Are You A Woman Running For Public Office? Be Prepared To Offend Some Old Men

by Jessica Kean
Wildfire Contact (left photo) / Jessica Kean (right photo)

I’m proud to be in the distinguished class of a record number of women who were on the ballot in Iowa one year ago. I lost my bid for state representative on November 8, 2016, but I gained insight that I’d like to share with other women who are considering running for office themselves in the near future. I’m not seeking a rematch in 2018, but I plan to do all I can to help other women win and win big next year.

Although my race was highly targeted by both parties (read: big money), I hope some of this advice is useful to women running for smaller seats like city council and school board.

First, thank you for even considering running for an elected office. It takes a great deal of courage to put yourself out there and — if it’s your first time stepping up for public office — it can truly be terrifying. Truth: I puked from nerves every day for the first week after I announced my run. Take it one day at a time. You get your sea legs, and it gets easier.

The fact of the matter is that running for office as a women is just plain different than running for office as a man. Here are a few things I wish I knew as a new and female candidate:

1. Know what you can stomach to take with a smile — and what you can’t.

You’re going to get sexist comments. Some of them will be well-meaning or at least tolerable. Some of them will be flat-out offensive. Have some prepared responses, including a polite, non-defensive exit strategy. After a few dozen comments along the lines of “that smile’s definitely going to get you some votes,” I learned to respond with “my ideas are even better!” I could usually get a laugh and direct the conversation somewhere productive.

2. Find your band of badasses who will defend you when you can’t defend yourself.

When some social media troll comments on a photo of you and your beautiful children that you look anorexic, you’ll want to go ballistic. You can’t. Make sure you’ve got good people who will do it for you. (Thanks for having my back, Mom!)

3. Similarly, find a breakfast club.

Get together for coffee or wine once a month or once a week, whatever works. Whether this is two people or 10, they need to love you and you need to trust them with your life. They’ll keep your confidence, and let you vent or cry into your latte. And then they’ll give you advice on what to do. Most of all: They’ll tell you when something you’re doing is a dumb idea. This team needs to really understand you and why you’re running — so they can tell you if you’re losing track of yourself. You need to hear them even if you don’t like what they have to say. (Disclaimer: Mine was a beer club and my husband was the only member. Don’t be like me. Have more friends!)

4. If you have kids, wear that mom badge with pride.

Early on, I found myself frustrated and intimidated by a strange question that I kept getting from (mostly) older women: “How do you possibly think you can do this job with young kids at home?” I answered them with the truth: that I was doing this for my kids, to create a better world for them. (Another honest answer would have been: “Well, they have a dad, and you’d never say that if he was the candidate.) But I sometimes found myself downplaying my mom role, in fear of the question. I shouldn’t have. It was my strongest qualification as a candidate and I was at my best — and most authentic — when speaking about my children. I should have talked about them more, not less.

5. Listen. Ask questions.

I think this is where women are most strongly suited as political candidates, and we should recognize how much of a strength it is. I spent much more time at the doors listening to voters than talking about myself. I even volleyed questions back to an editorial board when I didn’t feel confident on an issue (and I got their endorsement!). One woman interested in running for office recently asked me what to do when you don’t have the answer to a policy question. I admitted to her that I spent a lot of late nights early in my campaign stressing over the vast amounts of policy that I didn’t understand 100%. I spent a lot of time reading up on tax code and studying bills from past legislative sessions — when I probably should have been sleeping. It was sort of like cramming for a final on everything in the history of the universe. And it was crazy.

I quickly learned that it was very effective to volley the question right back and ask their opinion on the issue. Not only is it absolutely fine to admit that you don’t know everything about everything, the truth of it is that if someone is asking for your take on an issue, they probably already have a strong opinion about it themselves — and they’re itching to share it with you. “That’s such an interesting issue, and I can tell you’re really passionate about it. Tell me more about why this is so important to your family.” Your only problem will be getting them to stop talking. Bonus: You’ll probably learn something about that issue you didn’t know before. Next time you’re asked, you’ll have an anecdote to share.

We need you to run. Desperately. Women can’t win if women don’t run. And without more women in office, we’ll never make real strides on so many issues: affordable childcare, justice for victims of rape and domestic violence, reproductive health and reducing maternal mortality, and even “gender-neutral” issues like education and the environment.

If — like me — you know you’re better-suited to behind-the-scenes work, we need you there too. Women were the (for lack of a better word) manpower behind my on-the-ground campaign. My list of reliable door-knockers and phone bankers was made up almost entirely of women. But when things got higher up the food chain, there were no women to be found.

I’ve got nothing against the dedicated men running our state party, and I grew to love my two campaign managers like brothers. But I strongly believe that some of that decision-making could have been improved with a woman’s voice in the mix. Why on earth were two men making the decisions about my photoshoot wardrobe?

On that note, a final anecdote to share: Early in my campaign, I remarked to a friendly crowd at a fundraiser in a bar: “We need people to represent the Iowa of today, not the Iowa of yesterday. I’ve got nothing against old white guys. I’m married to a young white guy and hope to be married to an old white guy one day. Many of you in this room campaigned your hearts out for an old white guy in Bernie Sanders. But plain and simple, we need a broader range of voices and faces representing us in Des Moines.”

You know what happened next? An old white man in attendance — a former politician — called up another old white man in politics, who called another white man in politics, who called my campaign manager (another white man in politics) to register a complaint.

How dare a young woman brand new to politics suggest that we need more diversity in politics!

So, please, run for office and diversify.our.leadership. But be warned, you’re bound to offend an old white man somewhere along the way!