When Jennifer Gibson shares her plans, she unwittingly walks into a field of micro-aggressive booby traps.
“People ask me, ‘What are you going to do about Charlie? What are you going to do about your child?'” she says. “That’s not a question people ask male candidates.”
Gibson — a mother, activist, and full-time travel agent — doesn’t exactly have time for a teachable moment. She wants to put her rage at the current White House to good use, but she also wants to take advantage of today’s uncharacteristically friendly environment for first-time female candidates.
“When you start to move backwards, it’s alarming, and it wakes you up,” she says.
As President Trump’s approval rating sinks to 24 percent among women, the number of Democratic women expected to challenge incumbents in the U.S. House this year is up nearly 350 percent, according to Time magazine. Since Trump’s election, 26,000 women have reached out to pro-choice political action committee Emily’s List about launching their own campaigns.
Gibson herself is gearing up to run for a state House seat in District 99, which covers parts of Berkeley and Charleston counties.
“I have a lot of excess adrenaline right now,” she told me after realizing the converted church she walked into is, in fact, our office. “It was a very big week for the Women’s March.”
That same energy and mass support is inspiring women across the state to launch themselves into the sometimes perilous waters of local politics, where the power and the pay may be smaller, but the personal risk to your reputation, and sometimes your safety, is arguably higher.
Charleston County Democratic Party chair Brady Quirk-Garvan notes that while the filing deadline for statewide candidates isn’t until March 30, he’s already noticed a considerable surge in interest behind the scenes.
“I’ve been involved in politics in Charleston since 2004, and this is unquestionably the most excited I’ve seen Democrats in this area in that entire time,” he says.
Quirk-Garvan is the only male board member of Emerge South Carolina.
“The level of enthusiasm for that program, which only trains women to run for office, was just incredible to see,” he says.
A report from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University ranks South Carolina number 47 in representation of women in state legislatures. Only 25 of our 170 lawmakers are women.
“In general, in South Carolina, women have not fared well,” says College of Charleston political science professor Kendra Stewart.
Former U.S. Rep. Liz Patterson would tell students in Stewart’s class how, during door-to-door canvassing, people would ask her the same exact question that Gibson is getting 10 years later: Who will take care of your children?
“Women do not run as often as men do, and perhaps that is partly because of more traditional values, the expectation of women having more traditional roles,” Stewart says. “One of the biggest obstacles is that if women don’t run they can’t win, and we haven’t seen too many women run until now.”
This recent spike might be the dawn of a new era in American politics, as conversations about running for office take on a practical tone for an increasing number of women across the country.
“I had a conversation this morning when I was getting my hair done, and we were talking about running for office, and [my friend] was talking about how her husband had really considered it,” Gibson recounted. “I said, ‘Why don’t you run? You bring a really unique voice.’ There are a lot of men, a lot of white men. Our government needs to reflect what our people look like.”
Lee Turner, a former executive at Turner broadcasting, describes her most recent employment as preparing “tax returns for rich people.” That work allowed her to see the new Republican-sponsored federal tax law for what it is: a big, indefinite tax cut for the rich.
“I was an ordinary citizen just mulling [running for office] over in my head without having a clear path forward,” she said in a phone interview. “But the tax reform gave me that one piece I knew I could bite off. I knew it was a complicated subject that most people couldn’t understand, and I knew I had a gift for making thing simple and breaking them down.”
The tax bill gave her the initial impetus to consider a run for Trey Gowdy’s seat in the U.S. House. Last week, Gowdy’s announcement that he will not seek re-election shook up his district’s primary field. Lucky for her, Lee had a bit of a head start in the race.
“I think it’s certainly more favorable,” she said. “I think a lot of people will tell you that it’s the year of the woman. That said, I’ve always been in, and competed in, and enjoyed being in, a man’s world.”
That fighting spirit will probably come in handy. Not only are Gibson and Lee both running in a Trump state, they’re running in strong red districts.
Lee’s district, U.S. House District 4, is in two counties that went to President Trump by double digits in 2016. Gowdy won re-election in 2016 with more than double the votes of his Democratic opponent.
Gibson, for her part, is running in a state House district just picked up by Republican Nancy Mace in a Jan. 16 special election. Still, there is a faint silver lining for those willing to see it.
Cindy Boatwright, another first-time candidate, only lost to Mace by a little more than 13 percent of votes in a district that was held by Republican Jim Merrill for 22 years. And, she lost to another woman.
Times are crawling forward, and Gibson will do her best to jump past the countless “teeny, tiny hurdles” that manifest in front of her every day, be they in the form of sexist comments, burdensome expectations, or the low state government salaries that make it hard for women, who are already often paid less than men, to make a living serving the public. For now, her fingers are crossed that a strong message and more representation will eventually push progressives, particularly women, into the fray and towards the polls.
“I think that’s why a lot of people don’t vote, because they don’t see people looking like them that are running,” she says. “They look at two candidates and say ,’Eh, potato, potatoh.'”