Brooke Carbo never intended to become a politician.
Carbo, an Anniston resident, staff member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and former Anniston Star copy editor, said she was looking for a way to be involved in the community when she volunteered last year for the Senate campaign for Doug Jones.
By early February, she was in the running herself — the only Democrat seeking election to Calhoun County’s school board.
“If not now, I don’t know when is a good time for new voices,” Carbo said.
Carbo is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of women who are running for office for the first time across the country this year, many of them inspired by the wave of feminist activism that arose in response to the election of President Donald Trump.
There are female candidates in 57 of Alabama’s 140 state legislative races this year, enough to more than double the female presence in the State House.
There’s a real chance of a women-only governor’s race in November – Gov. Kay Ivey and former state Supreme Court justice Sue Bell Cobb are considered top-tier contenders for their parties’ nominations – and political scientists say they expect a record number of women to qualify to run for Congress. (Qualifying is still open in many states, and there are women in 100 congressional races so far.)
The trend is particularly noticeable in Calhoun County, where women are in the running for five of the county’s six state House seats. At present, there are two women, Republican Becky Nordgren of Gadsden and Democrat Barbara Boyd of Anniston, in the local delegation.
Some of the new candidates say they want to shift the focus back to education, health care and other kitchen table issues that have been sidelined in the Trump era.
“I’m concerned about political climate change,” said Pam Howard, a Jacksonville Democrat, who’s in the running for the seat now held by Rep. Koven Brown, R-Jacksonville.
Even if a majority of the new candidates win elected office, experts say, women may still have a way to go to achieve full representation in government. No state legislature has women in more than 41 percent of its seats.
“What we’ve seen is steady growth in the number of women in government, but because women were so underrepresented to start with, we still haven’t reached full representation” said Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Walsh said that 2018 does seem to resemble the 1992 election that earned the “Year of the Woman” nickname. In 1992, sexual harassment scandals, in particular the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, spurred record numbers of women to run, she said. The number of women in Congress nearly doubled, though their numbers were still small.
In 2018, the #metoo movement has unveiled 1992-style harassment scandals almost weekly. Walsh expects 50 women to seek open U.S. Senate seats and around 400 to seek House seats this year, topping records set in 2012 and 2016.
There are important differences, too, between 1992 and 2018.
“In 1992, there were a record number of open seats, with no incumbent in the race,” Walsh said.
In Congress, where there are no term limits and power is based on seniority, incumbents are hard to unseat, and incumbents are mostly white and male. Though dozens of U.S. House seats and three U.S. Senate seats have no incumbent in the running, the numbers are still lower than in 1992.
The power of incumbency may help explain why Alabama ranks among the bottom 10 states for female representation in its state house. Women make up 15 percent of the state Legislature.
Even the top-ranked states, such as Vermont, women hold only about 40 percent of legislative seats. But Vermont’s legislature has more seats representing fewer people, with some lawmakers elected to two-year terms.
“New England has ‘citizen legislatures,’ some of which are quite large, and they have a lot of turnover,” said Walsh.
Walsh said the majority of this year’s new female candidates are Democrats, part of a midterm surge of Democrats interested in running for office among both men and women. Democrats often have gender parity built into their party structure: on Alabama’s Democratic Executive Committee, each district has one seat for a man and one for a woman. And blue states tend to have more female representation in their state houses: New England and West Coast states tend to be in the top tier, while Deep South states are mostly at the bottom.
Still, Walsh notes, red states such as Arizona and Nevada are also near the top for gender parity. She said it’s not clear that gender parity rules for party officials really translate to more women running. She said some state Democratic parties require county chair and vice-chair positions to be held by people of different genders.
“In that situation, most of the county chairs wind up being men, and the vice chairs are women,” Walsh said.
While there’s been a surge in Democratic women starting first-time efforts to run, not every new candidate is running in opposition to Trump.
“I’ve been politically active all my life,” said Ginny Shaver, a Republican candidate for the state House District 39, which covers parts of Calhoun and Cleburne counties. She said she was inspired to run by Retha Deal Wynot, the second woman in history elected to the state Legislature. Wynot was Shaver’s teacher in high school.
“Running was a goal of mine from way back, but I had to take care of other things first,” she said. Shaver said she didn’t have time for a run until her children were out of the house.
State Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, said that’s a common problem for women who hope to run. In college, Nordgren did a study of women in the Alabama Legislature: she says the state has seen about 3,800 people elected to the House since women got the vote, only about 50 of whom were women. Historically women, who’ve run have been in their mid forties or older.
“They’re not running because they have too much to do already,” Nordgren said. “They’re the primary caregiver and they’ve already got jobs.”
Stacie Propst believes the real problem, for most women contemplating a run, has been the sense that they’re just not ready for a candidacy – and don’t know how to begin.
“Politics has become mystified,” said Propst, director of Emerge Alabama, a Democratic effort to recruit and train women to run. “There’s a sense that you have to be part of a machine.”
Nineteen of the women on Alabama’s ballot this year are graduates of Propst’s 70-hour training course, which teaches candidates about canvassing, phone banking and “cutting turf” – essentially, deciding which areas to target for turnout and which areas to abandon as unwinnable.
“I tell them it’s math, not magic,” she said.