I waited until after election day to write this post for a very specific reason. The unconscious bias I encountered while campaigning (and I do believe most of it was unconscious) is a lot of things but it is not a reason to vote for me.
I wanted to people to vote for me for one reason and one reason only - they thought I would do a good job.
Election Day has now come and gone. So, I can share what I encountered without worrying about whether or not it would affect someone's decision to vote for me. I hope that in sharing people will have a better understanding of what women encounter when running for office, will think carefully about their own unconscious biases, and will encourage and support any women in their own lives who want to run.
As most of you know, I knocked on over 5,000 doors during my campaign for Paducah City Commission. I did almost all of my knocking alone and during the day while my children were in school. One any given day a little over half of the doors I'd knock on would be opened and I'd get to have an actual conversation, instead of hanging my door hanger and moving on to the next house.
Here are some of the comments I got that I'm guessing my male opponents didn't: Are you married? What does your husband do? These comments came from both men and women. I often got asked if I had children, which didn't bother me. What did bother me is that several people - again men and women - openly questioned how I would have time to be a city commissioner (a part-time position) while raising three young children.
The current governor of Kentucky Matt Bevin has NINE children - the oldest of which was born in 2003. Do you think anyone worries about how he'll do his job or asks him how he'll take care of his children? I'm guessing not.
Now, when one runs for public office, you are opening yourself up to questions about your personal life but often these questions didn't feel like curiosity. They felt like judgment. They felt like people were trying to figure out why a young woman was doing something not a lot of young women do - run for office. It felt like they were trying to place me within the traditional roles for women and make sure that I wasn't straying too far outside of those.
I also got a lot of comments on my appearance.
Some were negative. I had three men look at the picture on my door hanger - a picture where I am coiffed, groomed, and photoshopped - then look at me as I stood in front of them sweaty from knocking on doors all day and ask, "You sure this is you?"
I laughed it off but it stung every time. It stung not because they were insulting me but because of all the things they could have asked me or talked to me about regarding my campaign they chose to take a cheap shot about my looks and reduce our interaction to one about my appearance.
I also got a fair amount of compliments on my appearance. I had men tell me I was gorgeous and ask me how old I was. I had men tell me my photo didn't do me justice. I had several men mistake my politeness for permission to touch me. Several gave me side-hugs.
Every time I was by myself and every time I felt like I had no choice but to smile and acquiesce.
I know a compliment on your appearance always seems like a good thing. We all want to hear we look nice, but running for public service is serious and important. I am asking people to trust me with their tax dollars, their safety, the future of their community. I am asking for their vote and how I look is completely irrelevant. Again, I think it's safe to assume my male opponents didn't receive many comments on their appearance.
Towards the end of the campaign, someone wrote a letter-to-the-editor to our local paper warning people not to vote for me or another woman who was running for mayor. The letter argued that we were "stealth" and "devious" and hiding our true political motives in running for office.
Both my race and the mayoral race was nonpartisan. However, I was still open and honest about my partisan leanings and told anyone who asked what party I belonged to. So, first and foremost, the attack was wholly inaccurate. However, I also believe that letter and a letter posted publicly at party headquarters were gendered. The letter posted publicly also accused of us being "stealth" and hiding our real ideas.
Conniving was in the top ten.
The idea is that women can't rise to positions of power on their own merit - women only rise because other people are grooming them (as the letter also claimed about me), because they are deceiving people, because they don't really belong here and they must be lying about who they are or what they represent in order to succeed.
It is incredibly upsetting and insulting.
Now, in full disclosure, there are also benefits of being a woman running for office. No one seemed to feel threatened or fearful when they saw me knocking on their doors. I had a male friend tell me to make sure and always take several steps back from the door after knocking. However, I almost never did and no one seemed to care. As a woman, no one saw me as a physical threat.
No one was openly rude or hostile to me because of my gender and I want to emphasize that the VAST majority of my interactions were amazingly positive and productive.
And every time the door opened and a little girl was standing there with wide eyes, every time I got to explain to her why I was there and what I was doing, every time she smiled back made every crappy thing people said to me worth it.
Still, making the decision to run for office is difficult for anyone, especially women. Running for office is psychologically and physically taxing. The voices that tell women they can't do it are loud - whether they are coming from within our own heads or from a voter.
I guess all I'm asking is that the other voices be louder. If you know a woman who should run for office, encourage her. If you know a woman running for office, support her. If you hear someone commenting on a female politician's appearance, shut it down. Donate to organizations that support and train women running for office.