Local politicians speak about experiences as women in office
Four Boston-area politicians shared their thoughts on gender and the political process.
Brandeis Young Democrats board members Eliza Welty ’22 and Alison Hagani ’22 hosted a Women In Politics Panel—a panel of female politicians discussing the experiences, difficulties and importance of women in politics on Friday. The panel was moderated by Renee Korgood ’20.
Four women politicians from the Boston area sat on the panel. Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards is the first woman of color to represent District One and has spent her time in office focusing on housing displacement and community development, according to the panel moderators. Waltham City Councilor Kristine Mackin PhD ’14 received her doctorate in biochemistry from Brandeis and focuses on environmentally sustainable development and building community among Waltham’s diverse residents. State Representative Tram Nguyen represents the 18th district and is the first Vietnamese American woman to serve in the Massachusetts legislature. Before being elected, Nguyen worked as a legal aid attorney representing domestic violence survivors, workers, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities and children. State Senator Rebecca Rausch ’01 spent her time in office focusing on medical leave for parents, quality education and sustainability.
The panel began with Edwards and Nguyen discussing their experience as women of color in politics. “Being a woman of color means you have to work so much harder to get your voice out there and run a campaign that’s authentic to you,” Nguyen explained. Both women stressed the importance of reaching out to friends and mentors who have had similar experiences and working together to amplify each others voices.
Edwards explained that, as a woman of color running in a majority-white district, she had to work especially hard to get members of her district to see some of themselves in her. She said that local media refused to publish her ads becuase she was seen as the outsider running for a seat that had long been held by white men. Because of this, Edwards knocked on nearly 10,000 doors in Charlestown in order to meet her constituents face to face, working to break down the “you do not look like me so how can you understand me” mindset.
Edwards said that as a woman of color in the political world, you have two main responsibilities. The first is to “always bring a folding chair wherever you’re not invited,” making room for yourself and your voice in spaces from which you were excluded.
The second responsibility, she explained, is to “build a pipeline — find the next in line, and prepare her. You must mentor, you must look and constantly be striving to pull the best out of other folks.”
Nguyen and Edwards also addressed the complicated dynamic between white women and women of color in politics. A lot of feminist conversation and discourse on women’s equality does not account for those who are not white, middle class and straight, Edwards said. There is a mentality among some, she noted, that dictates that women of color should simply shut up and ignore the oppression still being perpetrated on them in order to get done what needs to get done for women as a whole.
The Massachusetts State Senate is composed of 40 members, 11 of whom are women and/or people of color. Rausch explained that being a good ally to those who are subject to discrimination means being quiet and actively listening. She also noted that part of being a politician and an ally is using your voice to lift up other people who have less power than you and creating space for their voices.
Mackin echoed Rausch’s sentiments, stating the importance of learning “when to shut up and listen and keep listening.” Mackin continued, “Sit silently through pauses … Leave that gap so that they are comfortable to keep going.” Mackin also emphasized the necessity of acknowledging one’s own bias, which she demonstrated by apologizing for having previously addressed Nguyen and Edwards by their first names, and Rausch by her full title, which she said was probably due to subconscious bias.
Mackin and Edwards are both up for reelection in 2019. Mackin aims to knock on the door of every registered voter in her district. According to Mackin, standard campaign procedure for local elections is to only knock on doors of voters who have participated in the last two local elections, but Mackin plans to expand this pool to engage constituents who have previously been unengaged. She told a story of a man she met while canvassing who said he did not realize there were politicians who actually cared about him and his needs, and Mackin said she wants to make sure that everyone in her district knows that she is there for them. Edwards plans on becoming “more bold” as she approaches reelection. While many politicians stray away from controversial issues during election season for fear of losing their seat, Edwards said she is not backing down and will continue to advocate for what she believes in, saying, “I can’t be anything besides myself.”
Rausch stressed the importance of running a “brutally authentic” campaign. “When you run … particularly as a woman with some intersectional identity, you have to be brutally authentic — frankly it’s too tiring to figure out how to be anything else,” she said. She continued that she hates the term “pink wave” — a term used to describe the recent rise in the number of women involved in politics. “Every one of us up here is a badass,” she explained. “We did not get elected because some magic happened, we got elected because we worked really hard, and we are not afraid once we are here to stand up and rock the boat.”
Mackin spoke about how her experience at Brandeis guided her toward a career in politics. For instance, her labmates were all from very different backgrounds and had differing political views, but were not hesitant to discuss political issues. Also, her observation of the two female professors in the biochemistry department made her realize how hard they had had to work to be in their positions and how hard they were still fighting to be heard. Mackin said she thought that if she was going to fight a battle that difficult, she wanted it to be on a more public stage, where her success could have a broader impact on the people of her community.
Rausch said that during her time at Brandeis, she was able to combine critical thinking and social justice for the first time. She credits the University with being the place where she learned that she wanted to make social change and where she learned how to use the law to make that change. “The foundation for this is up Rabb steps,” she said.
Rausch, Nguyen and Edwards all got involved in politics through the Emerge Massachusetts program, and Mackin said that she hopes to someday be a graduate of the program as well. Emerge Massachusetts’ mission is to “increase the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office through recruitment, training, and providing a powerful network,” according to the program’s website. All of the panelists stressed the importance of this network, explaining that mentorship between female politicians is crucial to getting more women involved in politics. “Lend your name, lend your time, lend your donor list,” Edwards said, adding that she believes women can form close and supportive connections faster than men can.
All of the panelists stressed the importance of getting involved with local politics, which Rausch said has the most direct impact on the daily lives of citizens. Nguyen explained that women to decide to run for political office less frequently than men, saying most women have to be asked up to seven times before they consider it. Looking out over the crowd of mostly female students, Nguyen said, “Consider this your first invitation.”