Ep. 76 Amanda Hunter: The Year of the Woman!

NICIE PANETTA: Hello there and welcome to another edition of The MidPod. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. As we continue our series of post-election analysis and reflections, we want to spend some time on the remarkable performance of women candidates. We started calling this election cycle the year of the woman pretty early on. And so it was. Women candidates inspired us to go on our MidPod journey. And many of them won. Our congratulations to Mikie Sherrill, Haley Stevens, Katie Hill, Lauren Underwood and most recently Katie Porter. In terms of the big picture with some races still not settled, here are some of our favorite statistics: 476 women filed to run for the U.S. House, at least 102 were elected. By far the most ever. And let's look at U.S. House seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat. In the last blue wave year of 2006 women flipped 30 percent of the seats for Democrats. This year, at least 68 percent of the seats flipped were flipped by women. But the gains for women were mostly on one side of the aisle. White men will make up less than 40 percent of House Democrats. But the Republican caucus will actually become less diverse. 90 percent of its members will be white men. A record number of women will also be serving in the U.S. Senate and as state governors. More than 2000 women will serve in state legislatures next year. Also a record high. This reminds me to spend just a minute down ballot to congratulate two state legislative candidates we interviewed, Christy Smith in California and Ruth Buffalo in North Dakota. And two guests at our California 48 potluck won city council races, Tiffany Akeley and Elisa Viejo and Arlis Reynolds in Costa Mesa. Something Arlis said at that potluck has really stayed with me especially as we've reviewed the historic voter turnout numbers around the country.

ARLIS REYNOLDS: I remember one meeting in particular where some folks were saying like don't waste your time in that community because those people never show up to vote. And there was a voice I really I wish I could remember who it was. I just remember hearing this voice saying maybe they've never had someone to vote for.

NICIE: Someone to vote for. But having women on the ballot was just the first ingredient in the recipe for success on Election Day. The infrastructure of support for women candidates did not just spring up overnight. It's taken decades to build. Here in Boston, there is one woman who is especially well-known for her many years of work getting more women elected to office. And that is Barbara Lee. On Friday November 9th with as I mentioned just a few races still to be called, we had the chance to sit down with Amanda Hunter, the communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

AMANDA HUNTER: We seek to increase women's representation in the fields of politics in contemporary art.

NICIE: And tell us about Barbara Lee.

HUNTER: Barbara is one of the most inspiring incredible women I've ever had the honor to meet and work for. And she decided 20 years ago to dedicate her life to advancing women's representation. And at the time 20 years ago when she told people that she wanted to create a pipeline to the presidency for women people thought she was nuts and it seemed very out of the box at the time and she realized quickly after the 1998 election that out of all the women that ran for governor are the only two that won were the incumbents and that women face additional barriers when they run for executive office. And since then she's studied every gubernatorial race involving a woman. So almost for 20 years.

NICIE: Tell us how the work of the foundation has evolved over time since it was started.

HUNTER: When she got started she knew that she initially wanted to create better public policy and create better role models for women and girls. And so studying the gubernatorial races was a first step and we've done that consistently for 20 years. But over time I would say that our research has really grown and sort of grown up as well. So we've done studies every year looking at different obstacles and opportunities that women face when running for office. And now that we're almost 20 years old it's kind of fun to look back and see what's changed and what hasn't. Barbara likes to say 20 years ago it was all about hair hemlines and husbands and some of that may still be true now. So it's it's fascinating to have that kind of perspective and it's been really important for her and for us to be a voice to point out the times that women are judged unfairly in campaigns.

NICIE: Just for context too the foundation and its work and research as nonpartisan is that right. But separately Barbara Lee supports candidates as well.

HUNTER: Absolutely. So the foundation is nonpartisan and we really seek to empower all women running for office at all levels our goal and we put out researchers to share it as widely as we can. We're so happy any time we hear from different groups from across the country which is always so fun especially when it's small little groups in far flung states and then privately Barbara is a political donor to female candidates. And then we talked a little bit about how we also do some work to elevate women in the field of contemporary art which is Barbara's passion she says art is her passion and politics is her mission. But because 2018 has been so unprecedented we've spent the past couple of years a little bit more focused on politics.

NICIE: Now one of the reasons the work of your foundation caught our attention was that you identified back in 2017 that we were moving into a special window of opportunity for female candidates, talk about that and how that came about.

HUNTER: Since Barbara has been doing this work for so long and even before she officially was doing this work she's been in this world if you are in the room right now you'd see we have all these framed old copies of Ms magazine and she actually gave out the inaugural copy of Ms magazine at her son's first birthday party. Instead of giving out party favors to the children which at the time was a pretty radical move. So she's really been in tune in this world for a long time and she started to feel a shift in the beginning of 2017 that this was an energy that she had never felt before and that women were really mobilizing. And it started with and everyone will remember the unprecedented number of women that signed up for the training program. So we heard from our colleagues at organizations like she should run and vote run lead in higher heights that they were getting absolutely inundated with requests for training and it was thousands and thousands of women. And since then we've heard that all of those organizations were completely overwhelmed which was really exciting. And then we saw women stepping up to run and then we saw them winning their primaries and then we saw them winning the election. So it was incredible to sort of witness every step and see how you know every time you're like well is this going to work and then you know voters really responded to women so differently this year. But it was amazing that Barbara kind of saw that coming very early.

NICIE: We're speaking just a few days after the election. What would you say are your takeaways right now from the results?

HUNTER: I think it's amazing to see how many women made it to Congress an unprecedented number. We were so excited to see all the women that made it through their primary and then to actually make it to Congress to have such a diverse background of women and women from so many different professional backgrounds and walks of life and first time candidates. But at the same time we still have two Senate races hanging in the balance so we're at 22 if we get up to 24 that's more than we've ever had. But that's still less than a quarter of the Senate. So there's still a ways to go as we build momentum in the coming years. And one of Barbara's favorite sayings is this is not a moment it's a movement and it really feels like that. And hopefully this energy will continue with women working for more representation.

HEATHER ATWOOD: I do have a question because we had some real favorites in this election and some of them didn't do so well. MJ Hegar, Gina Ortiz Jones, Amy McGrath. So what's your counseling for those candidates who didn't win their races?

HUNTER: Well that's such a great segue because the day after the election we released new research on how voters respond when women candidates lose races and how women can reposition themselves after a loss. And it was so important to us to do this research this year with an unprecedented number of women running because there were so many first time candidates and people that were really excited. And we know if you look at the numbers not everyone is going to win their races more than half of the women that ran for Congress were challenging incumbents in those races are even more of an uphill climb. So we found which was really great news for women that voters say they will not penalize a woman for having lost a race. And women can reposition themselves as soon as their concession speech is really about being forward looking, continuing the fight continuing the work that they were doing and what's so exciting about this year is if you look at the individual bios of any of the women running we know women run for office to solve problems they don't run for office because they're seeking fame and fortune. And you can see that candidates were impacted by an issue something directly affected them or their community and that's what originally activated them into politics. And so it seems like with that motivation these women are not going to stop the work even if they are done with the campaign and they will continue. And I think that's really important for everyone to remember.

NICIE: Is there an example in your mind of a female candidate who lost and then repositioned and?

HUNTER: Yeah there are so many I think Lisa Murkowski is a really good example because she won in a write-in campaign which with a last name like Murkowski and a write-in campaign she gave out bracelets to show the spelling of her name. That's a pretty incredible story. Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire also lost and won again. And here in Massachusetts I was at an event at the Edward Kennedy Institute Katherine Clark Congresswoman Clark was there and she didn't even know that anyone from our office was there but she told the story about how she lost her state Senate race in 2004 and Barbara called her 24 hours later and said OK I gave you 24 hours. What's next. And Barbara talks about how important it is for women to do that for one another. It was so nice that the congresswoman called Barbara out for that because she was saying women need to kind of lift each other up in that way. And of course now she's a successful Congresswoman poised for leadership. So it's great to see those success stories.

NICIE: One of the things we have observed through this election cycle is that some of the women who ran really pushed boundaries in terms of the way they presented themselves the way they communicated the stories they told the images they shared of themselves and their lives and their families. Maybe you could talk about that and did you encourage that with the candidates you were involved with or did you caution them at all or how did you all think about that?

HUNTER: We really just sat back and watched because there were so much to take in through our gender watch program. We really were taking a look at how women were breaking barriers and breaking down stereotypes. And it's really important in any race and voters have always identified with authenticity and really women this year the trend that we saw across the board was women running authentically as themselves unapologetically and sometimes against what may have been conventional wisdom before. When you look at MJ Hegar out of her showing off her tattoos proudly 20 years ago a woman probably would have been told to cover up her tattoo.

NICIE: And those tattoos cover up scar tissue from her combat injuries.

HUNTER: Exactly yeah I mean and it's showing also how she's in touch with voters' lives because she understands what it's like to be a combat veteran. And so women were really showing a different side of themselves here we call that being a 360-degree candidate. It's about showing voters who you are as a person and not just pointing to jobs on a resume that you held. There was an ad that Tammy Baldwin did where she was talking very emotionally about her mother's struggle with addiction showing how she's in touch with the lives of so many families that are facing those same issues. And there was an ad that Kristi Noem did with her kids making fun of her for not being able to swim and being a bad dancer. And it was just really sweet to see that side of her family. And so we really saw there are so many more examples but those are some of my favorites because they really show a different side of women and it's a little bit less guarded and less serious which is important.

NICIE: Do you think the reason that space has opened up is social media or do you have a sense of what changed?

HUNTER: I think partially social media I think also that a trend that we saw in the beginning of this year and last year was women stepping up to run with more of a sense of urgency to solve problems and serve their community. And it really felt like there wasn't time for pretense and there wasn't time to wait their turn as many of them were told to do that they needed to just get out there and address problems. And I think that that was freeing when it came to the dialogue that a lot of candidates were having.

NICIE: So how much of the success that women have this year do you think is a referendum on just the idea that women might be great candidates and the policies that they put forward might be great. And or #metoo. How much did #metoo play a role here?

HUNTER: So there are a couple layers to that. I think part of it is we did research at the end of the year last year so around this time and found that voters were very fed up with the status quo and on both sides of the aisle women had advantages because if voters believe women led differently which a lot of voters did they were more likely to vote for a woman even if she was a first time candidate. And it was really exciting because we put that research out and then we sort of saw it play out in real life with the women that were winning primaries and ultimately being successful. And a lot of voters identify with women who have been active in their community and also who are running because they saw the impact of an issue which when you look at candidates like Lucy McBath for example she was running for a very specific reason that her family was unfortunately affected by a tragedy and that activated her into politics. And so voters identify with that type of a candidate that have that personal connection to an issue and they're not just running to be an office holder.

HUNTER: So I think a lot of women had that passion behind them and that authenticity and that was part of it. With #metoo specifically we did research on sexual harassment in #metoo and found that a majority of voters across genders and political lines said they wouldn't support a candidate who is accused of sexual harassment. Also who wouldn't make addressing it a priority. And we tested a lot of negative messages around #metoo because everyone kept saying the backlash was coming and we tested the message that it wasn't a priority that there were other issues that are more important because that seems to be a typical criticism and voters responded very negatively to all those messages. Millennial women in particular a majority were so motivated by the issue that it could potentially make them vote in the midterms when they tend to be drop off voters. I think we saw that with a record number of young people that came out and voted.

NICIE: This speaks a little bit too too when you talked about the style that women bring to politics. We have interviewed a number of political scientists and most of them are not very optimistic about the situation we're dealing with with hyper partisanship and polarization. We are optimistic people. And so we perhaps naively are hopeful that the growing number of women in particularly the House could perhaps help us break down some of those divides. What do you think?

HUNTER: I'm hopeful. I think that voters know that women work across the aisle to get things done. And if you look at the women in the Senate for example who make an effort to get together socially and build personal relationships that may not solve all the problems in the world. But it's an important first step. And women want to solve problems. That's why they're in office so hopefully that will help with the mentality of offices where there are more women that are going to be there with that mindset and less of the old school political games.

NICIE: How much of a role do you think well we had many women who were veterans running this year. Do you want to talk about that?

HUNTER: Yeah I mean one of the most exciting things about this year was all of the women from different professional backgrounds have stepped up to run and I think many of them may not have ever envisioned themselves having a life in politics but their life experience has propelled them to get involved. The veterans were a very exciting category and they bring such I mean they're all every woman is different it's hard to put them all in one category of course but it brings such an interesting perspective because the firsthand knowledge of what it's like to be in combat and then taking that lens and looking at policy when it comes to military spending and homeland security seems very interesting to voters. And it also sort of outweighs we know from our research that women tend to as women they underperform on issues like homeland security Republican women do better but veterans I would imagine probably over perform on those issues and it probably helps women a lot when it comes to those stereotypes.

NICIE: We interviewed Michele Swers of Georgetown University a few months ago about women in the Republican Party as well as former Governor Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey. They had not terribly optimistic messages about the future of women in the GOP not that women aren't in the GOP they certainly are but they are pretty underrepresented in elective office. What do you see? What are you hearing in terms of the future of women in the GOP?

HUNTER: I don't know much about the inner workings of the GOP but we know from our research last year that Republican women have a number of advantages with voters. It's really an excellent time for Republican women to run for office. And that's because they make up for issues that women are traditionally weak on like the economy and national security as Republicans. And in some cases they did better than Democratic men and Republican men. People believe that women are more honest because of the morality pedestal which is a double edged sword but in some cases it's helpful. So it was very encouraging Democratic women also had a lot of advantages but in some cases Republican women had the most advantages. So I think that's good news for Republican women. But as far as the behind the scenes machinations of the party I I don't know.

NICIE: And tell us what is the morality pedestal?

HUNTER: So the ethical pedestal is something that we talk about a lot and it's that voters believe that women are more honest and "better" in a lot of ways than men which is a double edged sword because if women stumble in any way and even if they're just accused of something even if it's not true it's very hard for them to ever get back up on that pedestal if they fall. And we see that all the time in politics when women have an accusation like some e-mails or something that they can never quite get past whereas for men it's a lot easier when you look at a candidate like Mark Sanford. He was able to rebound from that scandal and still get reelected until recently. So that's something that's been going on for a long time. And there was actually an article in Vogue that was fascinating that linked it back to suffrage when they were making the case that if women were allowed to vote that they would clean up politics and get rid of some of the immorality. I haven't looked into that but I thought it was a really fascinating notion that that's where it started.

NICIE: So one question we had was whether there's a threshold of percentage membership in a legislative body at which women start to have more impact. Do you think there is a critical mass number?

HUNTER: I think equal representation would be a good place to start. And we have a ways to go. I think it is an important point that when even if there are more women if they're still a very small percentage of the overall party it's really hard to to pin anything on them as a gender group. And we've seen that happen a lot in the past.

NICIE: We've heard a lot in this cycle about the fact that we're having some of the first transgender candidates winning. And I'm curious how the movement towards recognizing transgender people and gender fluid people has impacted your work.

HUNTER: Yeah I think that's been one of the most fascinating trends to emerge from this election cycle and it sort of goes back to the diversity of candidates and backgrounds and the notion that voters are looking for candidates that accurately represent the people that they represent. And so that's been a very positive development and of course here in Massachusetts everyone was watching question three very closely which was the Anti-Discrimination transgender question which passed. It's definitely something that we have our eye on. It's a positive trend to increase any sort of diversity of voices at the table.

NICIE: And what's next. What are the questions you want to look into next. And what should we be looking for in terms of your research output?

HUNTER: I think for us we've been around for 20 years and 2018 Barbara always says she's never seen a year like 2018. I don't know if we will again but all of that the barrier breaking that we saw happen and certainly so many records were broken on Tuesday with so many firsts for women and even in the campaign cycle with breastfeeding and ads talking about sexual assault very graphically and ads portraying women so differently hopefully broke down a lot of the long held stereotypes. Because we know from our research only two years ago voters worried about the effect of a campaign on a woman's small children if she had small children and openly wondered and felt entitled to an explanation how woman would balance holding the job and taking care of their families. Voters even acknowledge it was a double standard and then still participated in the double standard anyway. I've seen some press and heard some feedback from candidates that those questions are still alive and well on the campaign trail but I'm curious to see if we question voters now if any of those long held stereotypes are finally going by the wayside. I hope so.

NICIE: Do you worry at all that expectations are too high for this cohort of women?

HUNTER: I think in a lot of ways expectations can be so high for women anyway. We know that likability is such a double edged sword and we always say women are walking a tightrope with likability and you know our advice for women in terms of how to be likable if you look at it it's use humor but don't be too out there to zany dress nice but not too opulent because then people get the wrong idea. It's always kind of a very very fine middle ground. And I think that one thing that we highlight all the time here is that we're so excited by all the progress that we've seen. But women still very much have an uphill climb in a lot of ways and that is certainly one way. And we still know that and especially for executive office women still have to work twice as hard to prove that they're qualified for the job. And I think a lot of the challenges that women have faced historically in elected office in terms of being criticized and scrutinized is still going to happen with these women. But hopefully as consumers and voters we're going to be more open minded in the way that we process that information and can call it out a little bit more.

NICIE: For our listeners who want to learn more about the work of the foundation where should they plug in?

HUNTER: So our website is BarbaraLeefoundation.org and that's where we have all of our research. And then we also have a really great Instagram BLFF_org. And then we also have Twitter too which is the same. Follow us there.

NICIE: You're in a pretty wonky business. How do you make Instagram work for you?

HUNTER: We are so lucky we have the most amazing social media person and she is a visual genius and she just creates the most beautiful inspiring posts that I think we all need right now. So I'm biased but she's also younger and a millennial and able to talk that language on Instagram in a way that some of us are not.

NICIE: I'll have to admit that I I texted my 20-year-old daughter the other day saying like how do I make that filter work and stick out she's like mom I'm at work and I cannot help you with your social media challenge right now. So good for you I'm glad we'll have to take notes and check that out. Well Amanda Hunter thank you so much for your time today we really appreciate it.

HUNTER: Thank you. Thanks for coming. Great to see you.

NICIE: Our thanks to Amanda Hunter for taking the time to speak with us. Now for all these members of Congress elect it's "We won. Now what?" How do they actually get ready to serve in Congress? Tune in next Tuesday for a conversation with David King. He runs the orientation program for new members of Congress at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. We talk about the challenges of being a new member and the special dynamics this year for Democrats with the challenge to Nancy Pelosi's leadership. That's it for now, see you next week.

Eunice Panetta