Brittany Shearer has always been interested in politics.
She majored in political science in college, and regularly calls her state representatives about issues she cares about, such as education. But something changed when Donald Trump won the GOP presidential nomination last summer: She decided to run for office herself, and aims to get elected to the state Senate in Virginia within the next five years.
“Running for office is more proactive,” says the 20-something Ms. Shearer, who works for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., as an academic adviser. “I want to bring my own ideas to the table.”
Shearer is not alone.
Since President Trump’s election, young progressive women are flooding political training programs. They are energized by a fear of what a Trump presidency might bring on issues from reproductive rights and climate change to immigration policy and education funding. Ironically, some are also inspired by Trump, a first-time candidate who won the presidency despite a lack of political experience.
For the Democratic Party, this wave of female enthusiasm for politics couldn’t happen faster. In recent years, Democratic representation at the state and local level has declined dramatically, and the party is eager to build up its bench.
“We have never seen this kind of interest in running for office,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America, an organization that offers six-month training courses in 17 states for Democratic women interested in running for office. “We spend a lot of time begging women to run for office. This is unusual: to get women interested without trying to recruit them with numerous conversations.”
Emerge America, which launched in 2005, has witnessed an average increase in applications of 87 percent over the past year. Enrollment for Emerge Michigan, for example, increased from 28 applications last year to 81 applications this year. Emerge Pennsylvania increased from 27 to 72 applications, and Emerge Massachusetts increased from 44 to 82.
Emily’s List, an organization that helps pro-choice Democratic women win elective office, has heard from more than 4,000 women interested in running for office since Election Day. That represents four times more women than had expressed interest in the previous 22 months combined.
Another group, Run for Something, launched the day after Inauguration Day, and has already recruited more than 3,000 women and men under age 35 to run for state or local office. More than half are women, the group says.
Leaders from all three organizations agree: Trump is to thank for this outpouring of interest in elected office. Young women may have considered themselves unqualified for political office before, but Trump has broken down many of the preconceived barriers to candidacy.
“The model of what a politician looks like has expanded for better and worse, and we should take advantage of that for the better,” says Amanda Litman, former email director for the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign and co-founder of Run for Something.
This election flipped a switch
Since 1970, the ranks of women in elective office have grown markedly, but in recent years the numbers have plateaued. Today, women still make up only 19 percent of members of Congress, 25 percent of state legislators, and 12 percent of governors, according to Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Politics (CAWP).
“There isn’t a bias at the ballot box where women win less,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at CAWP and an assistant political science professor at Rutgers. It’s getting women to run in the first place that’s the hard part, she says. “So if today’s political energy results in more women running for office, that will really address one of the primary problems we have had in increasing the number of women in office.”
Dr. Dittmar says it’s too soon to tell if this year’s burst of interest will compare to 1992, after sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings inspired a surge of female candidates. We won’t know until next year, she says.
But in the meantime, Ms. Steele at Engage America and her colleagues at Run for Something and Emily’s List are actively trying to break down the barriers to entry.
“There is the misconception that you might be too young or too inexperienced to run for offices like city council. And you are not. You bring an important point of view if you are a young woman,” says Steele. “We have to recognize that."
Bree Baccaglini, a 2015 graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, never considered herself “the activist type” until Trump clinched the GOP presidential nomination last spring. Then she decided to quit her job in Washington and she got hired by the Clinton campaign in Ohio. The day after Trump’s election she surprised herself once again: She wrote to Mrs. Clinton and promised to run for political office one day.
“[Trump’s candidacy] pulled back the curtain a little bit,” says Ms. Baccaglini. “It’s easy to keep the idea of running at arm’s length if you believe there is a ‘secret sauce.’ ”
Rachel Thomas, national press secretary for Emily’s List, says many women incorrectly assume they don’t have the résumé, donors, or background to run for office. But “this election flipped a switch in women to really see themselves as political candidates,” she says.
On Jan. 22, a day after the big Women’s March, Emily’s List held a training session in Washington to teach interested women the nuts and bolts of starting their first political campaign. More than 500 women attended the session, 200 of whom were under the age of 35. An additional 500 women were on a waitlist.
This interest “speaks to the fact that this march was not just a day of action, but the start of months or years of action,” says Ms. Thomas.
Baccaglini attended the training session and says she was surprised at how young – and determined – the crowd looked. Everyone she spoke to at the event shared the same political awakening, only seriously considering a candidacy after Nov. 8. She attributes part of her own hesitation to attitudes of self-doubt and insecurity attributed to women for generations.
“I learned that, on average, men need to be tapped once to run, women need to be seven times," she says. "Many men probably aren’t thinking they are masters of finding solutions, or adept at identifying problems, but they give it a stab.”
Baccaglini says she’ll start with a run for city council in her hometown of San Francisco, and would like to run for attorney general of California one day. The Emily’s List training taught her the importance of starting small: “You need a runway for big roles like that,” says Baccaglini. “You need a track record.”
Only 5 percent of state legislators are under the age of 35, a percentage that should be much higher, says Litman. She wants to convince young progressives that local-level positions are valuable and within reach.
“Our big picture goal is building a bench for the Democratic Party, so we need to get people in the first level of state government,” as well as local offices such as city council and mayor, says Litman. “It is a little less sexy, but it is affordable and achievable."
And, she points out, local office is where a lot of top politicians got their start – from President Obama and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, both of whom served in their state legislatures, to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who first served as mayor of Burlington, Vt.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the percentage of female governors.