What nobody tells you about being a woman in politics

When you’re a woman running for office, strangers tend to give you unsolicited advice.

Terri Sewell remembers the refrains she heard over and over again when she first ran for Congress in 2010. “‘You need a husband.’ ‘You don’t need a job in Washington.’ I had a lot of folks who were quite concerned about my personal life and when I was going to start a family and all this other stuff,” Sewell said in an interview for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast.

Her response to questions about when she planned on having kids? “I said, ‘You know, if elected, I’ll have 150,000 children who I will have to take care of,’” said Sewell, a Democratic congresswoman who represents Alabama’s 7th district.

Such is the life of a woman running for office — even as women have made strides toward greater political representation.

“People see the end result,” said Sewell. “They never see the journey.” And that makes talking about the obstacles along that path all the more important.

By 2018, when Veronica Escobar became one of the first two Latinas elected to represent Texas in Congress, she had worked in local politics for quite some time — first as an aide then as an elected official. She was familiar with what she describes as self-imposed guilt about “about not being there when my kids were little.” She knew what to expect from the rigors of a campaign. Even so, as she approached a congressional run, there was one thing that seemed especially daunting.

“My biggest fear was my inability to raise money, and it’s what everyone from D.C. was like: ‘Can you raise the money?’ ‘Can you raise the money?’” Escobar said. “And it’s particularly hard, I think, for women of color and women from working-class families and middle-class families.”

She remembers operatives telling her to figure out who could donate the maximum contribution of $2,700 to her campaign, or even double that, a combined primary/general election donation of $5,400 — a massive sum that felt unattainable and out of touch with her reality.

“I felt badly asking family members for $100, because that’s a big check to write in my community,” said Escobar. “And I had folks from the outside saying, ‘I want you to put together a list of everybody that you have in your circle that will double max.’ Uh, nobody?”

“When you grow up self-reliant, or you think you’re self-reliant — the hard part [is] asking for help,” said Sewell, who joined Escobar onstage for a “Women Rule” recording at the SXSW festival in Austin last month. “That’s the hardest part about [running for office], in my opinion.”

Which isn’t to say that the other aspects of running for office are easy.

There’s the personal toll. Escobar recalled a recent conversation with her 22-year-old son, who was in third grade when she first entered politics. She asked him what it was like having his mom in the arena. “And he said, ‘You know, you weren’t there a lot, but we got used to it.’ And I wanted to cry,” said Escobar. “Because I was, like, ‘But you’re supposed to say that it taught you that women can do anything, and that it made you feel empowered that you had this mom that was doing this stuff.”

There’s also the propensity for self-judgement. “Sometimes, we, as women, can be our worst enemies,” said Sewell. “Men look in the mirror, and they see ‘president,’ ‘governor,’ and ‘senator.’ And we look in the mirror, and we see pimples and wrinkles.”

But more often than not, the barriers to progress are external and seemingly intractable.

While writing her senior thesis at Princeton in the 1980s, Sewell interviewed Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. “The question I asked her was, ‘As between being black and a woman, which has been the biggest barrier to your life as a congressperson and to your life, in general?’” Sewell recalled. “And she looked at me, and without hesitation, she said the following, and I say it, too: ‘Unequivocally, being a woman.’ Now, what does that say, that 30 years later, I’m saying the exact same thing?”