NEW ENGLAND – While women have now been able to cast their votes for a full century, too often, their names are still missing from the ballot.
Even in New England, often touted as a progressive and liberal corner of the country, women still face numerous obstacles while running for political office — if they decide to run at all.
Rep. Justine Caldwell (D-Dist. 30 — East Greenwich, West Greenwich), who was recently elected to a second term in the Rhode Island General Assembly, became the face of this struggle for the viewers who turned into PBS on New Year’s Day.
“People were like, ‘You should do it, but you have no chance,” Caldwell had told PBS documentary filmmaker Dorothy Dickie, reflecting back on her first run for office.
As someone who is a relative newcomer, who hadn’t receive the strongest encouragement straight out of the gate and was told to avoid controversial topics she was passionate about — like reproductive healthcare and gun control — Caldwell served as the documentary’s “narrative anchor, threading together the past, present and future of New England women in politics.”
Her face was placed amongst other groundbreaking female politicians who’ve helped pave the way for others to follow. “The X Factor: Women in New England Politics,” featured a number of legislatures and governors from several states, but there’s been a fair number of glass ceilings shattered right here in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo made history after being elected the state’s first female governor in 2014, and that same year, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea made history as the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in New England.
The Ocean State is also home to former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet, who served as the first female attorney general in the nation.
And unlike Vermont, which is the only state in union that has yet to send a women to Washington, Rhode Island elected its first female U.S. Representative in 1980.
Other notable faces that appeared in the feature-length documentary included Janet Mills, who served as the first woman district attorney in New England and the first woman governor of Maine; Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who served as the first woman elected both as a governor and a U.S. senator in American history; and former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, who became the first woman in U.S. history to have been elected governor of a state three times.
“It was humbling to be put alongside them, as if we are all on some kind of same platform of women in New England politics,” Caldwell said.
Despite feeling slightly inferior in comparison to some of the documentary’s other subjects, the unnecessary and uncalled for challenges that women are subjected to — like receiving criticism for their appearance — seem to be universal.
The morning following her re-election, Caldwell said she received a call from Gov. Raimondo, congratulating her for having the courage to throw her hat into the ring as women, but “hearing it from other women in the other states was really eye opening.”
“You realize we’re all having the same experience, everywhere,” Caldwell said.
“I watched it for the first time with everyone else,” she added, commenting on how little she knew about the documentary’s other subjects before it ran on New Year’s Day.
Caldwell was first approached by Dickie sometime in late February or early March, before words like social distancing and quarantine became part of our everyday vocabulary. The plan had been for Dickie to follow her on the campaign trail and to engagement events, but the pandemic quickly upended those plans, according to Caldwell.
This time around, the pandemic made it much more difficult to canvass the community. In addition to facing health and safety guidelines, Caldwell was also home with her two, school-aged children while working to help constituents tackle bureaucratic red tape.
There weren’t as many people volunteering to knock on doors, either, but for the few thousand households Caldwell was able to reach, people seemed willing to hear her out and talk about their concerns from a safe distance.
During her first run for office, Caldwell had received encouragement from those she spoke with, but many expressed doubt that she’d be able to face off against a three-term representative. As she persisted with getting her name out there, the tides of public opinion slowly began to change. Thankfully, she always had faith in herself and her message — even when she knew it was a long shot.
“I don’t think anyone ever runs already thinking they’re going to lose,” Caldwell said. “Otherwise it’s really hard to get out there every day and turn your life upside down.”
“Especially being a woman and a mom, my whole family sacrificed a lot of that,” she added.
When she was first deciding to run in 2018, Caldwell would often imagine how terrible it would be to lose. Thinking of Hilary Clinton’s unsuccessful run for president, however, strangely enough she was still inspired her to push forward.
“I thought, if she could lose to Donald Trump and move on, and try to do that for all of us, then I can certainly do that here,” Caldwell said.
Despite women comprising 29 percent of state legislatures across the country in 2020, and winning a record number of seats in 2018, women continue to remain less than one-third of elected officials in the U.S.
To Caldwell, the women elected today will inspire those to follow tomorrow, though.
“I think we saw more women run this time — especially in local and municipal races,” Caldwell said. “I think as time passes and more women get elected, it’ll have a snowball effect — more women will see it as a possibility.”
“More women aren’t afraid to lose and more women are deciding it’s worth it to try to juggle it with their kids and their job, because they see how we can move forward with more women up there and in those spaces,” she added.
“There are a lot of opportunities for women to run,” Caldwell said. “We saw that in 2018, we saw it again in 2020, and I’m sure it will just grow — because there’s no reason for it not to.”
For anyone considering a run for office, both male and female, Caldwell encourages them to think of the seat they’re running for. She doesn’t believe anyone should run for the sake of running, but because you’re running against someone who hasn’t been an effective voice or doesn’t represent your values.
For women in particular, she stresses the importance of them sticking together.
“It has been one of the saddest experiences, for me, after running my campaigns and winning, to see women in some of those positions still treat each other as competition,” Caldwell said. “The men really don’t have to do that, so we do have to work extra hard to make sure we’re all sticking together, and that our successes are each other’s successes.”
“I think that’s a way women candidates can really thrive, too,” she added. “By being part of a team and really working together.”