Breaking the Imagination Barrier

Jenny Kaplan | Feb 10, 2021

Close your eyes and imagine someone presidential. Chances are, if you’re from the United States, you imagined an older, probably white, man. That makes sense; all but one of our presidents fit that description. While this may seem like a silly exercise to prove a not-so-fun fact, when it comes to electoral politics our image of who looks like a leader — matters. It’s the root of a challenge so many women face when running for office: the Imagination Barrier.

The record number of women who ran for president in the 2020 election were forced to run parallel campaigns. The first, a campaign for president. The second, a campaign to prove that a woman can be elected in that role. When Kamala Harris broke our second-to-tallest glass ceiling on January 20, 2021, she made that second campaign easier. Every time she sits as president of the U.S. Senate, the imagination barrier shrinks a little more.

Highlighting breakthroughs, celebrating firsts, is not merely important to pay tribute to an extraordinary individual. It’s also, and perhaps moreso, a celebration of the many who will follow.  That’s why I quit my old job to start a new kind of media company.

In December of 2017, my mom, Kathy Manning, decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. When I looked for the stories of women who, like her, had decided to step up and take action, I was disappointed. What I sought was too hard to find. I decided to start a company to tell those stories myself. Wonder Media Network is an audio-first media company dedicated to changing that status quo. (Check out Women Belong in the House!)

There are tangible, incredibly challenging barriers to achieving gender equity and fair representation in elected office. The imagination barrier is by no means the only thing candidates face. But there is real transformational power in amplifying the stories of those breaking the mold. The more we hear about women in positions of power, the more we as a country understand that women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds are capable of leading. The more we are exposed to the triumphs of those who look like us, the more we as individuals see we, too, can accomplish those same feats.

Over the past month, the company I co-founded, Wonder Media Network, has produced Women Belong in the White House. Over 4 episodes, we’ve charted Kamala Harris’ trajectory from District Attorney to Attorney General to Senator to Vice President. We’ve featured the voices and stories of women formerly and currently in those same roles, underlining the importance of building a pipeline of leadership.

There’s a lot of progress left to make. We still haven’t broken that tallest glass ceiling. But I’d bet that if you close your eyes and imagine someone befitting the role of vice president, your image may look a whole lot different than it did this time last year. As our vice president said herself: She may be the first, but she certainly will not be the last.

In case you missed last week’s Women & Politics Institute’s “Women on Wednesdays” virtual discussion with Jenny Kaplan and her mother Rep. Kathy Manning, you can watch the full replay here.

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