More women exploring political careers after Trump's election
By: Angie Leventis Lourgos
For one Chicago woman, the epiphany came just a few days after the presidential election.
As Sameena Mustafa processed Donald Trump's victory and the shifting national political climate, she found it was no longer enough to vote, donate money or talk with friends about various political candidates.
Instead, Mustafa realized she had to become the candidate. She is preparing to run for Congress in 2018, in what will be the first bid for elected office for the 46-year-old commercial real estate broker and burgeoning comedian from the North Center neighborhood.
"I can't stand by anymore. I can't just go and write a check; it's not enough," she said. "We can't expect other people to legislate our humanity."
Mustafa is not alone in her newfound political aspirations. Various nonpartisan political training forums across the country are reporting a recent spike in women interested in running for office, a largely unexpected result of the 2016 presidential election.
"The growth has been explosive," said Erin Loos Cutraro, co-founder and CEO of She Should Run, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports women pursuing public office. "I think (the election) served as a catalyst to rethink the connection women have to their local communities, to look and see if their voices are represented in local government."
In March 2016, her organization crafted an online "incubator" to help women exploring political careers, hoping it would attract 400 members by the end of the year. Then 5,500 women signed up in 2016 — with membership topping 10,000 by the end of last month, Cutraro said.
The national nonpartisan group VoteRunLead has had more than 6,000 women sign up to learn how to run for office since the November election, according to the nonprofit's website. Ready to Run, a nonpartisan program with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, hosted a training session last month that normally attracts an average of 150 women; this year, 250 women participated and more expressed interest but registration had to be closed early due to lack of space, said director Debbie Walsh.
She invoked the adage: If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.
"I think very much women are feeling like they might be on the menu," she said. "And that's not what they want."
Shift in power
While much of the media was predicting a Hillary Clinton landslide, Mustafa — a Democrat and Clinton supporter — felt a sense of foreboding. She began grinding her teeth a month or two before the November election.
"It was almost like my body was telling me something," she said.
As a woman, she was outraged by the sexism she felt Clinton faced and Trump portrayed during the campaign.
As a pro-choice woman, she feared threats to reproductive rights post-election. One of her first professional jobs was managing a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Austin neighborhood, which she described as vital to the health and well-being of women in a neighborhood with few resources.
And as a Muslim woman, she was particularly attuned to Islamophobia locally and nationwide, which she found to be stronger than even after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"There was a genuine feeling of, is this a safe place to be and is this a safe country?" she said. "And is this something we can overcome?"
So she joined several training programs geared at recruiting first-time female office seekers, learning about fundraising and getting practice campaigning door-to-door for other local candidates. She's reached out to about a dozen local community groups and nonprofits. She hasn't filed for office yet. She plans to run as a Democrat, but hasn't decided on a Congressional district.
About two years ago, Mustafa co-founded "Simmer Brown," a South Asian comedy collective in Chicago. She sees parallels in some of the barriers women face in comedy to those in politics and other facets of life.
"There is still a resistance to seeing a woman in front of the room," she said. "And you see it in the CEO, in the C-suite … you see it in Hollywood. This is a universal problem."
She said she knows she's not choosing an easy path.
"There's going to have to be a shift in power," Mustafa said. "I won't pretend like I have no fear. But I have more determination than I have fear."
Historically, women often wait to be asked to run for office, whereas men don't, said Rebecca Sive, author of the book Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House. Women also tend to delay pursuing elected office because of child care responsibilities, though this is changing, she said.
But Sive sees many positive signs: A female presidential candidate won the popular vote in November, showing women they can run for the top executive office with great support. The massive anti-Trump women's marches across the globe after the January inauguration indicate women are mobilized.
"It's absolutely true that the experiences of the 2016 presidential campaign really compelled a lot of women, or made them feel it's now or never," said Sive, a lecturer on women in politics and public leadership at the University of Chicago.
'A different mindset'
The two working moms met in January through She Should Run's online incubator. Now they get together regularly to discuss their districts, political research and pending state legislation.
Erica Green is a 46-year-old therapist from Carol Stream. Arti Walker-Peddakotla is a 35-year-old Army veteran in the tech industry from Oak Park. Both say they're considering first bids for elected office but aren't quite certain.
Both say the other woman definitely should run.
"We're not competing in any way," Walker-Peddakotla said. "I think that's a myth that's also shared in the media, that women compete with each other. If Erica wins and I lose or vice versa, great. One more woman that's in office. That's the important thing."
They were big Clinton supporters: Green served a fellowship with the campaign and went canvassing door-to-door in Iowa; Walker-Peddakotla made campaign calls from home.
Both were extremely disappointed that, by their perceptions, a far more qualified woman lost to Trump.
Green is exploring a possible run for state representative; Walker-Peddakotla is looking at everything from state offices to local positions. Some have told her to start small.
of the advice that I think all women get told as they're going into politics: start local and then go up," Walker-Peddakotla said. "Whereas I've noticed if you study the races that men do, right off the bat it's 'No, I'm going to run for Congress.'"
They say creating a public persona would be new. They know they'd have to be prepared to be picked apart by opponents.
"I see it as a different career, a different mindset," Green said.
Nationwide, women hold roughly 19 percent of Congressional seats, 24 percent of elected statewide executive offices and 25 percent of state legislative seats; nearly 21 percent of mayors in cities with a population greater than 30,000 are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
Cutraro of She Should Run acknowledged not every woman who joins a political incubator will run for office — and waging a successful political career might take years for many candidates. But she says the recent interest among American women could set the stage for future gender equity in elected office.
"I think we have the opportunity to change the narrative that is currently in place," she said. "At our current rate of growth, we will not see gender parity in elected office in our lifetime. The indications that we have seen since November change that narrative."