‘Women are stepping up and looking like America’: A talk by Patricia Russo

On 9 November 2018, the Edinburgh Foundation for Women in Law, part of Edinburgh University’s Law School, hosted Patricia ‘Patti’ Russo, Executive Director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University. One of the most poignant moments of Russo’s talk was an anecdote about an unmarried female friend running for local government, against a man with a wife and children. The woman in question had frantically phoned up Patti the night before a promotional photo opportunity, intended to showcase the ‘family life’ personable aspect of the respective candidates. This had raised the issue that, whilst her male opponent portrayed himself to be the American Dream of familial harmony, his female counterpart had nothing except ‘a dying snake plant’ to feature in the photo. Patti, always stoic, smart and strategic, told her friend, ‘wake up your sister, wake up your mother’, and show her constituency that the model of the American leader is not fixed, but fluid. This anecdote encapsulates the issues that impact women in American and international politics today, with Patti’s tagline, ‘Let’s toss out that dying snake plant’, becoming a deeper point about abolishing the stigma surrounding female candidacy, as women are ‘crawling up to parity’.

Indeed, as the New Yorker asserted, ‘Women won big in the midterms’, and whilst American politics will not be resolved by one election, with around ninety-eight women already elected to the House on the 6 November, it will give Congress multidimensional perspectives from lives and lifestyles previously ignored or silenced. For the first time in its history, America has Muslim women, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, in Congress, the former being a Somali refugee. With these, and other younger women coming to the fore in the midterms, perhaps we are witnessing a shift in America’s frequently incumbent political attitude. This shift is evident in the defeat of Republican Steve Russell by newcomer Kendra Horn, the first Democrat elected from her district in forty-four years. Moreover, Ayanna Pressley became Massachusetts’ first black congresswoman, embodying the gargantuan changes that have taken place in American Politics. As Patti Russo said to her enthralled audience in 50 George Square, ‘Donald Trump inspires more and more women, both Republican and Democrat, to run for office’. A prime example of this is 29-year-old Abby Finkenauer, the newly elected congresswoman who cited her motivated to run to be realising that ‘this is not how we treat people in my state and in my country.’

Of course, the fundamental basis that characterised Russo’s workshops and speech at the university was WCS, the ‘Women’s Campaign School’ at Yale University that aims to increase the number and influence of women elected and appointed to office in the United States and around the world. Born out of the wildly oscillating nature of current American Politics, Russo described that the school saw a ‘fabulous human tsunami of women uprising’. She remarked, ‘I have been in this business for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it’. One of the most interesting features of Patti’s speech was the inclusivity and, quintessentially mature manner in which she addressed the troubling political dichotomy in America at the moment. ‘We lead best when we lead together,’ she said, whether that be Republican or Democrat, male or female. Notably, Russo did touch upon claims that the WCS is culpable of positive female discrimination; when an attendee inquired as to what she thought of there being no MCS, or ‘Men’s Campaign School’, she replied: ‘There is. It’s the United States Congress.’

Yet ‘men supporting women’ is the true empowerment that women, still struggling for political parity, need. Whilst gender discrimination is rarely overt and arises from entrenched social constructs of heteronormativity, more men championing the cause is the push that movements like #MeToo are lacking. It is also imperative that America, and the world, recognise that women are not one sole entity with a shared mind, with Russo referencing to Susie Collins’ support of Brett Kavanagh being completely valid from her career-perspective; she did not want the presence, or potential presence, of an opponent. Ergo, women, and specifically, ‘women in the workplace’, are multifaceted, not a singular conglomerate.

Lamentably, Russo does recognise the perennial inequality and subtle sexism that befalls working women, such as the illegal, yet prevalent, ‘are you thinking of having children?’ job interview question, and the hindrance that motherhood imposes on one’s career trajectory. Similarly, the Angel-in-the-House archetype is dominant in both male and female attitudes towards women; with Russo citing an incident in which one of her friends expressed concern about voting for Hillary after she decided to support her husband following the Lewinsky incident. This highlights how women are paradigms of virtue, whilst Bill Clinton was re-elected after his affair.

Nevertheless, Russo admits that this monolithic point of view ‘is changing, albeit slowly’. She expressed her hope that in the 2023 House, 25% of the Senate will be women, for just as American Politics did not embitter overnight, women’s prevalence in the political sphere will be marked by gradual progress and a dynamic shift in the way that we, as women, view our own power. American politics has an undeniable clout on the world stage, and as America begins to invert her often stale political narrative, so might the rest of the world. Patti’s fight song is ‘Ain’t no stopping us now’, her motto is ‘You are enough’, and the soaring popularity of the WCS is shining evidence that, as Patricia Russo puts it: ‘Women are stepping up and looking like America’.

 

An earlier version of this article published 28 November, 2018, named an attendee who asked Ms. Russo a question, however, the attendee has since been made anonymous.

 

Image: WCS at Yale via Wikimedia Commons 

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