We are all too familiar with the tired headline, “Why Don’t More Women Run for Office?” This year, two women are running for president and in Seattle ten women are running for City Council, not to mention the hundreds of women running across the state. For the first time since 1998, Seattle has the potential for a woman majority on City Council. While it is promising to see more women putting their names on the ballot, these candidates still face sexist, racist, and ageist attacks along the campaign trail that are too often overlooked or ignored.
The most common line of attack we hear about is similar to what many women face in the workplace: people questioning how women expect to balance work, public service, and family. Not surprisingly, its a question that men almost never get asked. At a recent candidate forum for Seattle City Council District 2, Tammy Morales’ opponent complimented her ability of balancing work and family. The comment did not seem to have been made maliciously, but it rightfully offended Morales and her supporters because it echoes a conversation that women are tired of having.
“What people think is a compliment to talk about—how well we as women 'balance' things—they are really making sexist assumptions about a female candidate's ability to do a job,” said Morgan Beach, former candidate for City Council District 3.
While not an issue exclusive to women, Seattle women candidates have also seen how racism is alive and well on the campaign trail—even in “progressive” Seattle.
This year’s election saw several women of color running for office: Brianna Thomas in District 1, Morales in District 2, Pamela Banks and Kshama Sawant in District 3, Debora Juarez and Mercedes Elizalde in District 5, and Lorena González in District 9. This is a hopeful change in a political system that often looks like an episode of the Brady Bunch, but, as González shared, it is a change that has not come easy for candidates of color. “At the King County Democrats endorsement interview I was asked how I planned to get people who aren’t from my demographic to vote for me," she said. The question came right after González, who would be among the first Latinas on the Seattle City Council, shared her story of coming from an immigrant family and work with OneAmerica. On numerous occasions, González has been confused with Morales and Juarez.
Then there is age. This year, Seattle had several young women step up to run for office: Thomas in District 1, Beach in District 3, and Elizalde and Halei Watkins in District 5. Each have shared stories with us from the campaign trail about people laughing at them, questioning their qualifications, and commenting on their age. Beach recalled, “I had people laugh in my face and ask if I was old enough to run for office when doorbelling.”
At the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, we work to recruit, train and elect qualified women to public office. Throughout the primary and general elections, we have heard these stories and others from around the state about the challenges of running while female.
We have said it before, and we will say it again: the process of running and serving in office must be more inclusive of all women if we want public policy and process to represent the wide range of priorities and needs for women and families.
“We talk a lot in this city about looking though a social justice lens, an equity lens," Morales said. "The comments and questions we get about 'balance' reflect deep underlying and misguided assumptions about the 'proper' role of women. The only way to dismantle these stereotypes is to show just how wrong they are, to elect women to leadership positions to show the opposite, to bring their experiences and perspectives to informing all policy areas, and to serve as role models for others. This election is an historic opportunity in Seattle.”
Every single day, millions of women go to work, manage their lives, and raise their children. Women of color “do it all” while navigating a system wrought by institutional racism. Rather than questioning women’s abilities to serve in public office, we should be asking ourselves how we can dismantle sexism, racism, and ageism in the electoral process.
Karen Heidergott and Samantha Casne are the co-chairs of the King County Endorsement Committee on the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington.