Terri Sewell, Jahana Hayes urge women in Birmingham to run for office

By Abbey Crain | acrain@al.com

When someone asks Congresswoman Terri Sewell which has been a bigger barrier for her in her career, being an African-American or being a woman, she always answers “unequivocally being a woman.”

That barrier seems to be getting smaller. The Alabama Democrat’s win in 2018 made her a part of the most diverse congressional class in history, with more women in seats than ever before.

For the last eight years Sewell has gathered women intergenerationally from all walks of life across Birmingham to be inspired by other women in politics at her Ultimate Ladies Power Lunch. This year she brought fellow Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, Connecticut’s first black congresswoman and 2016’s national teacher of the year to speak about her journey into politics.

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Hayes grew up in Section 8 housing and had a baby at 16, but was able to change her path by attending community college and then continuing on to get her bachelor’s and then master’s degree in education. She went on to win the National Teacher of the Year award in 2016 and ran for Congress the following year.

Hayes said it was at the ceremony honoring her teaching award that she decided to run for office. She said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told her her goal was to take government out of education and let parents make the best decisions for their children. Hayes remembered her childhood without parents who advocated for her education, but did not respond to Devos’ comments. She said it was then that she decided she needed to be “in the room” to help advocate for students like her who didn’t have parents encouraging their education.

According to a 2017 Rutgers study, women are far less likely to consider running for office at the height of their careers than men, despite having virtually the same likelihood of winning elections.

“…women’s lesser interest in office holding is linked to a number of factors: lower levels of personal income, less external support for a candidacy, more demanding household obligations, and self-perceptions that they are not qualified,” according to that study. “A clear finding that emerges across all of these results is that men in this eligibility pool, regardless of personal or professional characteristics, feel greater comfort and freedom to think about seeking office.”

Sewell said it is important to see the different ways women navigate through politics so other women can see themselves in the journey.

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“We as women totally undervalue the skill set we naturally have, which I think makes us particularly suitable for being a legislator,” Sewell said. “We’re naturally the mediators and the negotiators in our family. We’re naturally the ones that are the budgeters in our family. We’re naturally the ones trying to move our family forward. That negotiator, mediator skill set is not to be undervalued in the political arena.”

Sewell credits the women in her hometown, from her Girl Scout leader to her guidance counselor for inspiring her drive. And it was her mother Nancy Gardner Sewell, the first black woman elected to the Selma City Council, that spurred her interest in politics. She credits Amelia Boynton Robinson, a civil rights activist and the first African-American woman to run for the 7th congressional district, for her ability to win her seat in 2010. “She ran so I could someday win.”

“The community in Selma nurtured me; told me I was smart. I believed them,” Sewell said. “No matter what door I got to walk through, whether it was Princeton or Oxford or Harvard Law School, I never didn’t believe I didn’t belonged – didn’t even dawn on me that I didn’t belong because the people of Selma told me I was the best they had to offer, and that I deserved to walk through that door. And I carried with me everything I learned from them.”

Sewell said she hopes that through her melding of local women in Birmingham, that women will be inspired to make that first leap into politics.

“There’s not one way to be successful. There’s not one way to get to Congress,” Sewell said. “I think the that more people hear others journeys, hopefully they can see themselves in that, and see that they too can have a similar journey or a similar impact.”