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Q&A: Three Women Share Their Thoughts on Politics

September 26, 2013

On Oct. 7, more than 1,000 people will gather at the John Hancock Hall in Boston for the sold out political forum “How Women Become Political” to discuss the path to politics for women and commemorate the historic address of Angelina Grimké – the first woman to address a legislative body 175 years ago. Sponsored by The Grimké Committee and Simmons College, the public event aims to celebrate and increase women’s participation in politics.

While women have made significant progress in achieving political leadership in the United States since Grimké spoke, there is still a long struggle ahead to achieve equality. Women represent 52 percent of the state population yet make up only 25 percent of the state legislature.

We asked some of our speakers who will be appearing at the Oct. 7 event about their personal journey to political leadership. Below, they share everything from what appealed to them about entering the political world, to the best advice they received along the way.

What about the political world appeals(ed) to you?

Boston City Councilor at-Large Ayanna Pressley: Service, impact, improved outcomes, working together with people to actualize shared values and vision.

Former Lt. Massachusetts Governor Kerry Healey: I was working at a think tank for a decade before making the leap to politics. During that time, I was doing research on best practices to combat drug crime, gang violence, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and recidivism. I felt that I—and my colleagues—had important answers to many social problems, but that our findings and recommendations never seemed to reach those with the power to “do something.” I entered politics so I would have the power to make the changes I knew would make society safer, less violent, and more economically efficient.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt:
I see politics as a critical link to translate community impact on a local scale to policy change on a large scale. In my 30s, my husband and I were running a halfway house in Denver—we saw up close how broken the mental health system was. We put together a mayoral candidate’s briefing and packed the church basement with mentally ill people, their families, and their treatment providers. I was asking these candidates: what would you do if elected? It was a wonderful experience for me, seminal. I was proud to somehow be having an impact on the system. The new mayor subsequently asked me to head up the city’s work on mental health as a civic leader and then the governor appointed me to create and chair a Governor’s Coordinating Council on Housing and Homelessness

What is the best piece of political advice that you were ever given? Who gave it to you?

Swanee Hunt: You know, everyone has a role model, and Hillary Clinton has been mine since 1992. As she was running for Senate I talked to a number of liberal, wealthy, educated women who said they would not support her because she was “ambitious.” I said to myself, “you want to have a senator representing you who’s not ambitious?” Wow, that seems so transparently gender-biased.

I think we are in such a mess in terms of Congress with the gridlock. How do we get out of it? My theory, which has been demonstrated to be true by several research studies, is that women are particularly good at working across divides (in Washington, the partisan aisle). Anyway, Hillary gets into the senate, and what does she do? One of the first pieces of legislation that she sponsors, she gets a co-sponsor named Lindsay Graham, the senator that lead the impeachment of her husband.

Ayanna Pressley: “Be yourself, stand proudly in, and speak your truth, you'll never lose.” - My mother.

Kerry Healey: Legendary Massachusetts Senator William Saltonstall came to one of my first fundraisers when I ran for State Representative in Beverly. He handed me a $250 contribution and as he walked out the door said, “Don’t ever go into debt for politics!”

What is your message for the next generation of women in politics?

Kerry Healey: Build a multi-tiered support network—family, friends, neighbors, campaign volunteers—who can step in to help you meet your obligations to those who depend on you. Women are often caretakers; now you will need people to take care of you. I would also advise not to listen to paid advisers if you are uncomfortable with their direction: listen to your conscience and your gut. Ultimately, it’s your reputation on the line, not theirs. Finally, it’s worth it! Good luck!

Ayanna Pressley: Remain informed and engaged. The war on women is real. Legislative gains made in the past are under threat daily. Our perspective as women is sorely needed and necessary in the rooms and at the tables where these decisions are being made. Also, recognize that there are many career options in politics that are just as important, influential, and impactful as running for us. We need women chiefs of staff, policy directors, campaign managers, and strategists, just to name a few.

Swanee Hunt: Looking at the research, women tend to think that if they run for office and aren’t elected, they let their supporters down. I would say it’s extremely important that before you run, you frame it in your mind: either you’re going to win or lose. If you lose, not to run again is to let your supporters down. You are in there for the long haul. You should look at the record of Abraham Lincoln! Good lord! He lost a senate race right before he ran for president. He would lose and win and lose and win. And that’s really how we have to look at this.

The second piece is to take your experience in the business or nonprofit community and let that energize you. You have a network there. You have skills. A guy who’s been in a corporate law firm for 10 years, he doesn’t know how to do what you know how to do from your professional community. You have a cause, you know why you want to be there. Be energized and confident because of that.