Jessica Torres is a communications strategist based in Washington, D.C. who believes in the magic of sisterhood. The views expressed here are her own.
“How do I explain this to my kid tomorrow?”
That’s what one relative asked me as election results came in last week. She had waited for her young daughter to fall asleep before turning on the TV. My phone rang nonstop in my Orlando hotel room that night, where I burned sage and texted friends and loved ones from my pillow fortress, watching MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki and an assortment of CNN contributors tap their brightly colored election maps onscreen.
The world had seemed like a very different place earlier that day.
In the afternoon I called my grandma to ask her when she was going to the polls. I expected to hear her say she was going to put some beans on a low simmer and get ready to leave.
Instead, she said: “I’m not voting this year.”
This was the woman who dragged me to union meetings as a kid, who left behind Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic to build a better life for herself. Mi abuela, who throughout my childhood took me with her when she voted during every election. This woman — mother and grandmother who hauled bulky groceries for our nightly family dinners in her squeaky shopping cart all the way across the Bronx, who worked in factories as a young woman — felt left behind and invisible in this election. Tired of being disappointed and ignored, she chose to quietly stay home.
My grandma’s dedication to voting taught me that elections are about more than showing up every four years: They’re about cultivating the health of our communities and neighborhoods. With her ballot she committed to understanding the levers of power in our community, who fought for after-school programs and community centers.
Each vote was a promise to hold these elected officials accountable.
In her 40 years in the United States, she had been let down by a system that stifled the voices of working-class and immigrant women. Imagine if there were more women on the ballot who represented my grandmother’s struggles and dreams. I wonder how many women would see themselves in the political process if they literally saw themselves in their government.
Women serve as 19 mayors in 100 of the largest U.S. cities, they represent roughly a quarter of 5,411 state-assembly seats, and occupy only 20% of congressional and senate seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Take into account that women make up more than half of the U.S. population and you can clearly see we’ve got a lady problem in government.
That isn’t to downplay the victories we’ve seen in 2016. Thankfully, we elected some trailblazing women to combat some of this lack of representation: Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada who is now the first Latina U.S. Senator, Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, who is the first Thai American U.S. Senator, Ilhan Omar in Minneapolis who is the first Somali-American lawmaker in U.S. history — just to name a few.
Cortez Masto promised her supporters that she would be “one hell of a check and balance” on President-Elect Donald Trump as she takes off for Washington to champion equal pay, paid family leave, and immigrant rights. “It’s not my voice I’m taking to Washington, it’s all of yours,” she told a crowd of supporters on election night.
These wins give me immense hope and offer a snapshot of what our country’s government could and should look like. But with so few women in office and so many barriers in place to get there, it’s hard to encourage more women to step into the chaos.
But we need them to run for office. Having women — and women of color in particular — in office is essential for the health of our nation and our communities. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on supporting democratic institutions found, for example, that women leaders are “strongly linked to positive developments in education, infrastructure and health standards at the local level.”
Some of us may remember the all-male, Republican-led panel for a House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing on birth-control access a few years ago. (Yes. That is a thing that happened, but because it did we were given this wonderful gift from above.)
Picture these men talking about women’s bodies and birth control. Imagine what words they used. Men who have never felt the painful cramping from our periods or childbirth, who have never experienced the discrimination and sexism that we face in all facets of our lives, even our health. All of these men have watched but never experienced first-hand the pains built into womanhood.
Remember that they’re not just talking about abstract concepts, they’re actually making decisions about our bodies without us.
This will continue to happen if we don’t break down gender-, class-, and race-based barriers and stigmas that discourage women from running. I shudder to think about what a Trump administration’s impact on women looks like for generations to come. That’s why organizations that prepare young women to imagine themselves in and run for elected office like IGNITE National and the New American Leaders Project are doing such critical work.
The New American Leaders Project (NALP) trains and prepares women and immigrants to run for elected offices such as School Board or City Council all across the country. Founder of NALP, Sayu Bhojwani, remarked on the importance of their candidate trainings in The New York Times, saying: “What this affirms is that if women have a space where their voices are validated, they will speak out.”
Now is the time to help little girls and young women’s political ambitions flourish. Help your little cousin or baby sister run her campaign for class president; help her prepare for debates; attend political rallies together. Now, more than ever, we must amplify young women’s voices and encourage them to run for office.
The future is female, my friends. So let’s get our girls ready to lead.