How 2018 Changed “Authenticity” for Women Candidates

Jennifer Steinhauer | Apr 15, 2020


How many times has your mother told you, “Just be yourself”? The notion that we are most likeable, and can be most successful, by simply embracing and projecting to the world our most authentic, true beings has long been promoted in almost every realm of American life, except in politics. Shape shifting, performing, and kissing babies (even when you dislike small children) has always been expected of our politicians, and for women the simulation is often more pronounced: dress in a suit, hide your kids when not campaigning and please, please, never cry or become “emotional.”

As I found in reporting my book, “The Firsts,” the women of the 116th Congress turned that playbook around.

These female candidates believed that if they were relatable, consistent in their message no matter the neighborhood they campaigned in, and cheerfully themselves, voters would get on board. Black, Muslim, young, old, and gay candidates did not try to subdue those identities.

It is a theme that Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, drove home in a recent chat with me, hosted by the Women & Politics Institute at American University and Running Start.  “Don’t let anyone tell you how you should be,” she advised women who might seek a career in politics. “Because people will ultimately want to vote for you if they can believe you.” She added: “I think it’s about being who you are and owning who you are. You get to define what is a strong professional woman.”

For example, Representative Angie Craig, who in 2016 narrowly lost her first House race in the suburbs of Minneapolis, let herself talk about her wife and four kids the second time around in an easy, matter of fact way. “I will just bring it up naturally, like when talking about education costs I say, ‘My wife and I have four sons, and college isn’t for all of them.’ I saw you can be a lesbian, and it made no difference at all in the campaign here.”  She also traded in her professional business suit from the last campaign for jeans, fitting the casual look of her strip mall-centric district.

Representative Katie Porter of California has used the fact that she is a survivor of domestic violence to give a particular voice to legislation that helps other such women. She spoke through tears about her ordeal as she advocated for the renewal and expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, remembering how she faced the threat of her children being taken from her if she were to call the police repeatedly. People related to her experience.

“When you are not people’s perception of what a congressperson is, you get to invent it in a way,” Spanberger said, noting that for years the representative of her district was a white male Republican. “There was a bit of freedom for me that once people realized ‘She’s a Democrat, she’s a woman she’s got these kids, she was CIA’….you’ve just sort of exploded it all.”

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