I’ll never forget the first conversation I had when managing a very tough race in my political career. Two male, big name politicos from my same party reached out and wanted to have a meeting right when I got to town. As soon as we sat down, they lectured me about everything under the guise of political help in a state that “does things differently”. But, the conversation turned into a warning to “stay in your lane” and not mess with their plan. I listened and after 45 minutes, I said “thanks for the help, but I’ve got this. You don’t sign my check.”
I’m almost positive this conversation would never have happened if I weren’t a young, female staffer. At the time, it didn’t bother me. I was used to being underestimated by men in my field, and conversations like that one happened so frequently, I truly stopped paying attention to it. But I’ll never forget the way it made me feel, and how all of my political accomplishments up to that point were not even part of their calculation to offer me any amount of respect as a campaign manager.
Welcome to being a woman in the world of politics.
Sexism exists at all levels of the political ladder, behind closed doors and out in the open. At the early October Vice Presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris threaded every sexist needle our society imposes on women. Whether you’re in an office staff meeting or debating the Vice President on national TV, the standard of “success” for women is outrageously high. And when you’re a woman of color, it’s even higher. At the debate, Kamala used her tone and demeanor to great effect. How many women in the days ahead will use the phrase, “I’m speaking now,” the next time someone tries to mansplain to her?
Sexism in Presidential elections certainly isn’t anything new. Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential runs in 2008 and 2016 were tinged with sexist reporting and attacks. These attacks ranged from her physical appearance to her “likability” to her marriage to her age. In 2016, she received disproportionately negative media attention compared to both her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, and general election opponent, Donald Trump. Both Trump and Sanders are older than Clinton, yet attack ads and media outlets focused only on her health, with little evidence to back up their claims.
And this doesn’t just affect the women in the spotlight. The “Old Boys Club” of politics has stuck around, even as more and more women were hired to work on the hill behind the scenes. A field traditionally dominated by men, the culture of the halls of Congress can be hard to break into as a woman. Female staffers have reported being touched inappropriately by men, being offered lower salaries than their male counterparts, and incorrectly being addressed as their male coworker’s subordinate.
In the past four years, women and girls in North Dakota and across the country have seen themselves represented more and more by the women that have stepped up to the plate and run for office — including my old boss, Senator Heitkamp. But still, women only make up 23.7 percent of Congress. That being said, political participation by women often leads to greater outcomes for everyone. Women are more likely to work across the aisle and bring perspectives and priorities that their male counterparts often lack. I see this first hand on many occasions when the women of the Senate met.
Being a woman in politics can be hard. But now, more than ever before, women and girls have female leaders and role models they can look up to and see themselves in. When we see women like Senator Harris debate the Vice President and campaign for a better future or Senator Heitkamp win in deep red North Dakota, we feel more empowered to stand up for ourselves in our own lives. With election day just a few days away, we have the chance to elect people who believe in the power of women and will fight to make sure we’re represented.