I was very excited to read Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win recently (full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book). As a woman who has run for office several times, including twice as a mom, and as a wife and partner, I loved reading about the myriad struggles that the main character Charlotte Walsh faces in running for office. Author Jo Piazza illustrates well how Charlotte balances a reluctantly supportive husband, three small children, and her extended family’s skeletons, including substance abuse, when she leaves her wildly successful technology career in Silicon Valley to return home to Pennsylvania to run for the US Senate. Charlotte faces incumbent Ted “Tug” Slaughter, who is a “walking cliché” and who “oozed raw ego” during his 40 years in Congress. To those of us in real-life politics, he sounds like he could be any number of real-life Congress members. In fact, when I spoke with Jo, she affirmed that Slaughter is a composite of a lot of different old-school Congress members.
I had another connection to the book that drew me in: I also happen to be from Pennsylvania, and one of the things I loved about the book was the strong juxtaposition of the cultures of Silicon Valley and Pennsylvania, which are worlds apart. Being from Philadelphia and living in San Francisco, I see these cultural differences distinctly.
Jo is also from Pennsylvania and lives in San Francisco and shares the strange balancing act of having a foot in each place. One of the reasons she chose Pennsylvania as the setting for Charlotte certainly had to do with her own history with the state and illustrating the cultural differences that impact how people view politics in different places. More importantly, however, Pennsylvania happens to be one of 22 states that has never elected a woman to the US Senate. In talking with hundreds of politicians, candidates, and political operatives on both sides of the aisle across the country, Jo learned what we female candidates and politicians already know: It’s incredibly challenging to run for office as a woman. But she described how especially difficult it is for women to run in Pennsylvania. Outside of Philadelphia, the state remains mired in misogyny with its rust belt, working class history. As in most places, even the most “progressive” of places, the state’s politics also remain a Good Old Boys network. Women running from local races to Congressional races in Pennsylvania have faced unrelenting nastiness and ugliness. Jo starts the book highlighting the ridiculousness of it all, when Charlotte’s potential campaign manager tells her this:
Your husband matters. Your marriage matters. As a woman, you bear the burden of having to appear to be charismatic, smart, well-groomed, nice, but not too nice. If you’re married, you need to look happily married. If you have kids, you should be mother of the year.”
If that doesn’t sum up the challenges that women in politics face, I don’t know what does! Research has shown that women are regularly judged on their looks and on how “feminine” they appear to be—not too much and not too little. And if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that there are significant double standards for women running for office.
Jo actually started writing Charlotte before the 2016 election. She initially wrote the character of the incumbent Senator who Charlotte is challenging in the 2018 election in a satirical way. Senator Slaughter exemplifies a typical US Senator as an older white man who has long been part of the Good Old Boys’ network. But as 2017 turned into 2018, life began to imitate art and the character went from comically sexist in a “this can’t possibly be real” way to a far-from-satire depiction of the old-school politicians who represent us right now in both chambers of congress. I was struck by how true to life the character was in one scene when his campaign talked about Charlotte daring to wear flats instead of high heels to her campaign kick-off event:
[The] campaign manager derided Walsh for wearing “her bedroom slippers to speak to Pennsylvania voters. It was a real sign of disrespect. . . . Dress like a grown-up if you want to be taken seriously.”
Jo finished writing before the #MeToo movement took hold, but she noted that trying to write to keep pace with a news cycle in which every day overt and covert sexism in politics is highlighted was difficult. She also told me that some of the situations that Charlotte had to deal with as a female candidate are based on real events that she learned throughout in her research. She talked about how she couldn’t have written anything more scandalous than what is happening in real life.
She also talked about how important it was that Charlotte the candidate was a mother. We talked about how so any depictions of women as candidates and women in office in the media are fake. Few outlets cover the impact of women running for office on family, children, and career. Jo wanted her audience to think about what it really takes for a wife, a mother, a professional to run for office. What she was striving for, in a word, was empathy, which is a major missing piece for many when thinking about women in politics.
Jo pointed out that one way to break through some of these misogynistic cultures is by using pop culture. She noted that fiction has an important place to provide commentary on life, and that television, movies, and books have portrayed women in politics in a very one-dimensional way. She is trying to turn Charlotte into a television show in an effort to normalize and humanize women, especially moms, in politics. She wants to show how female politicians have family and friends and are multidimensional and, importantly, flawed just like everyone else. An opportunity to see strong moms as political candidates and political leaders would be welcome in an era in which we are reminded of our country’s inherent misogyny, sexism, racism, and xenophobia every day from the White House directly.
Women candidates in real life have evolved just in the months since Charlotte was written. We now have campaign ads with women breastfeeding. Some candidates have openly discussed addiction in their families (although they’ve mostly been male candidates; it will be interesting to see whether the double standard remains when female candidates talk about the same thing). Women are being more candid about balancing a family and a campaign. Thanks to New York Democratic House candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, who was struggling to pay for child care while she campaigned, the Federal Elections Commission recently decided that candidates can in fact use campaign funds to pay for child care costs associated with running for office. Senator Tammy Duckworth made history by being the first woman in the US Senate to give birth while serving, and subsequently had the Senate change its rules that had barred children—including babies—from the Senate floor. And New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently became the second world leader to give birth while in office, and the first to take family leave—and did so unmarried no less!
But we still have a long way to go. We will continue to strive for a campaign where women are just ask likely to be asked about how she’s managing to both run for office and take care of her children just as much as men are asked the same question. We will continue to hope for reporters to ask female candidates what their spouses think of their tight schedules as (in)frequently as they ask the same question of male candidates. We will continue to work toward a culture that has a single standard by which to judge candidates that has nothing to do with the candidate’s appearance or gender stereotypes. It is up to us to demand that journalists rely on actual journalism rather than clicks for payment, and that writers portray women candidates as real, multidimensional human beings rather than a stereotypical token.
In 2015, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggested that at our current rate, women would not reach parity with men in Congress until 2117. At that time, the Institute of Women’s Policy Research—or the world—could not have predicted such a disastrous presidential election or the anger that resulted. It could not have predicted the Me Too movement or the energy creating women to be silent no more. Only time will tell if this energy results in people actually getting out to vote, which is the only way for change to come. In the meantime, we must continue asking women to run and advocating for their candidacy and assisting their campaigns.
I’m grateful for Charlotte for running, and I’m grateful for Jo Piazza for bringing Charlotte to life and showing us so clearly what women and mothers face when running for office. (I was even more impressed with the book when I learned that Jo turned in the final draft while in labor, which she simply described as the things women do to accomplish our goals.) Until we can break down all of the barriers that women face, we will continue to trail the world in female leadership.