Many women keep hearing over and over “you should run for
office”. Many women have come to the end of their advocacy rope and decide to
run for office. Many women have had a lifelong dream to run for office but are
“not ready”. Whether it is one of these, a combination there of, or a totally
different reason, what does it mean to be a woman in politics?
There have been many opinion pieces, stories, and research
papers shared lately about women in politics and either why we aren’t
participating or what it takes being a woman in politics. What I haven’t seen
is women who have actually succeeded in “playing the game” sharing their ups
and downs, honest opinions, and serious insights of what it is like being a
woman in politics. I would like to share my thoughts on what it is like for me
as a woman in the public servant atmosphere, what I have learned in the last
four years, where I failed, where I succeeded, and where I go from here. I am
far from having any of the answers, but I hope what I offer you will get you to
give your own.
My interest in government/politics sparked when Geraldine
Ferraro broke the barrier and ran for Vice President. It was my first
presidential election, and being someone raised and surrounded
strong women, I had a solid vote. I was going to follow in her footsteps.
But like all good women at the time, I married, had a son, and did the married
thing. But my first marriage ended (that in itself is a story for another day)
and I was back wondering what to do besides being a secretary (yes secretary was
the proper word in 1992). It was at that time the late Sen. Janet Johnson came
into my life. Many of us got to speak to her at a public hearing to save the
local women’s shelter. As I was standing at the microphone, telling my story,
looking into her eyes and letting her know that cutting funding to our women’s
shelter would be catastrophic, I was once again inspired. I knew that one day I
would go from being behind that mic to in front of it and change a community
for the better.
We jump ahead now almost 20 years later, yes I have no
problem dating myself and I love my age. In those twenty years I had many jobs,
got married again, advocated for many women’s, family and disability groups,
and went back to school. We bought a home, my son became an adult, and we went
through all the wonderful trials and miracles every family goes through. But I
still had that one unfinished piece of business, running for office.
In 2008, my chance presented itself almost out of nowhere.
My township became a city and there was a special election for the new city
council. I jumped. With eight one-sided signs and one hundred flyers I went out
and campaigned for three weeks. I and twenty-five others campaigned for the
four council slots. In July of that year, nearly falling of my chair when they
announced it, I became councilwoman of my city. I had made my dream come true.
I am currently councilwoman of my city, and I have learned many things in
the last three to four years. Would I change anything? No. Do I have any
regrets? No. Will I do it again? Not a local race.
In 2010 I ran for my district’s state representative seat
and it was an amazing experience. Again, I have no regrets and I would not
change anything. Will I do it again? Yes. It took me until running for a state
seat to realize the issues women have in being in office. It wasn’t so much the
male vs. female aspect, that is pretty much a given. It is how we react to
certain scenarios that separate us. Here are my thoughts.
Now, I “fit in” with my community. I was not colored, I was
of the Christian persuasion, I was of Norsk background, married, our son went
to public school, but being a woman was not the major concern. One of the first
questions asked of me by an elected cohort was “what experience do you have to
be here?” Stunned by his question. Quickly recovering I said “same as
you, I’m a minimum of 18 years old, a resident of the community, and I received
enough votes”. After that though, I quickly realized that “fitting in” was not
as important as being part of the “in” crowd. I was not born there, my family
had not established the area, I was not part of the city’s church, or the local
women’s club. I did not have an authoritative right over the community. It
was like high school all over again.
I did gain the trust of the popular crowd, ran with them for
a while, until we started to differ on a certain public policy. Then, just like
in high school, I was ousted and black marked. The writing was on the bathroom
wall. Not being “liked” was not a problem for me. I had friends that were not
part of this playground. I knew as an elected official I was not going to be
liked and sometimes I was even going to be hated. What amazed me, these were
adults in their later adulthood that could turn on a dime and become “gossiping
guinea hens”. Reading this you might say “that happens in any job” and you are
right. But on this playground, with one school monitor for every 100, it is hard
to raise your hand and ask so-and-so not to pick on you anymore. Just as
interesting was how the different clubs, commissioners, sheriff, school
district chair, and former elected officials could be either totally with you
or totally against you. Don’t get me wrong, there was still that sports parent
type cordialness, but turn your back for a minute and one kid would give your
kid a wedgie.
The run for state office was a much different playground. In
fact, it wasn’t much of a playground at all. A state election starts out more
like college teams getting to “the bowl”. You are on a squad and your goal is
to get from tryout to a position on the team. Once you are past tryout, then
the hard work, hits, blood and sweat begins. The battle for the “little blue/red
jug” starts and you have your playbook. Being a lifelong, community member is
no longer important as long as you are legal. Being rich or poor is not a
factor as long your money was legal (or you can hide it well). All things local
are behind you as long as you wear their jersey. So what does being female have
to do with all this?
Gender is still an issue in politics, and unfortunately we
as women are allowing outside forces to create most of those issues. For
instance, Hillary wore pant suits and the media and other groups tore her apart.
She “wasn’t woman enough” they heckled, and I don’t recall Hillary giving in
and showing more leg. Women around the country tried to castrate the news media
when what they should have done is put on their pantsuits and carried nutcrackers.
If we ask the question we will continue to be told no. We as women need to stop
asking. I spent 20 years in skirts and heels as an “office assistant” because
it was expected. The only thing expected of me as a politician (by the way I
hate that word) i.e. public servant, is to keep my oath, listen to my voters,
do my job, and take care of my community. My looks, the way I dress, my
background, what I do for a living should be irrelevant. The sooner women quit
requesting a spot on the team and instead start demanding our rightful position
as quarter back the sooner we will be comfortable “playing the game”.
So what is it I want you to take from this? That I have no
regrets but I have failed and those failures are just as equal as my successes.
There is nothing I can do about being female but embrace it and smile when
someone makes a nutcracker in my likeness. Last of all, don’t forget to pass on
your failures and successes to the next generation remembering they may already
have learned and could actually pass some things on to you. Most important
though, your rightful place is where ever you want to be.
daughter, mother, wife, advocate, councilwoman, candidate, epileptic, domestic
abuse survivor, environmentalist, feminist, fiscal conservative, social
liberal, progressive, female, white, recovering catholic, just a few of my
labels this world requires.