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Year of the Woman? this time feels different to 1992

Speaking out: Sol Flores

The video begins with Democratic congressional candidate Sol Flores standing in her childhood bedroom in Chicago, recalling happy times when she decorated it with unicorns and rainbows and posters of her boy band crushes.

Then Flores’s narration takes a detour, into a dark family secret: “There was a man that was living with us that would come into my bedroom when I was asleep.”

A convergence of the #MeToo movement and the political activism that ignited after Donald Trump’s election has inspired what appears to be a record number of women running for offices up and down the ballot this year. These are not just career politicians climbing the next step on the ladder, but newly energised activists who say running for office never occurred to them until the last election.

And here is what is even more surprising about this crop of female candidates: many are speaking openly about painful, personal experiences with sexual abuse and harassment.

In 1992, the last time there was talk of an election being a “year of the woman”, it was in large measure because the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas brought sexual harassment to the forefront. Back then, though, it was still taboo for female candidates to talk about their own encounters with the problem.

I remember the sense everyone felt in 1992 that nothing would ever be the same for women, that their voices would only grow stronger and louder. But joining the club in those days meant living by its rules.

This time feels different. Now the experience of suffering sexual harassment or assault has been transformed into a way to connect, particularly for the Democratic contenders who have become the vanguard of the resistance movement. What once was a private shame is now a selling point.

Flores, the founder of a Chicago non-profit that serves homeless youth, says that after she went public with her story of being molested as a child, she heard from Sara Freeman, a Democratic Minnesota state house contender who now speaks openly about her recovery from being raped at gunpoint two decades ago.

Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, a former circuit court judge running for Congress in Florida, has talked of being groped by the night manager of a Pizza Hut, where she worked when she was a teenager. As a lawyer, Flores says, she encountered “a judge who made a crack about my looks on my very first day in court”.

In Maryland, Democratic state senator Cheryl Kagan accused lobbyist Gil Genn this month of running his hand down her back and on to her buttocks in a crowded pub. Now, the two are arguing over whether the brief physical contact revealed by security camera footage of the event constitutes inappropriate conduct. The tape does appear to show that his initial insistence that he had not touched her at all was false.

Previous generations of female politicians kept these kinds of experiences to themselves.

“Absolutely no one would dare do a #MeToo then, although we talked in private about who to watch out for and never get in an elevator with,” recalled former Democratic representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado, who ran briefly for her party’s 1988 presidential nomination and who was not known for being timid. “They felt vulnerable, and if they talked about it, they became even more vulnerable.”

That remained true even in the explosion of female candidates after the Thomas hearings. “Part of that was we all saw how Anita Hill was treated” by the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, Schroeder said. “They just dumped all over her, and got away with it. We all internalised it.” Not any more.

No one would argue that these kinds of life experiences, by themselves, qualify anyone for public office. And there is even a danger that they will become a distraction from other issues.

“I’ve sort of been pigeonholed into one issue. I’m just the #MeToo candidate,” complains Freeman, a former investment banker who says her top priority if elected would be improving Minnesota’s public schools.

But, she adds, at a moment of awakened sensitivity to sexual transgressions, “these conversations are just too important not to be having”.

There is no small irony in that all of this, while long overdue, might not be happening had the nation elected its first female president in 2016.

Instead, a man credibly accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women sits in the Oval Office.

The old feminist mantra had it that the personal is political. In the #MeToo era, that connection is being forged more directly than ever, one story at a time. But while laying bare what was once kept secret may ultimately produce a healthier culture in politics, what voters will want to know is how all of this is going to change their lives.

Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined the Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times