“Who would vote for you?”
I’d scheduled a lunch meeting with my longtime mentor, a former priest who was an administrator at the local anti-poverty agency where I was working, to tell him I was thinking of running for Alderman.
And that was the first thing out of his mouth. “Who would vote for you?” It didn’t seem to be a question intended for analysis, like ‘let’s sort through how you would appeal to various voting blocs.‘ It was a reflex statement that read to me like ‘really? you think you should run for Alderman?’ And in that moment, I knew I’d overstepped. It wasn’t my place.
That was twenty-five years ago but I can still remember driving away feeling completely foolish. Who was I to think I could organize and run a campaign, raise money, go door to door, convince people to vote for me?
A friend put me in contact with a leader of an ad agency known as a political kingmaker. I was surprised when he agreed to meet me at a local Mexican hangout. We ate enchiladas on paper plates and he grilled me. “Are you active in the Democratic Party? Do you belong to a church? A synagogue? Do you belong to any groups? Any large groups of people who would support you?”
The answer to all of his questions was no. I didn’t have a base or a group or anything. I just had myself and my family. I also had a lot of experience and knew a lot of people. I had a good reputation and was willing to work hard. It seemed to me that the people who were already Aldermen didn’t have much more than that going for them.
He looked at me and shrugged, “Who would vote for you?” From the campaign kingmaker’s lips to my ears, ‘you wouldn’t have a prayer.’ And right there, in that moment, I gave up on the idea and almost became embarrassed for ever having had it in the first place.
The guy who was eventually elected was younger than me with less experience, a staff person in a neighborhood organization. A good looking guy, suave and lovable, but I don’t know which church he belonged to or who was his base. Apparently he had one, though, or people thought he did. So he won.
Looking back, I know it was my fault for being so easily discouraged. I let myself be marginalized and diminished, maybe because it was what I had come to expect being a woman in America, maybe because I thought it was what I deserved. But I accepted it, that’s the unpleasant truth. I didn’t question their judgement. “They said no one would vote for me,” I told my husband. He started to argue but gave up when he saw I agreed with them.
I don’t think I was unique or that I had some pathologically low self-image. I had plenty of ego even then. I thought I was smart and capable. I believed I was exceptional. Until two men told me I wasn’t. Who would vote for you?
So the women who ran for office twenty-five years ago, those women were lions. Because I’m betting they got the same reaction I did when they started out but they didn’t quit. They refused to believe that no one would vote for them. I wish I had been like them but I wasn’t.
And women who are interested in elective office now? They support each other. They train each other. They knock on doors and take over social media and they win. All over the place. Locally, at the state level, in Congress. It’s beautiful to see. Any one of the many women I know who are in office or are running would laugh in the face of any man who asked them “Who would vote for you?” and then they’d hand him an invite to a fundraiser and keep moving down the line.
It’s so grand. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see this.