The day after President Trump’s election, in November 2016, Katie Fry Hester’s daughter asked her a wrenching question: Were women going to be okay?
“Yes,” Hester, 45, told her. “But we have work to do.”
Hester got to it quickly — and in a way she hadn’t planned. She was working, at the time, as a consultant and “was involved in an alliance designed to bring people together in the center.” Realizing that her Maryland state senator “didn’t represent my interests,” Hester said her first instinct was to find someone else to run against her. “Nobody wanted to do it, and she had been in office for more than 20 years,” Hester said. “I decided to throw my name in and start knocking on doors.” She won.
Hester wasn’t alone in feeling a call to action: In the year after Trump’s election, some 26,000 women contacted the liberal political action committee Emily’s List about running for office. Few of those were names you would have heard of; most were inquiring about local positions.
But the stories of Hester and others, such as Adrienne Martini, author of the newly released memoir “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” show the blunt political impact that women can have right in their communities.
Doubt and disappointments
Martini, a 49-year-old journalist, author and mom of two, says she “suffered from impostor syndrome” while campaigning for a spot on New York’s Ostego County Board of Representatives.
“There were many times when I questioned my decision to run,” she said. “But all along, any time I wavered, I got some little reminder of why I was doing it — it’s those little moments that keep you going.”
Martini ultimately defeated the Republican incumbent for the county board seat in 2017. The process of learning how a local government works, she says, can still feel formidable, “but I’m willing to admit when I don’t understand an issue and ask questions.”
Sabina Taj, a 48-year-old educator in Columbia, Md., likewise had never before run for public office. But she was unhappy with the philosophies and policies of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and worried about the trickle-down effects at the local level. “It’s a frightening time for education in this country,” Taj said. “Locally, our board of education was made up of white, wealthy conservatives, so I decided to run to help change that.”
Since taking office, the experiences of the three women have varied widely. Hester’s experience has been fruitful, with many of her state-level initiatives coming about as a result of work with state delegate Courtney Watson, who is also from her district.
“In the first year, we were able to bring in millions in grant money for flood management after historic flooding in our town,” Hester says. “I also sit on the education, health and environment committee and am hopeful about making a difference there.”
Taj, for her part, says she has focused on “hiring more teachers of color, diversifying curriculum, and creating policy with a lens to serve all children.” And while her tenure has coincided with a contentious school redistricting process, she stands by her choice to run: “I based my decisions on data and worked for equity. I would do it again if it meant supporting progress.”
Each of the women acknowledge that serving in public office can be a difficult balancing act, especially when most household and child-care duties in the U.S. still fall to women.
“There are invisible barriers that women face,” Martini said.
“Even with a supportive partner and network, it’s very hard,” said Taj. “But I made it clear to my kids that I was giving up time with them for a finite period so that, someday, they could have a voice in the process.”
All three are encouraging to others who might be considering their own run for office.
In her book, Martini, who is an athletic runner as well, likens campaigning for and holding public office to a marathon. “The trick to getting through nearly all hard things is to just keep moving forward, tiny step by tiny step,” she writes. “Cherish the moments of joy and push through the discomfort.”
One of those tiny steps, Martini said, was simple: She started “having day-to-day conversations with people in office, the majority of which are dedicated to what they do.” “Locally, we’re getting things done and the systems are holding,” Martini said. “I trust the people in my local departments, and that helps.”
Taj, too, sees the wisdom in women lifting each other up throughout the political process. “I want women to know they are capable and smart, no matter how the system is rigged against them,” she said.
Yet getting involved doesn’t always mean running personally.
After her election, Hester attended a debriefing session with fellow candidates and discovered another area for female opportunity: “There were so many women running last time,” she said, “that it was hard to find campaign managers.”
“If women want to run, they need a good manager,” Hester said. “As a community, we need to support and surround other women.”
“We can be so amazing if we band together.”