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Virginia’s Future Is Female

Richmond Magazine: Virginia's Future Is Female

By Sarah King

In the thick of her victory speech at the Westin Hotel in Henrico County some minutes before midnight last November, Abigail Spanberger panicked.

When the former CIA intelligence officer walked onstage, she was greeted by deafening cheers. Her appearance signaled the conclusion of a day-long “blue wave” sweeping Virginia as midterm returns rolled in, and the political newcomer’s victory over tea party-backed Republican incumbent Dave Brat marked the first Democratic victory for the 7th District U.S. House seat in more than 50 years.

"We won an unwinnable district by doing what every campaign should do," Spanberger began, with her husband, Adam, and three daughters — Claire, 10, Charlotte, 7, and Catherine, 4 — standing behind her among a swath of blue balloons and streamers.

“We focused on the needs of the people, the voters. We talked about substantive issues affecting their lives,” Spanberger continued, while, in the background of the stage — and the foreground of the teleprompters – Adam’s eyes grew wide as he clambered to retrieve their youngest daughter, Catherine, who had curled up ather mother's feet as she stood at the dais, giving her skirt two sharp tugs to let her know she was there.

“My daughter came and sat on my feet as she always does,” Spanberger recalled last weekend in Chester as part of the #McEachinWomensForum panel – a free, public event aimed at uplifting and discussing the forward-thinking legacy of female leadership in Virginia.

“I kept giving my speech and then she tugged on me and I had this moment of panic where I thought 'oh my gosh, I can't — I can't hold my daughter,' " Spanberger recalls. "[I'm thinking,] 'that would seem unprofessional, that won't look good' — all this is racing through my mind."

The images of Spanberger holding her youngest daughter while delivering her victory speech quickly went viral, but in the moment, Spanberger says the decision to hoist Catherine onto her hip was a split-second delayed -- until then, her career path had seemingly necessitated separating "mom" from "work."

But if Spanberger was panicked at the Westin last November, it didn’t convey to the crowd who watched as she deftly scooped up her preschooler with one arm without so much as looking down as she continued her speech, saying, “This is what can happen when everyday citizens realize their collective strength in a democracy."

Spanberger shared this story during a candid discussion with her colleague in the House of Representatives, 2nd District Rep. Elaine Luria, and WTVR-CBS 6 anchor Reba Hollingsworth. The forum was moderated by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and hosted by 4th District U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin and his wife of three decades, Colette, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond.

Here are four takeaways from the mothers who are representing, serving and protecting Virginians:

1. ‘Women across this country are stirring the pasta noodles …’

Luria has spent nearly half her life on ships. The 43-year-old congresswoman and mom to three kids retired as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer at the rank of commander in after two decades in the service, including stints on six ships at sea deployed to the Middle East and Western Pacific.

But like her colleague in the 7th District, Luria’s private life was not a touchstone — let alone the focus — of her campaign in Virginia’s Tidewater region.

Both women had been conditioned throughout their careers to downplay their family roles; if nothing else, because so few women had traveled the path they now navigated.

Luria says she turned to fellow moms in office for advice when considering her campaign. “It was actually some of the women in Congress, who are now my colleagues, who were a very big inspiration to me,” Luria says, giving a nod to U.S. Reps. Katherine Clarke and Lois Frankel. “Because you can have those frank conversations like, ‘How do you do this?’ ”

Spanberger, too, is quick to point out that having also generally worked in male-dominated fields, “it’s always just a challenge to find an example, a role model.”

Before being elected to represent Central Virginia's 7th District in Congress, Spanberger had been a federal agent investigating money laundering and narcotics cases, then a case officer for the CIA, where she says she did not put pictures of her daughters on her desk or talk about her three girls.

If she had to leave for something child-related, “I was leaving because I had an appointment,” Spanberger says.

“I didn't draw any attention to the fact I was a mom because I heard the way some of my colleagues talked about their spouses who were moms and I didn't want to be bucketed in that way because I thought it would hurt my career,” she explains. “I only once worked with another woman, and never worked with a mom.”

At one point, Spanberger was tapped to go on a trip for a "really interesting case" she had been working on, before her orders changed, and she was pulled from going. She learned later the decision was made for her because she was pregnant.

“But I’d already gone and gotten medically cleared,” she says. “My doctor didn't have an issue and I didn't have an issue — that is my decision to make — but this is one of the reasons why I kept my family under wraps, because I didn't want to be judged differently.”

On the campaign, Spanberger says she was still wary of depicting herself as a parent. “I was really nervous about the fact that I had, particularly younger children … and one, I wanted to protect them for a bit, but also I didn't want people to say 'Oh, well, she's a mom, and her kids are young, and I don't know about this.’ ”

On stage at the Westin, two worlds collided with irreversible impact when Spanberger’s display of sheer mom-ness bubbled up as she scooped up 4-year-old Catherine.

Surmounting her hesitation was the realization she had just locked in the job. “I thought — 'Oh wait — I just won!' ” Spanberger says, laughing. In the front row, sitting next to Hollingsworth’s and Luria’s daughters, 10-year-old Claire Spanberger beams beneath a mop of thick blonde hair.

“I didn't realize the impact of saying, 'Yes, I just ran for Congress, and yeah, I have a 4-year-old, and yeah, I can absolutely give a speech and hold her because there are women across this country who are stirring the pasta noodles, or are on a conference call or are doing laundry or running their business with a kid on their hip — and I’m just going to try to make this normal,” Spanberger says.

2. ‘Mom’ is still the toughest job

In response to a question McClellan posed to the panel about “unique challenges” women, and particularly women of color, face in the workplace, morning co-anchor Hollingsworth jumped right into the pay gap, beginning with her first job in Texas, where she made the same low, gender-neutral annual salary of $12,000 as her peers.

But in her next job, in Abilene, Texas, a 20-something Hollingsworth worked alongside an older male co-anchor. But bigger than their age difference was the $30,000 pay gap between the two morning show hosts.

“Before we can change the minds of men, or laws, I think we sometimes have to change the mindset of women and support each other and fight for that pay,” Hollingsworth says. ”And as you get older, sometimes it's not always about the money, but what's best for the family and being able to be there for her growing up,” she says smiling at her 10-year-old daughter, Jillian.

Hollingsworth has been with CBS 6 since 2009, after returning to Richmond from Washington, D.C. “And the first year was awful,” she says, flatly.

“I would wake up at 1:30 in the morning because we started at 4:30 a.m., then after the morning anchor they wanted to go report more and, ‘Oh can you do social media and do all these other things?’ and next thing I know it's 2 p.m., and she was a toddler and I’d be cranky toward her.”
So Hollingsworth had a candid conversation with her boss at the station. “I said, 'I don't think I can handle this, I think I may have to leave my job,' " she recalls.

"And he says: ‘Well if Andy can do this job, why can’t you?’ ”

An audible gasp sweeps the audience before Hollingsworth continues.

“And I said, ‘Andy is a man; Andy has a stay-at-home wife,’ " Hollingsworth says pointedly, "and instead of getting mad at my boss, we had a really direct conversation where I said, 'Think about all the things your wife, who's a stay-at-home mom — the toughest job — think about all the things she has to do," she pauses.

"I said, 'Those are the things I do once I get home; once I leave this job.’ ”

Hollingsworth now works part-time, five days a week, “but I can leave at 8 a.m., and that is unheard of in TV news,” she says, squaring her shoulders. “So, he changed my life by listening, and I feel like I’m a better mother.”

But there’s still more work to do.

Luria notes that while she and Spanberger both voted for the Paycheck Fairness Act — which passed the Democrat-controlled House —“It’s unlikely to pass the current Senate.” Nonetheless, she continues, “We’re going to pass this bill — to legislate the fact that women should be paid the same for the same work. But just legislating is the easy part — so I will say, in Congress, we can legislate a lot of things, but legislating is not going to make a cultural shift.”

Luria, who spent her two decades ascending the ranks of the Navy serving on combatant ships, explains she and a classmate at the Naval Academy were the only women on a destroyer ship in Japan shortly after the U.S. lifted the Combat Exclusion Act in the 1990s.

“But that was relatively new — there were not a lot of women in this career path ahead of us that we forged,” she says, “But the women who had paved the way before us had shown that women can serve on ships, they can drive ships, and yeah, they can command ships, too.”

3. Intersectionality, strip club claps and second-class citizenship

Now, representing swaths of the Hampton Roads region, Luria says she has “the privilege of being able to help select the young people going into our service academies” — and last weekend, she recalled a recent phone conversation with a young woman receiving the good news.

“I say, ‘I’m just as thrilled as you are that you have this opportunity because in October of 1992 I got the same call,' " Luria says. "And I say to her, ‘What career path would you like to do when you graduate — surface warfare, aviation... submarines?' Because that also wasn't an opportunity when I graduated."

“And she says, 'No, no — I want to go special warfare,' " Luria recalls. "And I’m thinking to myself, 'This is amazing' — because every field in the military is now open to women to serve this nation, and she says this — without hesitation — that she has that opportunity.”

Pieces of the paradigm still need improvement, though. Two weekends ago, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Luria's district to visit the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman with its crew of 5,000 sailors.

“And this might not have made it in the news all the way up to Richmond, but the command master chief [the most senior enlisted person on the aircraft carrier] was encouraging the crew on how to welcome the vice president — and do you know what he said to the crew?”

“He said: ‘Clap like you're at the strip club.’ ”

She sighs.

“We don't have time here today to kind of peel back the onion on all the things that are so inappropriate about that comment," Luria says, "but let's focus on the lack of respect to the women of that crew; it's demeaning and creates a second-class citizenship.”

4. The McEachins seem to like the new neighbors

McEachin did a lot more listening than talking after Colette, his wife of 31 years, offered introductory remarks following a welcome from Virginia's 69th District Del. Lashrecse Aird.

“Good morning, I am Colette’s husband, as she’s already told you,” McEachin began coyly. The couple have raised three children together and the congressman said he’s “very proud” of “easily the best attorney in this family,” who has “dealt with all this politics stuff since 1995.”

On Nov. 7, Colette was by her husband’s side as he took to the stage in the early return hours, after handily maintaining his seat over Republican challenger Ryan McAdams, who received a campaign assist from Pence. 

“Thank you for rehiring me for two more years,” McEachin said to the crowd, noting he was going to rest while the remaining precincts reported on Election Night. “But when I come back down, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be talking to a new neighbor in a new neighborhood,” he said to uproarious applause.

The McEachins, who live in Henrico, have since seemed to acclimate nicely to their new neighbors. The congresswomen stay updated through an unofficial “House Moms” — yes, that is a thing — group chat, discussing camps and child care while they are away at the Capitol this summer; their school-age kids get feisty bragging about how badass their moms are among themselves; and yes, the kids and their moms are friends.

After the forum, Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor joins McClellan and Spanberger at the Greater Richmond Convention Center downtown for the 22nd Annual Asian American Celebration. Inside, the elected officials are chatting with constituents between shopping, snacking, laughing and snapping selfies with supporters.

“Is it stressful?” I ask. Being in office and raising a family?

Spanberger and McClellan lock eyes before breaking into simultaneous laughter.

“Girl, YES."