“Clinton, Reynolds and Ernst changed the landscape in Iowa dramatically,” Miller said.

“Women can be just as partisan and just as extreme as men. But there are differences in style between men and women. Women tend to be more inclusive, tend to be more collaborative. I also think the presence of more women enhances civility."

- Mary Ellen Miller, executive director of 50-50 in 2020

Groups like Miller’s also are partly responsible for the increase in women running for office. Political parties and issue advocacy groups recruit and train women to run for office. 50-50 in 2020 is nonpartisan.

“This is exciting. I would have to say we can’t take credit for it. We’re thrilled, but it’s really part of this whole national wave,” Miller said. “I’m glad we were here when it happened, because then we can go out to the women and say, ‘Look, we have these programs and we’re going to help you.’

“From the day we started it was pretty uphill. And to have this kind of explosion nationally is very encouraging.”

The 2016 national election has been another driver of the increase in women running for office, experts said. Many women were upset not only that Clinton lost, but that she was defeated by Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women — at least 18 on the record, according to Time magazine.

Trump has repeatedly denied the allegations.

That has led to an uptick in Democratic women running for office nationally.

But in Iowa, the numbers increased among both Democrats and Republicans, according to Dianne Bystrom, an Iowa State University professor and director of the school’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

Bystrom, whose center also operates a training program for women who want to run for office, said her analysis showed there are more women running for office in Iowa, and the ratio of Democratic to Republican candidates has remained the same.

“So you can say the Republican women held their own,” Bystrom said.

The “#metoo” movement, in which more women are speaking openly about sexual harassment in the workplace, also has aided the increase in women running for office, experts said.

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“We know that that is not only a national issue, but in Iowa I think it even hits home,” Bystrom said. “We had our own problems.”

In 2013, Kirsten Anderson said she was fired as a staff member in the Iowa Senate Republican caucus after she raised concerns of sexual harassment by fellow staff members. Last year the state settled with Anderson for $1.75 million.

Then March 12, the man who had approved of her firing, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, abruptly quit when a video of him and a female lobbyist kissing in bar surfaced.

Miller said the Anderson case is an example of why more gender balance in government could be good.

“Women can be just as partisan and just as extreme as men. But there are differences in style between men and women. Women tend to be more inclusive, tend to be more collaborative. I also think the presence of more women enhances civility,” Miller said. “Now, that’s a pretty broad generalization. But we’ve certainly seen some evidence lately that a few more women in the room would have been advisable.”

Bystrom said because of the “#metoo” movement, voters may be more open to voting for a woman this year. She said candidates typically face stereotypes based on gender, but in this atmosphere women could benefit from some.

“Voters are seeing (women) as different, something that maybe will help them fix government,” Bystrom said. “That’s something that works in favor of women, that they’re seen by voters as being more honest, less corrupt, more collaborative and more interested in solving problems across party lines. ...

“In this climate, right now, maybe (voters want) to see something kinder, gentler, less combative, less partisan.”

Miller said her group is realistic about reaching its goal of gender balance in Iowa elected office by 2020. She said a more realistic goal is 2022, after the decennial process of redrawing political boundaries.

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“It’s an interesting time, no doubt. It’s historic. This is a historic year,” Miller said. “I expect 2020 will be even more historic. We’ll break 100 by then.”

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