By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
There were tears throughout the room as the campaign volunteer on the screen said, “We have a lot of work to do. The primary has ended. The injustice has not.”
The event was a special screening of Netflix’s documentary, “Knock Down the House,” at the Riveter in Capitol Hill. The audience were mostly women, young women and women of color. After the showing of the documentary, several panelists representing the state legislature, the Seattle City Council, and advocacy groups IGNITE and VoteRunLead debriefed.
There was a lot to talk about. The documentary follows the 2018 campaigns of women who ran against long-standing incumbents. Amy Vilela in Nevada. Cori Bush in Missouri. Paula Jean Swearingin in West Virginia. Only one of them won.
Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Together, they were part of the record number of women of color who ran for office last year. The Riveter, a nationwide company that offers office space, event programming, and professional development to women, was an apropos spot to ponder our political landscape, and what it means for basically everyone who is not a white, heterosexual male.
“Knock Down the House” succinctly chronicles the particular challenges that women face when attempting to enter politics, as well as the particular strengths that women possess that make them ideal candidates—ordinary, everyday women—not career politicians, not wealthy lawyers. Women who have faced bankruptcy or the loss of children due to healthcare inequities. As Ocasio-Cortez states in the documentary, “People are just asking to get by. For a politician to help them get by. It’s not Democratic versus Republican or left versus right. It’s up versus down.”
When Joe Nguyen, one of Washington’s recent entrants into state senate, was asked by panel leader Caitlin Lombardi, the Riveter’s director of advocacy and civic engagement, how people such as himself (men and men of color) could assist women in achieving their goals, he said, “Shut our mouths and make space.” Laughter. But the underlying topic was serious, as Nguyen went on to say that no matter how many complaints he might receive over a decision or a comment he makes as a public figure, “nobody’s ever threatened me with sexual harm.”
If you don’t know that sexually-violent threats towards female politicians, and females in the public eye in general, are common, then this evening would have been a wakeup call for you. Nightmarish stories were told. While the documentary discusses how expectations for women running for office are different for men (women are under greater scrutiny for how they dress, how they talk, if they act too soft, or if they act too hard), it did not demonstrate any extreme cases of harassment that might or might not have happened to the four candidates. Not so at the Riveter on this night.
Seattle Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez talked about several weeks of violent and downright horrific threats she received after voting down a new basketball stadium.
“There was a huge misogynistic backlash,” she recalled. When the vote happened to go down gender lines, the comments started: Maybe all the ladies were on their period. “That’s not something men have to deal with.”
“The world is not built for us,” Mona Das, another of our new state senators, declared vehemently. “Every system is designed for rich, white men.” The point? It’s time to “redefine the political landscape,” as Ocasio-Cortez put it during her campaign. Part of that means that whether you are a woman, a person of color, trans, or gay, you do not have to buy into the system in the first place.
An audience member asked, how to get past a seemingly female conviction that you have to “know everything about everything” before you can run for office?
The panel discussed how a male candidate is often looked upon favorably when he has just one or two qualifications, whereas a female is not looked upon unless she qualifies 100 percent.So obviously, there’s a reason women feel pressured to be that much more prepared.
The rebuttal of the documentary and the panel: be who you are. Come as you are. Or, if you are Lydia Lippold-Gelb of VoteRunLead, run as you are. Her organization has trained 33,000 women to run for office in five years. On top of that, their alumni have a 70 percent success rate. These are ordinary women who become extraordinary when they fight for what they believe in.
“Life qualifies you for this job,” insisted Gonzalez. “Be the voice for the people who are in your community.”
It can be scary, when you look around you and realize that you are still in the minority. Louie Tan Vital, poet and fellow for IGNITE, who spent time in Washington, D.C. working for a congressman, and whose spoken word poem, “Congressional Breakdown,” went viral, said the documentary “makes me so happy thinking I could be like them.” She told of the foul-mouthed phone calls she would receive whenever constituents were disgruntled. “There’s no HR in Congress.”
Vital voiced the unsettling fact that we still have a long way to go if we want to achieve diversity of representation, equitable legislation, and an equitable world.
If we continue at the current rate, women in Congress will not meet the 50 percent mark until the year 2135. The common thread throughout the documentary was spoken thus by Vilela.
“It’s not just about any one of us, individually.” Or as Gonzalez puts it, “We all have to have each other’s back.” Part of that means standing up for the people you helped to elect. They have a lot to contend with.
“I was not trying to become an activist,” said Bush, as she drove through the streets of St. Louis in one of the many moving scenes from “Knock Down the House.”
“This is where Mike Brown was murdered. I only live six minutes from Ferguson. I wanted to see justice happen, and it didn’t happen. So I just kept going back.”
Keep going back. Until, as Das stated, we achieve institutional change. She broke down the newcomers to the Washington state senate, what they are calling the “first year caucus.” “There are three people of color. One is queer, one lesbian, one Jewish…It’s a very different makeup. We want to be the rule, not the exception.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.