Electing Women: Is Fear of the Campaign a Cop Out?

While at the BlogHer’12 conference this past summer, I attended a fantastic panel on social media and electing women to public office.

During and after the panel, there was a lively Twitter thread happening, in parallel, on the topic. You can read the whole thread by searching for #BH12ElectWomen. It includes panelists, members of the live audience, and people following from other locations.

Moderator Jill Miller Zimon, whom I think is fantastic, made a comment during the panel, on which my brain has been chewing and debating ever since. What she said, more or less, is that for women to not run because they are afraid of the campaign, is a huge cop-out.

I responded on Twitter that I semi-agree and semi-disagree. This statement is both true and useless. But there is no way I can say what I think in 140 characters. So.

I want to agree 100%.

Campaigns are a lot of work, but the work isn’t brain surgery, and lots of people are there to help. There are countless candidate training programs across the political spectrum. Depending on the size of your community and the level of office, there may be professional staff available for you to hire to help. No matter how small your community or the level of office is, you will have friends who want to help. There are even training programs for potential staff/critical volunteers. You can create campaign internships and work with local college students who want to learn how campaigns work.

But it isn’t wrong to be afraid.

I have an unusual perspective on this. Both of my parents are elected officials.

For most of when I was growing up, my dad was an elected judge in the County Circuit Court. He ran for U.S. Congress twice. He took out an incumbent judge in a fierce battle — a judge who had sexually assaulted a woman in a courthouse elevator! That judge had been suspended from the bench, but was still so popular that my dad only won with 51% of the vote. And now, dad is a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly.

During most of those years, my mom was more of the “behind the scenes” type. She was a presidentially appointed U.S. Attorney during the Carter Administration. During the ’80s and ’90s, she worked for a large law firm, doing complex civil litigation, which paid for my sister and I to go to college, and gave my dad the freedom to pursue his political dreams. But in 2004, mom ran for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, also against an incumbent, also winning with a less than 51% margin.

By the way, in that campaign, I learned that the most effective line EVER in political volunteerism is, “Would you help me help my mom?” Everyone wants to help you help your mom.

As I sometimes joke, I was raised by wolves. Politics, campaigning, and civic engagement is my native language. And I could not be more proud of my parents. I think they are fantastic role models and effective leaders.

I learned so much from it, about people, about organizing, about getting things done, about politics, about power, about reputation, about communities, about languages and names, about demographics, about loyalty.

But it isn’t easy to learn those things as a kid. Other kids mostly don’t learn what I was learning. And some of what I learned was really hard. I wasn’t supposed to hate the mean jerky kids, because they might tell their parents I hated them, and then their parents might not vote for my dad. It goes without saying that I wasn’t supposed to be a naughty kid or act up at school, because teachers or administrators might think my parents were doing a bad job raising their kids.

The pressure to be a perfect kid was pretty intense, and I gauged how far I could rebel against it with a minutely exacting measure. I was a mostly B+ kid, because I could go that far down without getting in trouble, and I thought that not being a straight-A student would make me seem normal. (HA! I really did. I had no idea that there was no chance I wouldn’t be seen as the smart, geeky, oddball I am.) I did some naughty stuff (not that much, and not that naughty) with friends I totally trusted, because I knew I wouldn’t get caught, but I loathed being a goody-two-shoes, or at least being perceived as one.

I tried not to let people know who my parents were, although if they knew and seemed not freaked-out, I opened up. I’ll never forget the time in fifth- grade that my mom took me with her to the White House for a meeting. When I got home, I didn’t tell a soul where I’d been.

Not all of the pressure to be both perfect and normal came from my parents. I watched the media coverage of Amy Carter, and I watched the little bubbles of coverage of Ron Reagan. Later, I watched coverage of Chelsea Clinton with my heart breaking for her with every cruel opinion I read. I knew every single kid, in every school I attended, whose parents either were also elected officials, or whose parents had run for office. I didn’t hang out with those kids, with one notable exception (David Stacy, high school friends and others who might be curious), but I always knew who they were, and what “people” thought about them. David and I were friends because we were very much the same kind of geeks; I don’t recall politics playing a role in our friendship until we were in our 20s.

Back to the point — being afraid of the campaign.

Living under the microscope is hard. I watched my parents make very careful, very ethical choices — choices they almost certainly would have made no matter what, like paying the sitter’s Social Security taxes, never hiring undocumented workers to do yard work or house repairs, etc., with an explicit recognition of the political implications of those choices. They lived life expecting that someone would look into their choices in the future.

Most people don’t live like that.

Social media exacerbates how easy it is for common choices to be exploited in their worst light, and for “bad” choices to be broadcast to any part of the world that might care. And when a person runs for office, her or she has to take responsibility for their choices at a level in which most people are never required to take responsibility. And one’s family gets to be included in that.

Although not every campaign is a mudslinging nightmare, you can’t assume that yours will be the nice one. Or that your family will react well to the pressure to perform — even if you bend over backwards not to apply that pressure yourself.

I think the whole microscope is sort of ridiculous. Why should only “perfect” people who have been ambitious since birth represent us in elected office? Being an effective advocate and having bad credit aren’t mutually exclusive. Being a good negotiator and being a philanderer aren’t mutually exclusive. Making occasionally dopey personal decisions doesn’t mean you will make dopey decisions that affect your community. Having friends who are radical or weird or out there doesn’t mean that the candidate shares those views or outlooks. And in a representative democracy, surely some of the representatives should include people as flawed and human as their constituents.

So far, though, that message doesn’t seem to be getting very far, especially with women. (In fact, at one point during the 2012 presidential campaign, I had a moment of not wanting to know what was “hidden” in Mitt Romney’s taxes. I didn’t want him to be President because I disagree with him on most issues of public policy, without regard to his financial circumstances.)

I DO want women to run for office. Even with my own experience — and my occasionally aggressively imperfect choices, some explicitly intended to preclude running for office (freshman year of college, I’m looking at you!) — I’ve thought about it myself. I will probably continue to think about it, although at this time, it seems like a choice likely, if at all, to be in the pattern of many women: after the kids are grown, possibly as a third career.

But I can’t say that fear of the campaign is a cop-out for women (or for anyone). I just can’t.

I do hope that more women will take the plunge and run for office in spite of those fears. But their fears are legitimate ones, especially in the 24/7 online social media world we all live in today.

Cross-posted with permission from Liza Was Here, by Liza Barry-Kessler

Image via iStockphoto/sjlocke

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