We can’t be silenced’: women on the challenges of running for office

April 28, 2018

The Guardian: 'We can't be silenced': women on the challenges of running for office

By: Lucia Graves

A record number of women have jumped into the electoral fray since Donald Trump became US president, with nearly twice as many running for office in 2018 as ran two years ago.

But in the era of #MeToo, with more women speaking out about the barriers they have encountered at work, the obstacles women face on the campaign trail have been brought into sharper relief.

The Guardian spoke with three women running for office as in 2018. All three are Democrats, and have faced obstacles that they feel are related to their gender – including from their own party, which bills itself as being the party of women. Faced with everything from sexist double standards and gendered questioning to harassment and alleged assault, one woman changed her plans and dropped out of the race, but the others overcame the obstacles to succeed or at least keep going.

Cora Faith Walker – a state delegate elected in 2016 to representing Ferguson, Missouri – told the Guardian she got interested in running for office shortly after Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was passed in part because she is passionate about public health. A bright-eyed 33-year-old with a law degree and master’s in public health, she comes from one of the most politically loaded districts in the country, a place that was catapulted into the national consciousness when Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white policeman, sparking riots and quickly becoming an emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Research suggests women must be asked to run repeatedly before they will run for office, but Walker was emboldened, not scared, by the fact that there was nobody who looked like her at the table. She ran unopposed for an open seat and won.

Shortly after being sworn in, however, she went public with claims she had been raped by fellow Democratic assemblymember, Steven Roberts Jr.

In an interview at the time, Walker told a columnist with the St Louis Post-Dispatch that she had made plans to meet Roberts one night to discuss working together in the upcoming legislative session, as the only two black lawyers in the statehouse. But after drinking a second glass of wine at a St Louis apartment, Walker said she awoke the next morning with “no recollection of why I was still there”.

Roberts has denied the charges, saying what happened between them was “consensual”, and has brought a defamation suit against her. A special prosecutor declined to file charges.

Though she did not discuss the details of her alleged assault as litigation is still pending, Walker told the Guardian she was determined not to let the incident eclipse her political identity. “It’s a part of me,” she said. “It doesn’t define me.”

But she still has to work with her alleged aggressor every day the state legislature is in session and recently, alleged sexual misconduct has been center stage in Missouri. (Of the recent allegations against the state’s governor, Eric Greitens, who faces a litany of disturbing sexual misconduct charges, which he denies, Walker said, “It’s triggering.”)

Sometimes, she said, she wants to leave public life, but one thing holds her back. “If we’re going to change the culture we can’t be silenced,” she said. “It’s more important than ever to show up. The stakes are too damn high.”

But other women say the stress of running while female isn’t worth it.

“It was just too much,” Kim Weaver, who dropped her bid against the IowaRepublican representative Steve King last summer, citing harassment and abuse, told the Guardian.

Weaver’s children have all left home, but on the campaign trail she said she still regularly got questions about her kids and whether she could balance her motherly duties with her legislative ones. “No one ever says that to a man – they figure you’ve got it taken care of,” she said.

Once she was even asked how she would take care of her dogs. “I cared a lot about my dogs but they weren’t going to keep me from running for Congress,” she said.

Her appearance was frequently a topic of criticism, a gripe so common among women in public life that seasoned female politicians have become adept at pithy comebacks.

“When I ran they said: ‘You don’t look the part,’” Barbara A Mikulski, the former US senator from Maryland and longest-serving woman in the history of Congress told a roomful of women at a Washington conference last week. “But this is what the part got to look like.”

Weaver – who was also feeling pressure on her time from her desire to take care of her mother, whose health was failing – hung in until she started receiving sexist slurs and intimidating phone calls. She was particularly alarmed when someone put a “For Sale” sign in her yard not because she was insulted by its message but because, at a time when she already felt physically vulnerable, it signaled to her that her detractors knew where she lived.

“I just kept thinking about Gabby Giffords and how she got shot,” she said of the Democratic congresswoman who since her shooting has become a leading gun-control activist.

She is still involved politically, having founded the Pac for Power, a political action committee aimed at unseating King. But the work is much lower-profile and requires less time.

Aruna Miller’s candidacy to replace the retiring US representative John Delaney points to another barrier for women: the relative difficulty they have raising money to run.

Emily’s List, which helps groom pro-choice female candidates for office and sponsored last week’s DC conference, was founded to address that very problem. It’s right there in the name of the group, an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” – ie it makes the dough rise.

The fundraising problem is further compounded by other social and political forces, like the fact that women are underrepresented in the business and financial worlds where money moves. Not only does that make them less likely to be retail tycoons like her primary opponent David Trone (at America’s largest companies only 7% are CEOs, according to a survey of Fortune 1,000 companies), they’re less likely to have access to the lucrative boys’ clubs and networks that attend them.

Miller – who is running in Maryland’s 6th district – has a long list of policy priorities, including environmental protection and expanding access to healthcare, and hands out her cellphone number to anyone who asks, but the primary challenge she is facing from Trone – millionaire cofounder of one of America’s largest alcoholic beverage retailers, Total Wine & More – means she has had to focus an inordinate amount of time on fundraising.

“It’s soul-crushing,” she said of raising the cash. “I have to sit in a room and make phone call after phone call.”

Though Miller and Trone are part of a crowded primary, when the state Republican party sent out a batch of attack mailers, they targeted only Miller. “They see the writing on the wall,” she told the Guardian with a smile. “Everyone’s electing women.”

With women – including, or even especially, powerful women – speaking up about their hardships, some have raised concerns that emphasizing the barriers certain women have faced will do them a disservice by casting them as victims.

But some such as Higher Heights, an organization dedicated to electing more black women, believe talking about these difficulties can emphasize a candidate’s humanity and help them connect with voters.

The group has geared training specifically toward how to turn sexist incidents or questions into teachable moments, Mikulski-style. The formula, roughly speaking, is to pivot from personal incidents or prejudicial questions to issues that undergird them.

“How do you not diminish yourself to make yourself more palatable, but play up your strengths to be seen as a passionate fighter for justice?” Higher Heights co-founder Kimberly Peeler-Allen told Bustle. “We tell women to channel their inner Michelle Obama.”