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The next Abraham Lincoln will be a woman

Updated 2:25 PM ET, Thu November 8, 2018

Editor's Note: Barbara Lee is the founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing women's equality and representation in American politics and in the field of contemporary art. In a personal capacity, she has been a significant donor for many women candidates, including Hillary Clinton. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - On Tuesday, voters elected an unprecedented number of women to public office. A record number of women were elected to Congress. Among them were historic firsts: Texas' first Latina congresswomen; the first congresswomen of color representing Massachusetts and Connecticut; the youngest woman elected to Congress; the first Native American women; and the first Muslim women elected to Congress in American history. Champions of equal representation have much to celebrate.

Yet, for every woman who won, many more went home empty-handed. That's no surprise. Few people realize that on election day 1992 -- famously dubbed the "Year of the Woman" -- more than three times as many women lost their bids for Congress as won them.

Still, one measure of our progress may be the way voters and the media treat the women who didn't win in 2018. We have to rally, not just around newly anointed winners, but also around those who, after risking it all, after sacrificing months of sleep and time with family, now have to pick up their lives and figure out their next moves. They deserve our enthusiastic support, encouragement and gratitude. They deserve a "new girls' network" every bit as powerful as the old boys' club.

Historically, women who lose elections have faced a harder road back to politics than their male counterparts. In 1978, following her third consecutive loss, US Representative and activist Bella Abzug rebuked the reporters writing her "political obituary," lamenting that, "If a woman is defeated, she's meant to return to the kitchen. If a man is defeated, he's given time to get a suntan and a shave and go on to other things."

For men, losing is practically a prerequisite for a successful political career. Nearly every US president elected in the last half century has had at least one significant loss on his record. Looking even further back, a president who in many ways defined America was elected to that position just two years after losing a Senate race for the second time; his name was Abraham Lincoln.

After a loss, men can almost always count on a powerful club of mentors and supporters to pick them up, dust them off, offer them a job and position them for their next campaign. Meanwhile, women have often been blamed and shamed, often unjustly, for their defeats. They are urged to step aside to make room for another candidate (often a man) with "broader appeal." Unfortunately, even years later, candidates like Meg Whitman and Martha Coakley still carry the unfair stigma of their defeats.

Then, of course, there is Hillary Clinton, the first woman presidential candidate ever to win a major party nomination, banished to the woods, despite winning the national popular vote in 2016. Bernie Sanders, defeated by Clinton in the primary, remains a rumored 2020 contender.

We must not allow this old double standard to persist. Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are shining a light on sexism in the media and changing voter perceptions of women candidates. New research from The Barbara Lee Family Foundation confirms that, in today's climate, it's possible for women who lost in the midterms to rebound. Voters say they will no longer penalize women candidates for having lost an election in the past.

Voters will, however, remember how a candidate handled her loss. Our research suggests that a candidate who concedes with a forward-looking message—who frames her loss as a launch and a promise to continue the fight—is more likely to leave voters with a positive impression of her candidacy.

What a candidate does with her time between campaigns can also influence her future prospects. The most successful repeat candidates stay engaged in public life— whether by serving in another political office, conducting a listening tour or helping other women run.

These findings affirm what current leaders like Senators Lisa Murkowski and Maggie Hassan have already proven through their own inspiring comeback stories: a loss need not put an end to any woman's political ambition. The underdogs and longshots of 2018 have the potential to be frontrunners in 2020 and beyond. For that to happen, women and their allies must stay engaged.

In 2004, my friend, now-Congresswoman Katherine Clark, lost her first bid for the Massachusetts State Senate. She says I gave her 24 hours to mourn before I called her to ask, "What's next?" Today, she's an effective leader in Washington, DC, representing Massachusetts' 5th Congressional District.

To the women who've turned out as activists, volunteers, organizers and fundraisers: Never underestimate the difference your encouraging word or helping hand can make.

With your help, we must ensure that the many women who lost this year -- who advanced the cause of democracy, and who led a movement for opportunity and equality -- hear two words from us:

"What's next?"


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