“I have that motorcycle,” North Carolina state Senate candidate Deb Butler remarks, as she stands outside the door of another potential voter in sunny Carolina Beach. Butler, who hails from Wilmington, is canvassing just blocks from the ocean, winding through streets of pastel-colored stilt houses.

She returns to her car to show me her transvaginal ultrasound wand, which she keeps in the backseat. The device is featured in her latest television ad as an example of what’s at stake for women in North Carolina in this election cycle. She calls the 10-inch-long white device her opponent’s “contribution to women’s health—a medically unnecessary, invasive procedure that is now required by state law.” The mandatory ultrasound bill Butler is referring to originated in the North Carolina General Assembly, whose two chambers were taken over by Republicans in 2010—for the first time in more than one hundred years.

An Uphill Battle

Raleigh-based Lillian’s List aims to take back the General Assembly this Nov. 6 by electing more pro-choice Democratic women to the body. The organization has endorsed more candidates than ever before and surpassed previous fundraising numbers; only Tuesday will tell whether these efforts yield greater political representation of women in North Carolina.

The group was founded in 1997 by two Chapel Hill women, Jan Allen and Laura Edwards. The “Lillian” refers to Lillian Exum Clement, North Carolina’s first woman legislator who was elected just prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

This election cycle, Lillian’s List has had to respond to the fact that the partisan-controlled redistricting process has made it tougher for many of their endorsed candidates.

“A lot of our pro-choice Democratic women were deliberately redistricted into districts they couldn’t win or they were placed in districts with fellow Democrats. They were double-bunked, so it was really hard to navigate the beginning of the election—we had to reevaluate what our target districts were,” says Leah Josephson, a Communications and Development associate for the organization. Lillian’s List differs from its national partner, EMILY’s List (which is was where I interned this past summer) in that it focuses on state races, including those for the North Carolina House, Senate and Council of State. Unlike EMILY’s List, which checks the pro-choice credentials of potential endorsees with a short choice questionnaire, Lillian’s List has their prospective candidates also interview before a candidate committee.

“It’s a pretty significant and involved vetting process…we try to be strategic about which candidates we’re supporting,” noted Josephson. But as a state-based organization with a full-time staff of only five, Lillian’s List also faces severe financial challenges. If a candidate receives the endorsement of Lillian’s List, they then have access to the group’s base of more than 1,000 members. The organization endorsed 26 candidates this election cycle and has raised $80,000 so far in 2012. With limited resources, the committee can only afford to contribute $4,000 to an individual during the primary and another $4,000 during the general election, while individual donors can similarly only give $4,000 during the primary and another $4,000 during the general election to Lillian’s List.

To put this in perspective, EMILY’s List members have donated more than $2 million to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s re-election race against the infamous Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who received national fame from his recent delineation of “legitimate rape.”

Taking on the Tea Party

Butler is one of that select group of Lillian’s List candidates, which she says has been helpful, especially financially. “They’ve given the maximum amount possible. They’ve encouraged their membership to help out, they have sponsored events, and they offered training opportunities and a seasoned ear.”

These additional resources could have a substantive impact in a district like Butler’s. New Hanover County is considered a bellwether for the nation because voters are a third Democratic, a third Republican and a third undecided, Butler says. Butler’s race has attracted the attention of outside organizations including the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. If elected, Butler would be the only LGBT member of the state Senate. Her opponent, state Sen. Thom Goolsby, a “self-avowed Tea Partyer,” was a supporter of Amendment One, which passed by only 152 votes in New Hanover County.

One of the questions for voters in North Carolina is whether Republican lawmakers exceeded their mandate by proposing Amendment One, attempting to de-fund Planned Parenthood and making other changes to health-related legislation. Butler, who thinks women voters will be critical to making Goolsby a one-term incumbent, is taking a gamble in emphasizing “how regressive this legislature really is by putting artificial barriers in place between a woman and her reproductive choices.”

As always, raising money is critical to winning her district. “Asking for their dollars is hard. As a lawyer I’m used to being direct and as a businesswoman I’m used to selling a product, but in politics you’re selling yourself.”

Back at Lillian’s List, communications and development associate Leah Josephson echoed Butler’s concerns: “I think there’s sometimes a disconnect as to what the money means for a campaign—the tried and true way to win votes is to send mail to people in your district who might vote for you. If you don’t have the money to do that you can knock on doors all day long but you can’t reach as many people. So really when it comes down to it, it’s about whether you have the resources.” Butler has knocked on more than 6,000 doors in her district and aims to reach 9,000 by Election Day, but will these grassroots efforts be enough?

“Girls on Fire”

On one end of an indoor pool on an expansive estate in Winston-Salem sits dozens of women who donate money for Lillian’s List-endorsed candidates like Butler. On the other end sits the realization of their goal: three women currently in office who were elected with the support of groups like Lillian’s List and EMILY’s List to defend reproductive freedom and advance progressive legislation.

This Lillian’s List fund-raiser almost looks like any other political event: asparagus tips and artichoke dip in the dining room, checks flowing as plentifully as the wine and candidates schmoozing with potential donors by the lemon squares. But the vast majority of the attendees are women in their 40’s through 70’s (and older) and the entertainment is a panel discussion with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and state Sen. Linda Garrou.

“We’re not this stiff political organization—we try to be fun,” enthuses one Lillian’s List staffer.

The discussion with the panelists seems to prove her point.

“I’ve been in the U.S. Senate now for not quite four years, and I quickly found out that there are two kinds of Senators. When you’re getting ready to do a floor speech or a press conference, there are those senators that are constantly concerned about their hair or their makeup…and then there are the women,” begins Hagan, to the delight of the audience.

The panel’s members are in consensus that more women need to run for office despite the resistance candidates may face from party leaders, committee chairs and fellow legislators.

Marshall notes that female candidates encounter opposition even from within their own party. “Party bosses do a subtle undermining of your confidence, by saying things like ‘Do you really want to put up with all of that?’”

All agreed that women have to be recruited: Marshall urged women to “Quit being so damn responsible…you’re not the most indispensible person on the face of this Earth, you can move on and think about greater public service.” According to a recent study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, North Carolina has five women in the Senate, 33 women in the House and yet is ranked 29th in the country for its proportion of women in a state legislature. Gov. Bev Perdue, as a Democrat and woman, is a rare breed: if Maggie Hassan doesn’t win her race in New Hampshire, there will be no Democratic women governors in the country as of this November, as Perdue is stepping down.

Once elected, some women legislators find working in the male-dominated N.C. General Assembly challenging. Garrou, who is not running for re-election after having been redistricted to a region she probably couldn’t win, voiced her concern for the general apathy in the state legislature. “It was astounding to me how vehemently [Republican lawmakers] felt about these issues. We debated a number of things over and over and over again. It was almost like there’s total disregard for women…. Sometimes we would bring up issues affecting children, schools and women, and we would get these blank looks from across the table. We felt like saying, ‘Hello, these things are important, too.’”

Hagan concluded the panel’s discussion by linking the state’s situation regarding women and politics to a national conversation about social issues.

“You look at what the Republican Party has been talking about these past two years and every woman needs to get involved. Whether it’s about choice, contraception, the Blunt Amendment, education, Equal Pay, the Violence Against Women Act... The Lily Ledbetter bill, which I cosponsored, was the first bill the President put forward and signed—that wouldn’t have happened if John McCain had won. Look at that kind of item and how we’ve made change.“

Knowing that they were preaching to the choir, the women on the panel threw in a few crowd-pleasing partisan swipes.

“Any woman who votes Republican this year is like the turkey showing up on Thanksgiving and saying ‘I’m here, how could I help?’” Marshall joked. Laughter echoed across the pool-house.

Marshall-ing the Women

Concerns about gender balance in politics are by no means new for some legislators. Marshall, who in 1997 became the first woman elected to a statewide office in North Carolina, ran after having been a teacher, a lawyer and a small business owner.

To Marshall, who is now seeking a fifth term, the Republican wave in 2010 “was an election which elected people who claimed to be for small government, but they want government in your bedroom and in your doctor’s office­—it is such hypocrisy.”

During her time as a lawyer before she ran for office, when she walked the halls of the General Assembly advocating for changes to the gender discrimination in legal statutes, Marshall found that male legislators “didn’t understand, didn’t identify and weren’t willing to waste their political capital on these kinds of issues. So I decided rather than trying to influence a vote, I would be a vote!”

At an informational event and fund-raiser for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot at the Women’s Club in Raleigh, staffers begin to shepherd their chargers into the sitting room in which Marshall is explaining her political history, which includes two runs for Senate. In 2002, she lost the Democratic primary to Erskine Bowles, and in 2010, she won her primary against Cal Cunningham but couldn’t unseat Sen. Richard Burr. In the general election, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money for Senate candidates, “turned out ultimately to be unhelpful, it was very disappointing.”

“For those who supported Elaine, the storyline is that men are allowed to skip to the front of the line over women who have a career of public service. For Cal supporters, the storyline is that there shouldn’t be a ‘line’ at all, especially if we want to improve youth engagement in politics,” College Democrats of North Carolina President Elena Botella, Trinity’13 explained in an e-mail.

The “Year of the Woman,” Redux?

In Raleigh, Josephson is optimistic about their candidates’ chances this November: “We’ve done more than ever before to support women candidates this year…We’re really involved with their campaigns, we’re on the phone with them all the time, it’s a constant and really important relationship.”

The hope is that this group will have meaningful impact long after Election Day. If elected, these women should feasibly be able to easily work together in the General Assembly, after having attended the same fundraising and communications trainings and had similar experiences on the stump.

“When you have this group of women who’ve gone through this process together, they get into the General Assembly and are immediately effective legislators because they have allies, a group of people to help them make policy change happen. It’s actually a really empowering sisterhood that we’ve been able to create in the General Assembly that wasn’t necessarily there before Lillian’s List,” said Josephson.

Back in Carolina Beach, Butler is encountering mostly unoccupied homes by the waterfront—it seems most potential voters are out enjoying one of autumn’s last sunny days. Finally, outside of one stilt house a family in bathing suits with beach towels and surfboards approaches Butler and her canvassing partner.

“Are you pretending not to live here?,” she asks, good-naturedly. But it turns out that her assumption is wrong—they’re not from the area and with that, Butler calls it a day.

After being asked what she thought of her chances of winning her race, Butler answers: “My approach was to relish the journey as much as the end. Every time I start to have a little anxiety attack I remind myself that it’s about the journey.”