Reflections on a Run for Office

This spring I ran for a volunteer position on my neighborhood council.  As elected positions go, these are the very smallest potatoes. Nevertheless, the election was competitive. There were four opposing candidates splitting roughly 2,000 likely votes, and I was the only woman running for my seat. I won (woohoo).

There were a number of surprises in the campaign: how nasty it was, how much fun I had anyway, and - relevant to Ms. JD - how much my gender mattered. Here's how:

My gender changed the way other candidates treated me.  The men who were running against me treated me with kid gloves compared to the way they treated each other.  I had the impression they thought I was a a "nice girl" and a lightweight.  At the public forums where candidates answered voter questions, the incumbent I was running against would sit next to me whispering side commentary throughout the proceedings. He wouldn't make eye contact, much less conversation with other opponents.  Another opponent, a very "negative" campaigner, told me he hoped I'd win!

On the other hand, I had a number of people tell me they had heard unflattering rumors about my candidacy - that I was running to put all the Thai business owners out of business, that I was a corporate defense attorney for McDonald's running to open a McDonald's in our neighborhood. The source was always a woman.  Well to be fair, it was always one of a small group of women hell bent on seeing their friends elected not me, so that may not have been about gender so much as lunacy.

My gender changed the way voters treated me on the campaign.  On weekends in the run up to the big day I would stand outside the super market or post office introducing myself to potential voters.  Other candidates did the same, and I quickly realized I had an easier job.  Everyone was very polite and would say hello or take a flyer. But I spent the entire time in conversation, while my male opponents struggled to make more than a fleeting (or fleeing) impression.  Voters, men especially, would ask about an issue of concern to them, ask about my background, and actively engage me in conversation.  The male candidates got no such preference from male or female voters.

After the jump, episodes of blatant sexism and how my gender changed the way I approached my own candidacy.... 

I ran on a slate of candidates. After one of the men on the team had little success getting local businesses to display our posters in their windows I went out with my sister and worked our way down the business corridor.  In an hour we had 150 posters up.

Another stark example: a blog devoted to local politics covered the election and was decidedly against me.  When it came time to throw mud it was gender-biased. They called me a "whore."

My gender changed the way I campaigned.  Yup, I totally worked it.  All my campaign materials had pictures of me smiling broadly.  My opponents rarely used pictures of themselves and when they did they were much more serious.  To voters I was super friendly. To other candidates I was super non-threatening. I shied away from confrontation, kept things nice and calm. None of that has to reflect my gender, but for me it was all part of a package.  I was the nice young lady. 

And it worked! On election day, I won with more votes and by a wider margin than any other candidate for the ten open seats. 

Since then my gender has continued to matter. And as before, it helps and hurts.

They were quick to nominate me Secretary for the governing body. It's a lackluster post with lots of busy work. On the other hand, now I have a vote on the Executive Committee and I'm the only one in that group who was nominated for my position rather than volunteering for it. 

But when another board member agreed with me on a controversial issue, the vocal opponent accused him of having a crush on me, rather than acknowledging our position as legitimate.

So my gender matters, but on balance it helps, and I love being on the council and I'd happily run again despite the negativity and drama that involves.

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