It’s been a busy, behind-the-scenes week for The Midnight Sun while I hammer away at a data project that I should finally have out early next week.
In the mean time, I wanted to make good on a suggestion that a reader sent more than a month ago: A post giving women involved in Alaska politics an opportunity to speak candidly about their experiences.
The experiences represented in this post come from a range of ages and experience in politics and the Alaska Legislature. These women have worked in offices, worked on campaigns and perhaps even held elected office that reached out to us after a few calls for input. There are some changes made to the quote to help obscure their identity, and quotes have been randomized.
Women in Alaska politics
I think women today can jump the hurdles. Alaska is still a “show up and you can make a difference” state. Women are still doing it. I see a bunch of great, young women willing to jump in.
There was a point this year when I was at the table and realized that I’m just as smart as anybody in this room and have just as much to give as anyone else. We need to recognize that for ourselves and not wait for someone else to give us permission. It’s an exciting time to be a woman.
This year we’ve had two men resign and one choose not to run for re-election all due to sexual harassment claims. A decade or two ago those men would still be in office. Next year none of the men will be in the Legislature, and that’s a huge a step forward. That’s in part due to the fact there are more women in elected office who can speak up from a position of leadership and say, “No. Nowhere is that acceptable.”
The women that I see struggle are the people who don’t take themselves very seriously. And that’s the same for men, too. Issues with self-confidence and self-worth can play out in unexpected ways: Instead of coming off shy, you might come off as disinterested or accidentally come off as an asshole. I might sound like a total asshole here, but how you carry yourself physically can make a big difference–are you making eye contact or slouching in your seat?–and can show that you’re confident in yourself.
I once told a fellow campaign manager that he couldn’t borrow my car. Then he called my father to ask him if he could borrow my car. I’m a grown woman.
There have been times, maybe twice, when people who were in their 60s asked me why I wasn’t going off to have babies. Other than that, though, I have been generally treated as a professional and it helps that I treat myself as a professional.
Real equality comes when you don’t pay attention to the differences. If you pay attention to the fact that women dress differently and have different parts, yeah it’s going to continue. What matters is if they’re confident, well-spoken and care about the issue they’re talking about while treating everyone around them with respect? That shouldn’t matter what gender you are.
The best people in politics are the ones who remember how hard it is to break into it, and go the extra mile to foster a community and making sure it’s OK to ask questions and to be new while still expecting you to be professional.
It is really disheartening to see things like Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ Alaskan fellows project. He’s bringing in people from out of state who are filling up opportunities for campaign experience. Some of them are running campaigns that Alaskan women would like to run. That hurts our whole state. These folks from Outside come in, take these choice opportunities and then leave eventually because this isn’t their home. Then Alaskan women, who are here the whole time, are denied opportunity to be involved in their own state, build careers and gain experience.
What I find helpful is asking lots of questions and if you ask lots of questions it shows you want to learn, are humble and care about an issue.
As far as age goes—I aged myself out of campaigns. They’re grueling. They take physical stamina. I don’t want to do that anymore. I can’t stay up all night and eat shitty food and go all day again. I don’t want to. The beauty of age and experience is that on the campaigns I do work on, I pick what I want to do. I have a saying, “I don’t care if Jesus Christ is running for office, I’m not going door-to-door for him.” I won’t do it anymore.
I give this advice to women all the time. Be the boss. Take charge. State government and campaigns are full of people who don’t know how to do this. Women are even weaker at it than men (for a million reasons).
Many male peers deem themselves my mentor. They send unsolicited advice and review my campaign without me asking. Then they go over my head and make suggestions to my candidate without coming to me first. I don’t need your help and I know more than you!
To be honest, part of my success is because I don’t have kids or a spouse. I’ve worked with other women who have kids and it’s very hard to work as hard as you have to and still do all the things your family expects. It takes an amazing spouse to handle it when the wife is overly busy. Not a lot of men can do that, frankly. More than one man told me he didn’t want to date me during a campaign because I was too busy. One guy dumped me after a few dates when he figured out I was the campaign manager and not a secretary on the campaign. No kidding.
I have had to be a boss without being allowed to be the boss: A volunteer has a bad idea and I nicely say no, or my candidate writes a draft letter and I edit it. The kitchen cabinet tells me I’ve emasculated both the volunteer and the candidate. How can I do a job I’m not allowed to do?
To be a candidate you have to think pretty highly of yourself, for the male candidates especially. Research shows a woman has to be asked seven times before they’ll even consider running themselves. Because of that you end up with a lot of people in office with an inflated sense of self-worth and who aren’t great bosses. A lot of legislators, especially some of the men, would do well to have some self-awareness and work on becoming a good boss.
People started taking me seriously when I started taking myself seriously.
You have to be so aggressive. I’m young and I’m a woman, I didn’t get here by being nice and patient. You’ve got to put the hammer down, and if some mediocre white dude isn’t going to be afraid to do that, then why should you?
It’s not enough to just be aware of your bad behavior–both in terms of a professional workplace and sexual harassment–and keep apologizing for it. There needs to be some sort of adjustment in people’s behavior.
Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s more ageism than sexism.
Because I worked for some great male candidates, I don’t have a ton of bad stories. No one harassed me. I got paid what I was worth. I was valued. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t those stories out there. I did work for one male candidate who never once thanked me, never acknowledged what I did for him and his campaign and who I never help anymore. I don’t need to trash him, I simply choose to never work for him again.
I was once going back and forth with this male legislator over a change in a bill, and when we were reaching the final bill he brought me into his office and he said, “Look, I still have a problem, but for you I’ll drop it.” I don’t want you doing anything for me because that’s just disgusting.
Women have been raised to seek approval or affirmation. I see my male colleagues grabbing leadership positions and driving the conversation without waiting for approval. We as women need to stop asking for approval to be leaders. We need to step up and be the leaders we are.
There is a change that is taking place in the way we’re recruiting candidates. Alaska Women Ascend had 80 women who were either running for office or learning how to run other womens’ campaigns. There’s always been a tradition in political work of family bringing up family or friends bringing up friends. In the 1980s and 1990s there was the Alaska Women’s Political Caucus that helped women who were interested in running for office support each other. Arliss Sturgulewski and Fran Ulmer did great work bringing women up, but we lost ground and are just finally building that infrastructure back.
I’ve had a life-long struggle with anxiety issues, but the great equalizer has been realizing that everyone is just as vulnerable as you are. The great thing about Alaska politics is there’s really no degree of separation between any of us. Somehow we’re all related and when you remember we’re all just people, whether it’s staffers or legislators or whoever, you remember we’re all people.
I think that people need to be more careful with their actions because what they do isn’t innately sexist or ageist, but it’s often gross.
I’ve been watching a male coworker who’ve I’ve had to proofread and help out along just about every step of the way get more job offers than me.
My candidate was going to hire another women, but found out she had kids and thought she wouldn’t put enough time into his campaign so he didn’t.
I’m sorry I’m not sorry (women apologize too much) and I’m not bossy, I AM the boss. Both of those attitudes have helped lead me to where I am now. I learned those attitudes and I had great teammates who fostered it.
I think it’s important that men know that women are succeeding, that men aren’t losing something. Women’s success is their success. When women are free to be everything they can be, it gives men permission to be everything they can be as well. Everybody gains when we get to be our authentic self and not defined by a stereotype.
I wanted experience so I worked on a campaign. I stopped because when the campaign manager talked to me he put his arm around me.
How many times have you called a campaign office and only women answer the phone?
Sometimes I see women bristle at criticism, dismissing it as sexist. Sometimes it is, but often, no, none of those things are relevant here. It’s really antagonizing when you hear people going straight to accusations of sexism. When you’re going out and expecting a negative reaction or bad treatment, you’re probably setting yourself up to get exactly that.
There’s a lot of attention in Juneau paid to who’s sleeping with who, and it’s really awful that people would think that’s part of their business. What’s really obnoxious is that men never seem to get as much backlash and as much inappropriate comments as women.
I think that right now is as good a time as ever to be a women in politics in Alaska. We hit the most women ever in the Legislature with the appointment of Tiffany Zulkosky. When you have 30 percent of women, we are less of a marginalized group and are a stronger voice than ever before.
I am not the biggest political strategist in the world, but I’m super organized. I work hard. I know how to get people to work with me, and I’m an excellent boss, but I didn’t see that in myself. When I was approached to run a campaign, I said all the things women say about themselves: I’m not experienced enough; I don’t know how to do it; what if I failed? But the candidate had the talent to see my potential, and their confidence in me built up my confidence in myself.
Women have been working for a very long time. Women haven’t been in senior leadership roles that we are now, that’s what’s different. If the only women working in the building were cleaning staff and the front desk person, then that doesn’t represent equity and that’s not where you’re going to get a change. When you have women in leadership roles that’s where you have accountability.
I definitely think there could be a more diverse set of perspectives helping recruit candidates. Look at Zach Fansler. There were warnings about his drinking, but they got overlooked.
In my experience, I haven’t seen much discrimination based on my gender, and when people underestimated me it was more about my age than anything else. The response I would get so often was, oh, you don’t have any experience because you’re young, not because you’re a woman.
There’s a presumption that when men are talking they have something serious to say. That’s not always been true for women. I think that’s changing.
Men and women are treated differently by the media and others—not necessarily by the candidates. Take that Politico article touting the three amigos this spring—three guys who have run a couple of campaigns. Not even big, earth shattering campaigns. They ran small, local campaigns, and they’re written about like they’re the biggest deal. I do think the old stereotype still holds true—women don’t toot their own horns. My guess is those guys tooted their horns and some goofball East Coast writer lapped it up. There’s been plenty of rumbles from the women who have been working in the trenches forever. I have worked on more campaigns than those guys have even voted in, and I come from the camp where the campaign manager isn’t supposed to be the news. The candidate is.
Knowing what I know now is that it’s not worth it to play the competitive game in terms of a work-life balance. Stay true to your needs. I think that it’s really important take care of yourself and especially because that sets a good example for other people, especially younger people.
I get stuck with event work so much. Candidates think men’s ideas are more exciting even though the dudes hear my idea and add a detail. The cooking, decorating, staffing is on women. Then the guy gets credit for how much is raised.
It was overwhelming to be at a recent campaign organizing event and see how many competent women get overlooked so some random dude can get a shot at running a campaign.
Seek out people who would be good mentors and ask them lots of questions and try to gain whatever knowledge and experience you can. There’s a lot of smart people, especially women, in the political world, who can help.
One of the big remaining problems is the older men who are somehow made uncomfortable by women who work. Things are getting better in part because there are more young men who have come into the building that have been raised by working mothers and more have been raised to respect women who work.