"I'm a mom. I'm a woman. And I want to be your next governor," Krish Vignarajah sternly says while breastfeeding her 9-months-old daughter in recent campaign ad gone viral. The 38-year-old, who arrived in the United States at 9 months old after her parents fled civil war in Sri Lanka, built a political career that led her to serve in the Obama White House as policy director for first lady Michelle Obama. And now she's running for governor of Maryland. "I'm running because I'm worried that all of our children, including my 9-month-old daughter, will not have the same opportunities I had growing up here," she says.
Her daughter might be the same age Vignarajah was when she arrived in this country, but the political landscape today seems grimmer. Under the Trump presidency, women’s reproductive rights are being stripped away, sexual misconduct is rampant in all levels of government—sometimes even swept under the rug—and diminishing name-calling, be it "Pocahontas" or "Lyin' Hillary," has become the norm. Immigrants are being stigmatized as crooks and criminals. Not to mention things many of us had taken for granted—safe drinking water, clean air, good education, well-paying jobs, and equal opportunity for all children—are no longer a given.
And women are not standing for it.
"Oprah for President" was a fantasy that caught the imagination of many after the the multihyphenate's Golden Globes speech. #ImStillWithHer lives on, at least on Twitter, and Michelle Obama still gets asked if she will run in 2020. For most of us, the women's march only takes place January 20. But in the political landscape, women are running—not marching—into elected office. In 2018, a record number of women are on the ballot at all levels of government. According to Politico, at least 494 women have said they're running for Congress this year.
That's up from 312 women who filed to run in 2016.
It's no secret that women and minorities are wildly underrepresented in all levels of politics. Congress is still 81% male—or, as founder of the New American Leaders, Sayu Bhojwani, told MyDomaine, it "looks like a '50s country club." But having women in office is about more than just representation for representation's sake. According to The Lily, research shows that "women bring a unique democratic leadership style and are more likely to build consensus and coalition."
In a political landscape where divisiveness is rampant across news outlets (and even promoted by the president himself, often via Twitter) and where attacks across the aisle have reached a point where some would rather stand with a hostile foreign power than the opposing party, we need women in office more than ever. We need to find common ground and relearn how to have constructive conversations that unite us—not divide us. We need to come together to find solutions that will benefit all, not just some.
Here are four women in politics who are fighting to make this happen.
Even though women have made strides in the political arena in recent decades, this doesn't seem to be the case in Maryland—yet. In fact, if elected, Krish Vignarajah will be her state's first female governor: "In Maryland, zero women hold statewide or federal elected office. We've had 62 governors; none have been women," she reveals. For Vignarajah, this isn't just about representation; it's about policy. "When women lead, it's proven that better results follow: better schools, better healthcare, a more inclusive economy, healthier natural resources, and so much more," she told MyDomaine.
As a young mom and a professional, Vignarajah can relate to, empathize with, and understand issues affecting women and children in a way few of her 62 predecessors possibly could. And her experience as a successful working mom is something she sees as an advantage, not a hindrance. If she's able to talk about policy while breastfeeding, she can multitask like no other: "Women know how to get the job done," she says. "We know how to collaborate. We know how to examine all facets of an issue, see synergies, and find workable solutions."
But being a woman doesn't mean you have to run on women's issues. At the core, Vignarajah wants to find solutions that will benefit all Marylanders—and Americans as a whole. "I believe the root of many problems affecting not only Marylanders, but people and families across the nation, starts within our education system," she told MyDomaine. "The more we invest in education, the more we provide our children with the resources and opportunities they need to thrive, the more we prevent long-term issues that contribute to crime, poverty, and inequity."
For her, working on viable solutions that will benefit her constituents starts by having tough conversations with people of opposing views and starting with a common set of facts. "It's a question I discuss with my husband often because he runs the National Wildlife Federation. Half of his constituents are sportsmen who voted for Trump, and the other half are members of green groups who believe in climate science and want action on global warming now," she explains. "We've got to be able to have conversations—even hard ones—that build from some common set of facts. It goes without saying that the more we are able to come together, the more we can accomplish."
Katie Hill had spent her whole career working in the nonprofit sector as an executive director at PATH (short for People Assisting the Homeless) in Los Angeles. But after Trump's election threatened two ballot measures she had spent months developing, something changed. "Instead of being able to celebrate, people were coming into my office crying," she told MyDomaine. Under the new presidency, their federal funding was under threat. On March 8, 2017, aka International Women's Day, Hill announced her candidacy for Congress in California's 25th District.
"The district that I spent my entire life in, I found out, was key to being able to take the house back," she said. "With Donald Trump as president, saying the most horrible things and becoming the most powerful person in the country and the world, it made me and a lot of women especially realize we're not as far as we think we are in terms of equality and where we need to be," she told MyDomaine. "It made us all take a step back and ask what else we need to do."
The sexism, which so many women saw become apparent in the 2016 election, was instrumental in Hill's decision to run. "I really do think that we have a different approach to solving problems that can be more unifying," she says. "I don't want to be exclusionary and pretend that men can't do this, but there's definitely a more collaborative and problem-solving way that how we go about finding solutions. This is a time when we need more compassion."
Hill is no stranger to difficult but constructive conversations with the other side. Her father, a law enforcement officer, will be voting Democrat for the first time in his life in the next election. "He's someone I often ask about the other side," she says. "I try to understand where he's coming from. It really helps me find out how can we start to bridge the gap." For the young candidate, the essential is to listen. "You can start to break down barriers when you ask people for their solutions instead of talking at them.
There's a really strong desire to start to see our country coming together again and to see Congress actually accomplish things, and not just throw rocks at each other."
In July 2017, Jennifer Carroll-Foy gave birth to premature twins. Her boys, Xander and Alex, were born at 22 weeks and weighed a pound and a half each. Four months later, she won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. This is not the only unfortunate timing she's had to deal with throughout her political career: She found out she was pregnant three days after announcing her candidacy and was put on bed rest just a couple of days before the 2017 primaries—which she won by 14 votes. Throughout her pregnancy, she balanced morning sickness with a full-time job as an attorney and door-knocking in her district.
If this isn't a testament to the unwavering strength of a woman, I don't know what is.
"I think I felt what a lot of Americans were feeling," she told MyDomaine: "How could we vote in someone who has proven to be so incompetent and inept in the economy, civil liberties, and civil rights? I decided that if I didn't commit to being a solution, I was part of the problem. So I talked to my husband and my family and friends, and decided to run." While her husband was supportive from day one, friends posed concerns: "I did have a friend who asked: How are you going to be a wife, an attorney, and a delegate?
And I said: This is 2018. Women are the masters of multitasking. We can lead our families and we can lead the country."
Carroll-Foy is a fierce advocate for equality and women's rights: "I think we bring a different perspective because women, in my opinion, are still treated as second-class citizens here in the United States," she says. "It makes no sense that as a woman, I can have the same education, license, and experience as a man, and I'm paid 80 cents to a man's dollar—and as an African American woman, 67 cents. All because I am female. We have to change this. And we can only do that if we have a seat at the table.
Because clearly men have had many years and opportunities to address these issues, and it hasn't gotten done."
To get things done and reach across the aisle to reach bipartisan solutions, the delegate follows one motto: There's more that brings us together than separates us. "We can all agree on certain issues: We want our children to be prepared for the global economy; no one wants to sit in traffic for two hours to go 23 miles; we all believe that people should be gainfully employed so they can provide for their families. If we focus more on that, we can push society forward," Carroll-Foy tells us.
Bushra Amiwala may only be 20 years old, but that's specifically why she ran for Cook County Board of Commissioners in Illinois's 13th District. "I ran because I took a step back and realized no one who looks like me, who is my age, that I know of, has run for office before. Yet not only are we eligible to do so, but we should be further encouraged to do so," she told MyDomaine. "We're the most underrepresented generation in politics, and I personally saw the South Asian community as the most underrepresented demographic," she says.
And she has a point. Millennials form the largest voting block in the country, yet there are only four Congress.
Amiwala is a firm believer in reaching across the aisle, something she took to the next level when she became a head intern for Republican Senator Mark Kirk in 2016. As a Democrat, she sought to build empathy with the Republican Party and to understand their stances on issues. "I'm from a pretty liberal, Democratic area, and what it meant to be Republican was so taboo," she recalls. "It wasn't until the 2016 presidential elections where I had friends who said they'd be voting for Donald Trump where I realized I've been living in the bubble that is my hometown."
During her campaign, she was consistently attacked by her opponent as the "Republican candidate—as if being Republican was a disease," she says. She hopes the next generation will be better at reaching across the aisle. "Partisanship and extreme loyalty to one's party, as opposed to issues, is something that perhaps resulted in our current president being in office. I knew people who didn't agree with Trump but wanted to vote Republican all the way down the ballot. I think the younger generation is more likely to reach across the aisle and to reach partisan solutions."
Party lines aside, Amiwala, who grew up as a Muslim woman in Illinois, knows firsthand the importance of equal representation in government. "Women inherently are able to talk about and defend certain issues that simply to do not impact certain groups of people, like women's reproductive health," she says. "Women are not only more likely to reach across the aisle to get things done, but women have been at the forefront of every large political movement in history. They're the ones who've stood up for injustice in the many ways it comes in, and it goes beyond just issues that are pertinent to women.
I've seen women take the lead in controversial issues because they don't fear advocating for causes they genuinely care about."
This powerful group of women makes a strong case for why we need women and people of all backgrounds in elected office. Now it's up to us to vote accordingly.