Women in Politics Panel- Learning From Women Activists and Politicians

On December 5th, Bard College’s Women in Politics, the College Democrats of New York Women’s Caucus Chair, and Election@Bard presented the Women in Politics Panel. The stated goal of the event was “to create a space for all women to discuss leadership, foster innovation, and share ideas relating to policy for our region.” The featured women politicians and activists shed light on the intersectionality of feminism, the importance of networking and relationships, and believing in oneself.

Throughout the night, there was a running commentary on intersectionality, particularly the lack thereof in the #MeToo movement. As the only woman of color on the panel, Oriana Mayorga, who is a community organizer from Citizen Action of New York, shared that in the past she has spoken up about discrimination in the workplace because she had the privilege to do so. She had options to fall back on, like living with her parents. The idea of privilege also came up when the conversation shifted to the #MeToo movement, and Maria Jansdotter Farr, the Program Facilitator for Girls Inc. of Ulster and Dutchess Counties, talked about how so often the only people being heard are the ones who have the privilege, like Hollywood actresses. They can afford to walk away from their jobs, whereas other people cannot. The culture needs to change, and it starts with a more inclusive conversation. In this way, the #MeToo movement can trickle down to the women cleaning offices at night or the single hard-working mother who needs to pay her bills.

As part of a changing culture, the panelists all agreed upon the importance of listening. It is sometimes hard for people to advocate for themselves, and Mayorga’s tactic is to ask people how she can help them, rather than just assuming. Also, Jansdotter Farr explained how she learned to let go of her ego and just listen. It’s not just about one perspective or viewpoint, but all perspectives. It is essential to invite everybody to the discussion. In addition, District 106 Assemblymember, Didi Barrett, said that her job is to work for all her constituents and listen to them about issues they are having in their lives. The opportunity to make change comes about when people really dedicate themselves to engaging conversation and active listening.

Another prominent topic of the night was the confidence issue plaguing not just young girls, but all women. Barrett herself was asked to run for office and expressed that too often women don’t see themselves as the ones with enough experience or knowledge for the job. Women need to take charge and run for office, rather than waiting for someone else to ask them to. In this way, they can do something about community issues they are passionate about. Jolanda Jansen, President of the local League of Women Voters Chapter, also articulated that she learned to gain confidence in engineering school and in her work after. She was the only woman in both of those settings and what got her through the day was knowing that she was really smart and good at her job. This way, she wasn’t as intimidated because she knew that she knew what she was doing. Lastly, Melanie Whaley, who chairs Indivisible The Fight Is On, gave the advice to always believe in oneself and trust oneself.

These women have managed hardships throughout their careers by leaning on other women. For example, 30 years ago, Jansen was a single mother and immigrant living in a foreign country with no support system. However, she found solace in the National Organization of Women, which is a group of strong politically active women. In this group, Jansen found a place of support where she could learn, contribute, and grow. At this time in her life, she says that she was under resourced and stressed, but she emphasizes that no one should try to do it all alone. She said, “Find people who are trying to do what you are trying to do. Help them, and let them help you.” Additionally, “seek help if you need help and use other women as resources. Remember that in life, we are each other’s networks.”

All of the panelists have varied backgrounds and play many different roles. Panelists’ previous and present roles include, but are not limited to, professional cook, painter, journalist, lawyer, engineer, accountant, business owner, and mother. Barrett touched on the multifaceted nature of her position and how she learns new things everyday and meets great people. In addition, remarkably, Mayorga is only 26 and has worked in 6 industries. When the panelists were asked about triumphs in their jobs, Mayorga stated that for her, it’s about seeing the most impacted people become leaders. Although activism is a demanding job, Whaley divulged that she gets renewed energy when she looks at her fellow activists.

After attending both the Women in Politics Panel and the Elect Her workshop, I am confident in the power that women can have when we stand up for ourselves and for those around us. However, it was disheartening that at the Contenders Congressional Candidate Forum held at Bard on December 1st, none of the candidates were women, and none of the questions asked were about women or women’s equality. Despite this, there is clearly a conversation going on at Bard, as evidenced by the vast array of panels and workshops featuring both women at Bard and women in the surrounding community. Although enacting meaningful change is not a simple process, and it always feels like we take one step forward and two steps back, I am grateful that Bard is dedicated to getting the conversation started and then taking action.