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Women in Politics event brings influential female politicians to Mills

Group photo at the event, including Mayor Jean Quan. (Photo by Chardonnay Hightower-Collins)
Group photo at the event. (Photo by Chardonnay Hightower-Collins)

According to Kimberly Ellis, executive director of EmergeCalifornia, women have to be asked to run for office seven times on average before they decide to do it.

FemDems, Mills College’s resident Feminist Democrat club, brought a number of powerful women in the political world to a panel held in Reinhardt Alumni House on April 16 to discuss what it’s like to be a female politician. The panel was comprised of eight elected officials and one head of an organization involved in the political world.

Those present included Mayor of Oakland Jean Quan, Board of Equalization Candidate and Former Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma, 15th Assembly District Candidate Elizabeth Echols, City of Oakland Councilmember-at-Large Rebecca Kaplan, City of Oakland Councilmember and Oakland Mayoral Candidate Libby Schaaf, City of Alameda Councilmember Lena Tam, City of Antioch Councilmember and CDP Woman’s Caucus Policy Chair Monica Wilson, and Executive Director of Emerge California Kimberly Ellis.

Mayor Quan began the discussion by describing what a typical day in her life entails. She told the audience that on average, she only gets about 4-5 hours of sleep per night, but stressed that this was an improvement from the Occupy movements, when she would frequently sleep in 2 hour shifts; monitoring the city at all times is a vital part of her job.

“I check my phone every four hours because I try to keep a pulse of the city,” Quan said.

Quan is the first Democratic woman of color to be elected to the Mayor of Oakland position. She focuses on being a visible force in the community, widely known for walking door-to-door and speaking personally with her constituents. Some of the core issues she is currently looking at include improving immigrant policies, healthcare reform, identifying funding sources for the 30 projects she has lined up for the city, and bringing small or medium-sized conferences to Oakland.

When Davies asked about the challenges Quan faces as a woman in the political world, Quan reminded students that women are still second-guessed in today’s working environment, and that the media does not always cast a favorable spotlight on them as a viable political group. She stressed the importance of women going into politics with a thick skin and an assertive attitude.

“If you’re relying on people being nice to you, that just doesn’t happen as a woman often,” Quan said. “Find something you’re passionate about and get involved in it.”

EmergeCalifornia Executive Director Ellis and Antioch Councilmember Wilson highlighted the challenges that face women of color, in particular, who work in the political sector, emphasizing the ever present and critical need to encourage women of color to run for office. EmergeCalifornia, a seven month cohort that recruits women, particularly women of color, and prepares them to run for office on a Democratic platform, is one organization that is putting this need into action. Ellis demonstrated proof of EmergeCalifornia’s success in numbers, citing that about half of the women who have won political office are women of color. Wilson, the first black women ever to be elected to Antioch City Council and Executive Assistant to Dean of Students at Mills, told the audience about a newspaper that released a targeted, racist story during her campaign, insisting that she was running on a “Black platform.”

“I’m a big advocate of knocking on doors,” Wilson said. “Never once did I knock on a door and say, ‘Hey, vote for me, I’m black.'”

In a similar vein of tackling oppressive forces, Councilmember-at-Large Kaplan discussed being the first out lesbian elected to office in Oakland. When she took office in 2009, she worked to successfully abolish a ban over 100 years old that prohibited Oakland’s residents from wearing the opposite sex’s clothing in public . Kaplan, who proudly talked about getting the out-of-date law lifted, gestured to her own choice of clothing that evening — a button up shirt, a suit jacket and pants — as proof of the strides that have been made for women and the LGBTQ community while she’s been in office.

“Beware of people who are concern trolls, those attitudinal people who feel entitled to attacking you over what you should wear, like saying you should wear skirts to get elected,” Kaplan said.

The panel was closed with a question from Katie Meyer, who asked the speakers to provide some advice to current Mills students who want to get involved with politics. Ellis took the floor last, listing five steps that will propel students into the political world: find your passion, find a mentor, work on a political campaign, apply to or intern for organizations like EmergeCalifornia, and finally, ask other women to run for office.

Meyer felt that while the event did not attract as many students as she would have liked, the time spent with the panelists was invaluable for those that attended.

It was amazing to have so many powerful women in one room and to be able to actually interact with them in a space that people are all passionate about women’s leadership in politics,” Meyer said. “The panelists were genuine, providing an opportunity to see what it is really like being a woman in politics at several different levels of office.”

Check out The Campanil‘s photos of the event in the Flickr slideshow below. All photos taken by Chardonnay Hightower-Collins.