Women Need to Run for Office Without Having to Run for Their Lives

Betsy Fischer Martin | Jan 11, 2021

A Personal Reflection on the Capitol Attack

As the horrific attack on our Capitol and its public servants played out in real-time on television and on my Twitter feed, my first thoughts turned to family and friends at work that day in the building. My husband, a reporter for The New York Times, returned home late Tuesday from covering the Georgia runoff and Wednesday morning, headed up to the Capitol for what he knew would be a momentous day covering the certification of the Electoral College.

Once I knew he was safe in a “secure location,” I began thinking about the “freshwomen” – the 27 female lawmakers who just three days prior were sworn in as the newest members of the 117th Congress.  I recalled the poignant images of that day featured in so many press reports.

The powerful picture of Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) taking the oath of office. As one of the first Korean-American women elected to Congress, she dressed for the occasion in a beautiful purple and red traditional hanbok to honor her Korean immigrant mother.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), the first female graduate of the Citadel, posting a video on Twitter arriving at her new office in the Cannon building. All smiles, and exclaiming “Oh my God,” she laughed and proudly tapped and posed in front of the newly installed sign on her doorway reading Representative Nancy Mace, South Carolina in shiny gold letters.

Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA), another one of the three history-making Korean-American women elected this year, standing tall in a power-red dress and a mega smile during her ceremonial swearing-in. Her right hand raised proudly as her left hand rested on a Bible being held by her husband.

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), a community activist and the first Black woman to ever represent Missouri in Congress, pictured on a balcony overlooking the Capitol with her red, white and blue painted fingernails pointing to her new “member pin.”  She sported a patriotic mask emblazoned with the letters STL, for her home city of St. Louis, that hid what must have been a big smile.  Her eyes, however, told the full story – they were welled up with tears.

She spoke to her local news station that day, saying that she was looking forward to “working for all people.” Congresswoman Bush concluded the uplifting interview with the now-famous advice of the late Rep. John Lewis, “Let’s make some good trouble.”

Little did she or her new colleagues know that the worst kind of trouble was being cooked up by a hateful mob who fell prey to demagoguery and conspiracy theories.

What thoughts must have been going through the minds of these Congresswomen as their new workplace became ground zero for senseless destruction and even death?  Were they wondering if their journey to Congress was worth it?  Were they scared for their own personal safety?  What about their families, who, like me, must have been watching developments unfold on television with horror?

With a record number of women elected to Congress, Nancy Pelosi re-elected as Speaker of the House and Kamala Harris set to make history as the first female vice president, 2021 started out with much promise for women in politics but it has quickly devolved into what I fear may be a significant setback.

Are there would-be female candidates out there who see this ugliness and physical danger and ask themselves if serving in Congress is worth the risk?  What could be the cost to their personal safety?  How do they endure threats and the increasing harassment that occurs both online and in-person? Can they really make a difference in this vicious climate?

Representative Nancy Mace, who was so jubilant arriving at her congressional office for the first time, soon found herself huddled with her staff for six harrowing hours. The door to her new office now locked, the lights turned off and the shades drawn. That evening she would have to FaceTime with her young children back home in South Carolina to assure them that “mommy was ok.”  She told a reporter that the traumatic events left her feeling defenseless like a “sitting duck” adding that if allowed, she intends to carry a gun on Capitol Hill. “I will not be put in that situation again,” she vowed.

This week of violence, mayhem and terror has not, to put it mildly, served as a recruiting tool for young women to run for Congress.

We know that the key to closing the gender gap in political leadership is to encourage, recruit, and support more women to run for office. The 2018 midterms, dubbed “the year of the woman” saw a record-setting 36 new women elected to the House. The momentum continued in 2020 as 27 more women were elected, bringing the total number of women serving in the House to a record high of 118. To be sure, a 27% female Congress is still a long way from 50-50 parity but the needle is moving in the right direction.

I hope more women are emboldened to make a difference, to fight for equality and to stand up to dark forces, but that ugly seven-foot-tall fence just erected around the Capitol now serves as a reminder of the worst of our politics – dangerous disinformation, violence, extremism, and hate.

I hope my fears are wrong and the needle continues to move in the right direction. I hope Kamala Harris serving as Vice President of the United States inspires young girls to see what’s possible. I hope the historically diverse Biden administration will become the norm, with women from all backgrounds seated around the most powerful decision-making tables in the world.  I hope that the Republican Party continues the resolve and attention its leaders gave to supporting and recruiting women candidates in 2020.  But most of all, I hope the brave women Members of Congress who experienced the very worst of our society on January 6th can stay motivated and work to somehow change this toxic climate.

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