Extending the Female Political Pipeline Through Film

A new genre of documentaries inspires women who want to run for office.

By now, we’ve all heard about the record-breaking number of women who ran for office in 2018, largely in response to Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

The totals tell the tale. In 2018, 476 women ran for House seats, and 102 won; that beat the previous record of 252 women running and 84 winning seats in 2014. Similarly, in 2018, 53 women ran for Senate seats, and 14 won. At the same time, the most women in American history won governors offices (18) and seats in state legislatures (3,418). Democratic women made most of those gains, capturing 87 percent of the House wins and 78 percent of the Senate wins.

That influx of successful female candidates didn’t come out of nowhere. All of the candidates earned their wins through courage, grit, and overcoming the odds, but they also benefitted from the critical support of groups like Emily’s List, Emerge America, She Should Run, Run for Something, and other organizations. The training, mentoring, resources, and moral support that these institutions provided to get women onto ballots, through their campaigns, and into seats is nothing short of remarkable.

Since then, however, another tool has emerged to inspire and encourage women contemplating political office: the new genre of political films—many of which are documentaries—about women running for office.

Each film features a slightly different angle of women running. Rachel Lears’ documentary Knock Down the House followed the surge of progressive women who ran in 2018, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It sold to Netflix for $10 million, making it the biggest sale of any documentary, ever. Hulu just bought the Hillary documentary series, directed by Nanette Burstein. It will begin streaming on March 6. Then there is And She Could Be Next, made by a team of women of color, including directors Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia. The film features Stacey Abrams, Lucy McBath, Rashida Tlaib, and Veronica Escobar. It will be broadcast as a two-part miniseries on PBS this summer.

Represent is another film directed and produced by women—but, in this case, about women in the Midwest running for local office. It will air on PBS in October. Directed by Hillary Bachelder, Represent serves an especially useful purpose. By focusing on down-ballot races, which are less costly and daunting than running for Congress of state-wide office, the film provides a glimpse of a more accessible on-ramp for would-be politicians. What’s more, local politicians make concrete impacts on the communities they serve and learn the mechanics of governance. Those women will one day be able to make the jump to the big leagues if they want. In other words, when more women fill these roles, it creates a pipeline of qualified women to run for higher office.

Expect more films of this new genre to come to theaters—or Netflix accounts—near you. The upcoming documentary Surge, directed by Hannah Rosenzweig and Wendy Sachsalso extols the record number of first-time female candidates who ran for U.S. Congress in 2018 and who were looking, with palpable urgency, to flip their deeply red districts to blue. The film follows three diverse candidates, one from Texas, Illinois, and Indiana, through the general election. Two lost, but one of them, Lauren Underwood, won, becoming the youngest black woman elected to Congress.

Besides taking the audience closely through three different campaigns, Surge demands something pressing of its viewers—to sustain the momentum of 2018. The filmmakers recognize that there’s no greater starting point than to demonstrate how women can become active in politics, and even run themselves.

As women marched and sought office in unprecedented numbers following Trump’s election, these female directors and producers recognized a moment and held a mirror up to society. They memorialized the rise of women seeking positions of political power through their own unique cinematic lens, demystifying a formidable, unknown world.

This is, after all, part of the purpose of art: to alter our perceptions about the world and what is possible. That’s the virtue of providing an up-close and personal depiction of campaign life. In the process, the films offer female audience members secretly harboring political ambitions the reassurance they need.

Even more to their credit, the filmmakers ensured that their works weren’t merely a sales pitch to get more women to run for office. For instance, in Surge, the filmmakers expose the challenging aspects of running for office: the constant tedium of fundraising phone calls, strategically choosing a look for the campaign trail, the significant tax on one’s children or partners, putting on makeup in the car, the quest to come across as authentic, and the candidates’ resilient reactions to the nasty, uncomfortable attacks from their opponents.

These films should be required viewing at campaign schools and programs around the country for women looking to join the pipeline. More importantly, these films should be viewed as part of collegiate women’s studies programs and high school government curriculums, to instill in young women the possibility that they, too, can run for any office, even president.

It is precisely because Hillary Clinton suffered such a heart-wrenching defeat in 2016 that Americans are much more well-positioned to elect a female president in the relatively near future, even if not in 2020. Clinton’s loss forced women to think more about their role—or lack thereof—in America’s political landscape. In response, they have built up a deeper bench of women who are qualified and experienced to run for higher office, which is essential. Otherwise, there could be no viable path to voting a woman into the White House.

We have already seen results. The 2018 deluge of female candidates propelled forward a presidential primary field with the highest number of female candidates in American history. Meanwhile, 62 female candidates are running for a total of 29 Senate seats, and 584 women are running for 307 House seats across 46 states.

This robust, ever-growing pipeline remains a cause for celebration, even if we don’t end up with a female president in January 2021. More importantly, it gives us a reason to hope. We owe a debt of gratitude to the female filmmakers who have archived a national political awakening. Women contemplating their own aspirations now have a cinematic roadmap. They have the chance to see her, and then to be her.

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Julie Rodin Zebrak

Julie Rodin Zebrak is the Washington Monthly's director of digital strategy and outreach. She is a veteran attorney with nearly 20 years of experience at the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice, and the founder and CEO of Yes Moms Can.