Running for our Children

Originally posted at K-12 News Network

When you’re pregnant, just about everyone tells you that becoming a mother changes your life in the most unimaginable ways. From almost the first day of Ella’s life, it was difficult to remember what life had been like before her arrival. She seemed like such an integral part of our family and my existence. Like many women, I decided to take some time away from work to enjoy motherhood.  Little did I know that less than a year later I would be planning the most ambitious and demanding undertaking of my life, a campaign for the United States Congress in my home state of Virginia. How did I go from new mother to politico?  I’m still trying to figure that out myself to be perfectly honest, but it went something like this.

In politics they say that timing is everything; well, Ella’s arrival into this world turned out to be perfectly timed.  It was 2008 and my husband and I were living in Ohio. Ohio being a key battleground state, campaign rallies for presidential contenders on both sides were occurring on a nearly daily basis.  Because I was desperate for any distraction from the discomfort of being 9 months pregnant, I attended any and all campaign events within driving distance of our house.  At long last, nearly two weeks after my due date, I gave birth to my beautiful bubbly daughter. Ella’s delayed arrival though meant that her birth occurred right smack on top of the Presidential Primary in Ohio.

Although, Ella would keep me from voting that day, she inspired me almost from day one to take an active, rather than a passive, role in the direction of our country. At first, I was bothered by little things. I remember shopping for baby bottles and thinking how can it be that we are the only developed country in the world to have not outlawed toxic BPA in baby products?  (Actually, given the ubiquity of BPA, the fact that over 130 studies have linked it to cancer, obesity, and other illnesses, and the fact that Congress completely failed to act, BPA is not really such a small thing.) 

When Ella got a little older and started eating solid foods, I began investigating food safety and the extreme overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. As I listened to the presidential debates of 2008, I was stunned by the complete absence of any discussion on quality and affordable daycare, an issue which is central to the lives of millions of American families.

I work in education so I was only too aware of the ways in which we are systematically failing a generation of students, a human and economic tragedy. In that work I had become convinced that major institutional changes were the only way to really reform our education system. Like many new mothers, I decided to take some time away from that work when Ella was born. The time I took off from work also afforded me the opportunity to study issues as wide-ranging as the dramatic incompetence and lack of planning applied to the war in Iraq, to the failed and wrong-headed debate between big government and small government.

The further I dug, the more anxious I became. Like all mothers, I wanted desperately to protect my child but was increasingly convinced that I had no control over the decisions that would affect her life most. I began to focus in on two overarching problems in our political system: First, most politicians seemed to be more concerned with their own reelection and the needs of their wealthy donors than in protecting citizens and preserving our country. Second, the lack of young women in Congress meant that the concerns of young mothers were almost wholly without representation.

I really hadn’t recognized how dramatically underrepresented women were in politics. As a Millennial, a generation in which women are obtaining more college degrees than men and in most major metros women are actually out-earning men (until they have children), I was feeling pretty good about our progress toward gender parity. The political world is another story altogether though. 17% of the seats in Congress are held by women. State legislatures only perform slightly better with 23% female representation.  Out of our 50 states, 6 governors are women. And overall, we rank 87th in the world in female representation behind countries like Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Bangladesh. What’s really shocking though, is that we are actually doing even worse when you look at young women in politics. In the current Congress (the 112th), there are 28 members under the age of 40. Of those 28, only 3 are women which means that only 12% of the under 40 members are women. Viewed in this light, it’s no wonder that issues like a real plan for better schools, food and product safety, quality daycare, and women’s health are either ignored completely or are the first on the chopping block.

At some point, after all of my research, frustration, and hand-wringing, my husband put the question to me: “What are you going to do?” He was right.  It was the time for action. We researched what I could do that would be the most impactful. Although the idea terrified me, a few days later, I had decided that I would run for US Congress.

I’ve said before that my decision to run was a leap of faith; and it truly was. I had no polls, no fundraising base, and no idea what I was doing. It was also a real sacrifice. I missed a lot of bedtime stories, a lot of family dinners, a lot of Ella’s firsts. In the end, despite all that effort, I lost the election. In spite of that loss, I felt positive and energized about my race. I took action. I advocated for important issues.  I influenced the national conversation and I connected with thousands of other people who felt through our campaign that they had a voice.

Through writing, speaking, TV appearances, and my involvement with the Women’s Campaign Forum, I am continuing that work. Judging by the toxic and hostile political climate, the push to defund Planned Parenthood, the historic loss of women legislators in 2010, the right’s irresponsible vilification of programs to combat childhood obesity, and the nationwide assault on women’s reproductive choices and options, it is clear that there is much work to be done. This starts with our work as parents in our own children’s schools and involvement in PTA and the local school board, but it doesn’t stop there. The state of our politics is nothing more than a reflection of the people who are willing to participate in the process and the interests they fight to defend.  If we want a different type of politics, we have to have different people in politics. And if we want the interests of our children, and most specifically our daughters, to be protected, there is no substitute for stepping up and being their voice in the process.