Culture


The past 12 months have witnessed devastating attacks on women, immigrants, people of color, and marginalized communities of all kinds and stripes nationwide. It’s been brutal, and essential though it may be to face the doom and gloom (and to do something about it), most of us have our moments of desperation, the sense that we’d be better off in a bunker in New Zealand or at least beneath our covers for a few hours.

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But these 19 women (and 20,000 more like them, thank god) have resisted the impulse. Elected to serve, they’ve gotten out of bed and to work, pursuing justice in their communities, representation in their districts, and just progress, that simple. They’re up against a formidable status quo: According to recent estimates, women make up just under 20 percent of Congress and less than 25 percent of all state legislatures. Only six of our nation’s governors are female.

But we are 51 percent of the population. And the research shows that when women participate in government, we make it run better. This is the proof. Since Inauguration Day 2017, we’ve asked women in elected office what inspired them, what motivated them, what threatened to hold them back, and why they ran. Here are their stories.

Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon

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I took a job as an advocate for a women’s organization, which focused on legislation in Salem. That was my entree to the state capital…. I lobbied for the women’s organization, and literally during that session, my House member resigned, my [state] legislator resigned, and my state senator called and asked me if I was interested in seeking an appointment to the legislature, which of course, I said, yes. I was 31, didn’t have another job, didn’t have a family. I was like, there is no better way to move this agenda than to serve in the legislature.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire

Courtesy Maggie Hassan

[I]t really wasn’t until others encouraged me to run for office when a state Senate seat became open that I ever really considered it. Of course, I do credit the people who asked me to run with helping me see a pathway forward for myself in politics, but I also credit my husband, Tom, because when I called him to say that people were asking me to do this, I listed all the reasons from the age of our children to our sons medical needs to Tom’s busy career, as well as my own law practice. I listed all the reasons why I couldn’t do it, and it was my husband who said, “You’d be really good at it, and we’ll make it work.”

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Rep. Val Demings, Florida

Of course, I have experienced racism and sexism. And sometimes they’re interchangeable—when you’re the black woman in charge, you don’t know which one you’re facing. When I started, there was a lot of racism, especially. It mostly came from outside of the department, people in the community who saw this black woman in a uniform and I guess felt she didn’t deserve to wear it. They would say mean, hateful things. When I was appointed chief of police, I read this online someone said, “Black bitch—what is she gonna do?”

“It is a big job, but it’s always been a big job, and it didn’t get any bigger because a woman is in it.”

Through it all, I’ve focused on the job I had to do. When I was first appointed, a lot of women would say, “Well, you know that’s a big job.” My response became, “It is a big job, but it’s always been a big job, and it didn’t get any bigger because a woman is in it.”

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Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington

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I’m not a complainer. I’m a doer. So if I see something is wrong, then I feel like I have to get in there and try to fix it. And so that’s when I decided to run. I ran for the state senate and became the only woman of color in the state senate and the first Indian-American ever elected to the Washington State Legislature. It is very embarrassing, I think, that that was true. It’s often been lonely. When you’re in the state legislature and you’re the only woman of color, you can form friendships. But a lot of the times you have to learn to process what’s going on, what you do and don’t say—and you have learn to process them on your own because there just aren’t always a lot of people who really share your experience.

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Mayor Aja Brown, Compton, California

Courtesy Aja Brown

Because I was young or because I was female, people have thought that I wouldn’t be able to take the toughness of politics or the toughness of this or that job, and I’m still here. And so I look up to all the women who have done that, too. I still remember when Maxine Waters was elected the first African-American congresswoman. My mother sat me down and said, “See, she’s making history.” I like people who break the mold….

If you had ever told me that I would grow up and become an elected official, I would have said no. But I’ve stayed true to what I believe. I think too many people stay silent, and that’s why so much stays the same. I focus every day on what I can do to step forward, to step up, to lift up young people, especially young women. I have always believed women have so many natural leadership qualities. They just need opportunities and access. This is the generation that’ll make it happen.

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Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Ohio

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So many people campaigned for me. My high school friends, my girlfriends, my grade-school friends, my teachers—they all helped. My brother put up hundreds of yard signs. Eventually I had 1,000 volunteers. We worked extremely hard. And I just knew a lot of people. I had been a city planner in my community for several years, so people knew me. I had been active in the Democratic Party since I was 13! But the only two people in office, I think, who believed I could win and actually helped were Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar. Everyone else ignored me.

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The day after I was elected, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had never put a dime in to help me, called me and said, “Oh, Congresswomen Kaptur! We are so proud of you, and congratulations. You know what? I looked in my briefcase, and I found an envelope I should have mailed to you.” A few days later, he sent me $5,000. Can you believe that? But I didn’t care; we won with the people. It was the people and the community that I grew up in that elected me, and that has remained true throughout the years.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada

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After clerking, I went into private practice and worked for a small law firm of four or five men—all partners. I was the only associate and the only female attorney. I did one pro bono case for this couple who were trying to save their property. We won the case, and we parted at the courthouse and then probably about two or three weeks later, the woman comes to thank me in my office. She gave me a small box of chocolate-covered cherries. I’ve never forgotten it. It just made such an impression on me. I realized that was what I was missing—fighting for vulnerable people who were looking for somebody to stand up for them.

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That’s when I started looking around for other opportunities and went to work for one of our governors, Gov. [Bob] Miller. Eventually, I ended up making the decision to run for attorney general. I thought, “Okay, I’ve done all this stuff behind the scenes, but now it’s time to stand up and fight for the issues I care about.” I won in 2007.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Out of that frustration and concern, I turned to public service and ran for office. For me, it was a calling, because I had no name recognition, I had no money, and I ran against a 12-year incumbent. I’ve never identified myself as courageous, but I do think of myself as someone who does what I feel needs to get done. I don’t look at obstacles or obstructions; I’m just focused on a goal….

Sometimes, I have felt underestimated. I think as you pursue higher office, you begin to encounter different obstacles as a female, and those, I encountered as a female and as an African-American female. Because let’s face it—politics, for the most part, has been pretty much a male-dominated environment. And while there are certainly men who accept women as leaders, there are still some who wonder if a woman can govern effectively, if a woman has the business acumen that’s needed to be CEO of a city. I believe that there is heightened scrutiny that exists. That’s what we deal with.

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State Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, California

A few years later, I found out that my local assemblyman had termed out and the seat was open. I had just read Lean In the year before, and Sheryl Sandberg has a quote in there: “If not now, when? If not me, who?” When the assembly seat became available, I tried to find an excuse why I shouldn’t run: “I can’t raise the money, I won’t get the endorsements,” and on and on. I was thinking about it the wrong way. The book really showed me—forget about why you can’t; make a list of why you can.

I’d been an elected official for almost 20 years. I was a teacher, on the school board, on the water board. I knew the community. I had a business degree. I had an education degree. But I still felt unqualified. It was a wake-up call. I had everything I needed. Once I broke through my own mental block, I was like, “I’m doing this. And if I’m doing it, I’m winning.”

State Senator Rebecca Saldaña, Washington

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I carry with me every day the advice that I once got from now Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal: When you look in the mirror as a woman of color, you say a little prayer: “Lord, I pray I have as much confidence as a mediocre white guy.” And then you move on with your day. And it works. I look around here, and I have come to see that many of my colleagues supposed qualifications are questionable.

Lord, I pray I have as much confidence as a mediocre white guy.

And that’s what makes this place great, in a way. We all come from different backgrounds. But when someone has one expertise, and then they’re deciding the fate of all public education teachers or deciding what’s happening in our criminal justice system, and they have no direct experience in criminal justice at all, I have to say it helps me feel confident and well qualified to be here! [Laughs] I draw on that a lot. I am meant to be here. And so are so many other women.

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Rep. Lois Frankel, Florida

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I had my son in my late 20s; he became a priority…. I went to work for a local campaign for a woman state representative. She was a very progressive woman, and I liked the work. I’d been involved in some community initiatives, so I had some experience. But funnily, she decided to run for a different office, and so I ended up running for her office…. In a way, motherhood was a factor. I looked at my own child, and I felt like I could give him the love, the guidance, the education, the health care, what he would need to have good opportunities in life. But then I looked around at my community, and I thought, Wow, there are so many parents who are struggling, kids living in poverty, and I just said to myself, “Even if I give my son everything, he still has to go out into the world, and there’s a lot that isn’t right.” Every kid deserves the same opportunities to succeed. That was my biggest motivation to run.

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Mayor Hillary Schieve, Reno, Nevada

I know I don’t look like your typical mayor. I think people are surprised that I’m younger, that I am female. Only 18 percent of mayors are female, which is pretty shocking. I’m always trying to dispel the myth that a mayor needs to be a certain way. I believe mayors come in all shapes and sizes, and I think that’s important to tell young people that. And it’s really important to tell women in business or women who work in government but maybe aren’t thinking about running that they can do it, that they are qualified. Women are problem solvers in so many different ways, but they need to believe it.

City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, Durham, North Carolina

In the organizing community that I was a part of, people had, every once in a while, raised the idea that it might be smart to have someone on Durham City Council. Eventually people asked me if I’d ever considered running, and, of course, the answer was no. When that first happened, I was actually on maternity leave, home with my youngest son, who is now 3. I’d known that a lot of the really important decisions get made at the local level, but I’d never really considered running for local office. But the more people that asked me about it and the more I talked and thought about it, the more it seemed like a possibility….

The race had its moments. I knew that I would encounter some racism and sexism and some homophobia. That is just what exists in the world. I think I didn’t realize how open people would sometimes be about it. I thought, Wow, you should really know better.

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State Rep. Stephanie Chang, Michigan

It was my predecessor, Rashida Tlaib, who asked me to run. She’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve worked together on a few issues. I said no the first time. Actually, I said no the first few times. But she recruited a few people to convince me, and we sat down over lunch and started talking about it. That was around 2013. Basically, that lunch was the beginning of a six-month process of talking to different people about whether or not I should run, the pros and cons. I had a lot of the questions that I think a lot of women have: “Do I know enough? Am I qualified? Will I be able to raise money?” And I had, in a way, philosophical questions, too. As a young Asian-American woman in a district that’s predominantly African-American, I thought to myself, “Even if I could win, is this the right thing for me to do?”

Ultimately, I decided that running would allow me to take the issues I was working on to the next level, to try to make a much greater impact. I still don’t necessarily see this as a career change; it’s one more way I can try to address some of the issues that my community faces.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Illinois

Courtesy Susana Mendoza

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When I was 25, Ray Frias asked me if I would think about running for the position of state representative. I remembering thinking, That’s crazy. Who would vote for me? And he said, “I would vote for you. I think you’d be amazing. You might not even realize how good you would be.” At the end of the day, I was convinced. It was his old seat. I was 25, taking on an incumbent. I only lost by 55 votes.

That night, for the first 30 minutes after I realized I didn’t win, I was mad and acted like a crybaby. [I said], “I am never doing this again!” And [Frias] said, “Really? I didn’t know I was supporting a quitter.” It was not the pep talk I expected, but I needed it. I ran for a second time a few years later and won with 55 percent of the vote. I was 28. I served six terms in the legislature and never looked back. I’m thankful I lost that first race. I hate to lose, but it was what made me realize that I could do this and I wanted to do this.

State Rep. Erin Maye Quade, Minnesota

I think it was Chelsea Clinton who once said in this interview with Chelsea Handler, “I take serious criticism from serious people seriously.” It resonated with me because it gave words, language, to how I’ve always treated criticism. I grew up in a very white community, and I’m not white. Society is pretty straight, and I’m not [straight]. We still live in a very male-dominated culture, and I’m a woman.

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I’ve pretty much grown up in a place where I’m always having to assert, prove, and fight for my right to exist in people’s eyes. Which is why it’s always been important to me to be open to hearing from people who think differently, people who live differently, people who worship differently, people who are different from me in any way. I stretch myself on purpose in both capacity and thought, to be around people who don’t think, act, or look like me or have the same experiences as me. Because that’s how we do this better together.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Delaware

Courtesy Lisa Blunt Rochester

[O]ne day, I remember going to the supermarket here in Delaware, and there was a family in front of me, a father and a couple of kids. He had put back a bunch of grapes because they were five dollars a bunch and he couldn’t afford it. It was this turning point. I just realized that I wasn’t the only one struggling. I’m blessed. I have a house. I have great kids. I suffered a loss, but there are a lot of people who are suffering—loss of their jobs, loss of their homes, loss of a child to gun violence.

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I felt compelled to run. I had never run for office before. It was a six-way primary, myself and five men. I don’t think people thought I was going to win. I wasn’t an Ivy League–educated lawyer, for one thing. But I had experience in government and I had heart and I had faith. My life changed, and I realized I had nothing to lose and everything to give.

Cook County Prosecutor Kim Foxx, Illinois

I’ve never run as a man so I can’t compare it to running as a woman. But I will tell you that I was propositioned more than I ever thought I would ever be propositioned. I had men in positions of leadership tell me that my style of dress was distracting. I had some women tell me that I needed to pull my hair back in a bun to look more serious….

I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I’m not an entertainer. To have a young girl want to be like me, it meant the world to me.

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But there was good, too. When I went out to speak, mothers would bring their daughters to hear me. I’d go into neighborhoods like the one I grew up in and have little girls tell me that they wanted to be lawyers, too. I got choked up at one event on the West Side. This girl said, “Is that Kim Foxx?” She’d seen my commercials on her TV, and she said she wanted to go to law school, and she had dark skin like I had dark skin and she said to me, “I know I can do it.” I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I’m not an entertainer. To have a young girl want to be like me, it meant the world to me.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, Colorado

When I went to college at the University of Colorado, Boulder, there were not many black, brown, LGBT people. I was the only black person in my [first] class, and I kind of felt lost on the first day. I was walking around campus when I got a tap on my shoulder. It was this African-American man, a football player. He said, “We all gather in the student union for lunch. You should come.” I went and I sat at the tables, and it was amazing. It was black kids, brown kids, first-generation kids, LGBT, all the colors, all the things.

I found out a short while later that there were student government elections. I convinced everyone from all of our little groups at the tables, all those progressive groups, to run for office on campus. We won every single seat on the slate. By the time I graduated, I was the president, and I ran a 36 million dollar budget. That’s when I started to think, you know, I am good at this policy thing. I could run for office one day…. When a seat opened in the state government, that’s when I decided I was going to run.



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