When women swept half the seats on Knoxville's City Council last fall, they found themselves at the leading edge of a national trend: Across the country, women are running for office in record numbers. The majority are Democratic women spurred to action by the election of Donald Trump and energized by the #metoo movement, which spotlighted sexual assault and harassment.
“It wasn't my intention to be part of a wave,” says Seema Singh Perez, one of four women to join Knoxville City Council this year. “But it was very much my intention that I didn't feel represented in the government. I felt that it was necessary to have immigrants, to have women, to have people of different classes involved.”
Accidentally or not, Singh Perez says she thinks the wave helped her. “You can call it the Trump Bump,” she says.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University is tracking women running for higher office in 2018. “Clearly there's been a mobilization of women across the country,” says executive director Debbie Walsh. “We saw it in the women's marches, and now we're seeing it translate into candidates.”
With time still left for more candidates to declare, 2018 has already set records for the number of women running for gubernatorial and Congressional seats. As of last month, the 82 women running for governor represent more than twice the previous record of 34, which was set in 1994. And 441 women have declared their intention to run for the House – well ahead of the previous record of 298, set in 2012.
“We think that what… inspired this was the election of Donald Trump,” Walsh said. “What we're watching across the country are angry Democratic women who want to unseat incumbent Republicans.”
Many have been helped by groups like Emily's List and Emerge Tennessee, which raise money or train Democratic women to run. Locally, the Knoxville City Council Movement supported progressive female and minority candidates.
The Center for American Women and Politics also plans to track female candidates in state legislative races, but not until after the primaries, Walsh said. According to the center, only 16 percent of Tennessee's current state legislators are female, leaving the state with a ranking of 43rd in the nation.
In statewide races, Tennessee women are among leading candidates for governor and the Senate seat currently held by Republican Bob Corker. Neither office has ever been held by a woman.
More than half of Tennessee's initial gubernatorial candidates were women: U.S. Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, former state Sen. Mae Beavers, and East Tennessee realtor Kay White. Beavers dropped out in January.
The Republican frontrunner for Corker’s Senate seat has been U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Her campaign spokeswoman has said only a “sexist pig” would assume she can't win.
Blackburn is best known nationally for holding months of hearings attempting – and failing – to prove fetal tissue harvesting claims against Planned Parenthood. But the effort, combined with her support for Pres. Trump, cemented her hardline conservative credentials. This type of political approach is not uncommon in other Southern states, such as South Carolina, where gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton is taking a similar tack.
But even political conservatives have not been immune to the pressures of the #metoo movement. Late last year, Blackburn co-sponsored a bill to eliminate a hush fund used to settle sexual harassment claims against members of Congress.
Contrary to national trends, many of Tennessee's female candidates for higher office are conservative and have years of previous political experience.
Many politicians start building that experience by running for local office. In Knoxville, Madeline Rogero served as a role model when she became Knoxville's first female mayor in 2011. Now her vote, combined with those of the four new city councilwomen, gives women half the votes in city decisions for the first time ever.
“It's amazing that we need to be so happy now that we're represented 50/50,” says Perez, who was supported by the Knoxville City Council Movement in her campaign. “But it's a victory.”
For women, the victories can require a different kind of fight. For example, Singh Perez was surprised to find her appearance a focus in the campaign, a complication that didn't face male candidates.
“Being hit on, not being taken seriously – that was discouraging,” she says. “But I think so many women – when we receive that type of behavior, it just forces us to push ahead.”
Singh Perez decided to run after feeling devastated by the presidential election. Support for Trump's anti-immigration agenda had made her feel personally rejected by her hometown, because her family immigrated to Knoxville from India when she was a young child.
Her 6-year-old niece, who lives with Singh Perez part of the time, had been informed that she'd have to “move back where she came from” if Trump won. Taking this literally, the girl asked, “So where are we going to be going?”
As a U.S. citizen, Singh Perez wasn't going anywhere. And winning the city council election restored her sense of belonging in the town where she grew up and attended college. “I've taken some control back, and I think… that I've given people some hope and empowerment,” she says.
Knoxville seems to be the Tennessee city that most mirrors the national rise in progressive female candidates. Renee Hoyos is running as a Democrat for the Second Congressional seat that is up for grabs as John Duncan Jr. retires. The seat has never been won by a woman in a general election and has been held by a Republican since 1859.
Hoyos says she decided to run after the 2017 Women's March, but not just because she's a woman. She saw problems she thought she could tackle.
“I haven't noticed a lot of pushback for me being a woman, and it may be people are polite enough not
to say,” she says, laughing. “But I'm running on issues that affect a lot of people: health care, education, economy, environment. These are things that people tell me are important to them.”
Concerns about health care seem especially prominent among women, Hoyos says. “The people I talk to that are coming off the bench, both as voters and as candidates, are not really tolerating the kind of government intrusion that says we're going to decide how a woman gets to determine her health care needs.”
But sometimes voters make incorrect assumptions about Hoyos's platform based on the fact that she's a woman, she says. For example, Hoyos says people assume she is “anti-gun.” But as the longtime executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, Hoyos often teamed with hunting groups to promote water protection strategies. She is consequently an ardent hunting supporter.
When it comes to women running for office, Hoyos says one of the biggest obstacles in Tennessee is low voter turnout – the lowest in the nation. That means a quarter of the state population is choosing the leadership for the rest.
“I think it's a good thing that women are continuing to rise,” Hoyos says. “But now we need to make sure it's not just 25 percent of the population that's allowing certain voices to rise over others.”