This season I’ve gotten an education in the power of numbers.
As a student, I had a slight allergy to math—sorry; I know it’s rotten, as a feminist, to admit this—so my current fascination with numbers is something new. Of course all girls and women are, out of social and perhaps also medical necessity, preoccupied at a subliminal level with numbers: How many best friends or romances, date of last period, code to gym locker, how long is your typical period, birthdates of buddies and relatives and even long-ago elementary-school classmates, year you graduated or moved or got divorced, whether the dinner bill is being equitably tabulated, and did you tip the weary-looking waitress enough. You know what I mean. These are the numbers that clog our brain cells.
But looking at political races this season I’ve become preoccupied with numbers that mean change. Not just personal codes, but the number of women running for office, the number of women voting, volunteering for political candidates, giving political money. Amounts raised, number of signatures on petitions, proportions of talking heads or bylined writers who are women.
This isn’t bean counting. It’s change making.
And yet…more than one woman profiled in Lilith’s cover story on political candidates suggested that she had to be prodded to run for office. Why do prospective women candidates need to be asked more than once, or need to be persuaded to run? Is the impediment to getting to “Yes, I will run for school board” a ladylike reticence? Modesty? We know for sure that it’s not fear of hard work.
Or is it the discomfort with racking up the biggest campaign fund, the highest score, the most votes? Maybe the limiting factor is, on some level, a fear of success.
There are a few possibilities driving women’s hesitancy. Can you identify with one or more of them? Take this quick true-or-false quiz. (Don’t worry; there are only two questions.) You’ve been asked to consider a run for office, and your first response is:
- Running for office exposes you and your family to intense scrutiny. Even if your laundry is all pristine, your every previous life decision may be subject to discovery and analysis. You’re scared. True or false?
- You’re unprepared, unqualified, a fraud. You haven’t had any legislative experience. You’re likely to respond: “Who, me? I haven’t had any legislative experience. (I’ve only been running…a business, a household, a charity, an educational organization.)” True or false?
These are legitimate concerns, and it may be that they also keep some men out of the running. But not as many as you’d think, because the lure of success, and of forging
on even after losing an election, seems to drive many men who seek office. That’s to say nothing of the fact that, as one campaign manager suggested, “No one ever asks a man to wait his turn.”
And since the Lilith lens is typically focused on Jewish women, let’s consider something else. We know that when speaking out about a cause we believe in, Jewish women are likely to be out there, loud and proud. Speaking out and asking for support for an issue—a school bond, abortion access, or whatever is dear to our hearts––we don’t hesitate. But when the ask is for ourselves—a vote, let’s say–– too many of us suddenly lose our will and our bearings, even as we understand that winning that seat on the school board or the city council will advance the causes we champion.
We’ve too often been conditioned to step back rather than step up. Jewish women—surprisingly, given our reputation as loudmouths—sometimes don’t speak out even when our own safety is concerned.
That’s another reason why the numbers count. The more women running for office, the stronger is the wind at the backs of those who are scared to run. The MeToo allegations and accusations demonstrated clearly that when more women speak out more will have the courage to tell their own stories. And (in this sad and crazy calculus) the more who speak out, the more readily will all the accusers be believed. Corroboration paves the way to correction.
Here’s another alarming example: Jewish women stay in abusive relationships with their intimate partners an average of seven years longer than other women. Obviously I’m not suggesting that running for office and leaving an abusive relationship have parity. But both suggest that women who learn to be effective are more able to effect change in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Looks like we better confront our fears of success in order to become the change we want to see.