The Art of Running for Office as a Woman, Circa 1990

Yes, the playbook has changed. But less than we’d like to think.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Feb. 27, 2014, 8:19 a.m.

Jew­el Lans­ing, au­thor of 101 Cam­paign Tips for Wo­men Can­did­ates and Their Staffs, isn’t mak­ing it up when she tells wo­men what it takes to run for polit­ic­al of­fice. Now in her 80s, Lans­ing, who was the first wo­man ever elec­ted to gov­ern­ment of­fice for Mult­nomah County and the fifth-ever elec­ted to serve in the city of Port­land, Ore., says she felt a burn­ing de­sire to write about her ex­per­i­ence and help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of wo­men.

The book of hard-nosed ad­vice was pub­lished in con­junc­tion with her mem­oir, Cam­paign­ing for Of­fice: A Wo­man Runs, and fea­tures an­ec­dotes from scores of Amer­ic­an wo­men’s races. “It’s not in­ten­ded to be a how-to manu­al,” Lans­ing told Na­tion­al Journ­al of her col­lec­ted les­sons pub­lished in 1991. “It’s more giv­ing a broad over­view of what to look at and what to ex­pect.”

Al­though groups like EMILY’s List cur­rently help fund and groom fe­male can­did­ates from be­hind the scenes, Lans­ing’s book marks the last time any­one wrote pub­lic­ally and com­pre­hens­ively about the art of the fe­male can­did­ate’s polit­ic­al cam­paign. The coun­try’s come a long way since then. At the time Jew­el was writ­ing (around 1990), wo­men made up just 2 per­cent of the U.S. Sen­ate and 6 per­cent of Con­gress over­all. Those num­bers are now 20 per­cent and 19 per­cent, re­spect­ively.

What fol­lows are 12 of the 101 tips in Lans­ing’s play­book, as se­lec­ted by Na­tion­al Journ­al.

1. Visu­al­ize your­self in the role of can­did­ate for months, even years be­fore you run.

2. Be sure you have the “fire in your belly” to run.

3. Re­cog­nize that de­cid­ing when and if to run is the hard­est, and most im­port­ant, de­cision you will make.

4. Un­der­stand you will need to be waited upon—an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult les­son for fe­male can­did­ates, their fam­il­ies, and their staffs to learn.

5. Be pre­pared to deal with gender as a factor in polit­ic­al races for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

6. Avoid fall­ing for the “ladies first” ploy; it is not to your ad­vant­age on the speak­er’s plat­form with your op­pon­ent.

7. An­ti­cip­ate enorm­ous curi­os­ity about your re­la­tion­ship with your spouse or part­ner.

8. Find a part-time house­keep­er be­fore the cam­paign crunch hits.

9. Up­grade your ward­robe and con­sider it a hid­den, but un­avoid­able, per­son­al cam­paign cost.

10. Live your per­son­al life as if the de­tails will show up in the morn­ing pa­per.

11. Know you will be cri­ti­cized; it is an un­avoid­able and un­end­ing rite of pas­sage to seek­ing and serving in pub­lic of­fice.

12. View your­self as a light­bulb every­one else needs to touch for en­ergy and re­char­ging.

Lans­ing’s strategies are dir­ec­ted at polit­ic­al can­did­ates, but many of them can be ap­plied to wo­men seek­ing lead­er­ship roles in any realm. Wo­men can­did­ates, she ob­served at the time, need to be bet­ter or­gan­ized than men, give more thought to how their fam­ily re­la­tion­ships will be viewed by oth­ers, and over­come con­fin­ing ste­reo­types and la­bels such as “shrill,” “bitchy,” and “sweet.”

Her book culls not just from her own ex­per­i­ence but from the thoughts of politi­cians and journ­al­ists of the day.

Among them is former Ver­mont Gov. Madeline Kun­in. What is dif­fi­cult for wo­men to ac­quire, Kun­in told an audi­ence at the Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment at Har­vard Uni­versity in 1989, is “a com­fort level with power it­self.” The pub­lic, Kun­in ob­served, is ac­cus­tomed to see­ing boys fight. “Girls are not sup­posed to.”

Ann Richards, who served as gov­ernor of Texas from 1991 to 1995, hoped to lead by ex­ample. “There will be a lot of little girls who open their his­tory texts to see my pic­ture … and they will say, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’ “

Also quoted is New York Times colum­nist Wil­li­am Safire, who ar­gued at the time that, all oth­er things be­ing equal, wo­men should al­ways sup­port wo­men over the oth­er gender un­til some sort of par­ity is achieved:

Not enough wo­men are can­did­ates, and too few of those are win­ning. Why? The power of in­cum­bency is an ex­cuse, as is the tug of tra­di­tion and the de­mands of rais­ing chil­dren. The reas­on, however, is a dis­may­ing lack of as­sert­ive­ness of group iden­tity … oth­er things be­ing roughly equal, wo­men should strongly sup­port wo­men as wo­men un­til some par­ity is reached. Then, se­cure in a sys­tem in bal­ance, they can throw the ras­cals out re­gard­less of sex.

While many of Landsing’s sug­ges­tions, such as her in­sist­ence on ig­nor­ing the ” ‘ladies first’ ploy,” may feel dated, what’s more in­ter­est­ing is how many of them still ring true.

She writes: “Your friend and en­emies will won­der, wheth­er or not they ask you dir­ectly: Who’s cook­ing the meals? Clean­ing house? How does your hus­band like be­ing Mr. Sally Brown?” Those ques­tions aren’t so dif­fer­ent from ques­tions Sheryl Sand­berg wrote about in her re­cent book, Lean In, pos­sibly the closest con­tem­por­ary co­rol­lary to Lans­ing’s ad­vice book. In it Sand­berg talks about the subtle sex­ism ex­pressed in ques­tions dir­ec­ted at her about “work-life bal­ance” and wheth­er be­ing so suc­cess­ful “is hard on her hus­band.”

In some places, Sand­berg and Lans­ing’s ad­vice di­verges. Sand­berg would dis­agree, for ex­ample, with the ad­vice to act­ively seek out a ment­or. “Work­ing on a cam­paign as a vo­lun­teer or paid staff mem­ber is an ideal way to get star­ted in polit­ics,” writes Lans­ing. “Talk to wo­men of­fi­cials in your area whom you ad­mire, and seek their back­ing.”

Sand­berg, mean­while, would cau­tion against seek­ing out a ment­or too ag­gress­ively. In a chapter titled “Don’t Ask Any­one To Be Your Ment­or,” she re­counts an in­stance when a young wo­man she’d nev­er met be­fore ran­domly came up to her and asked her to be a ment­or, call­ing it a “total mood-killer.” If you want “ex­cess­ive hand-hold­ing,” Sand­berg says, that’s a ther­ap­ist’s job.

Lans­ing’s book is now out of print, but if you hap­pen to pick up a used copy on Amazon, you might be sur­prised how much it has to teach you.

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