‘Make a Plan and Don’t Get Discouraged’: Megan Rapinoe and Jennifer Siebel Newsom on Staying Sane in 2020

Jenny Singer
·10 mins read

One hundred years ago this month, after a brutal decades-long battle, the ratification of the 19th Amendment made it illegal to deny women the right to vote.

“I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life,” the Black poet and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper said at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention. She didn’t live to see the amendment passed—but she was right.

Ahead of her online exhibit celebrating the voting centennial at the California museum, California first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom sat down with soccer icon and fair-pay activist Megan Rapinoe to talk to Glamour about how far women have come since winning the right to vote in 1920, and how far we have to go. Their open and bracing conversation touches on white feminism, beauty, contract negotiation, and why—in November and beyond—you need to have a plan.

Glamour: We’re here to talk about the 19th Amendment, which is often said to have given women the right to vote. But because of voter suppression, women of color didn’t fully gain the vote until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act became law and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. How do we deal with the fact that we are three white women, presuming to speak about feminism for all women?

Megan Rapinoe: We have to talk about it. That’s the thing that I think people underestimate. Like, I didn’t make the 19th Amendment! But I certainly benefit from it. Even just saying that is important: “Yes, we celebrate the 19th Amendment, which pretty much gave white women the right to vote.” Now we need to craft policy that—not just on its face—gives everyone equal opportunity, because if one woman’s starting down here, she’s just never going to catch up. We need more focus on Black women, working moms, immigrants, essential workers, domestic workers, and service workers. Lifting them up eventually lifts everyone up. We know that.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: When you’re in a position of privilege, it means you have the power to empower. We know we will achieve parity when we fix the systemic issues that have left communities of color, women of color in particular, behind. In my work I’m very focused on women of color and working moms because they’ve been the most exposed to COVID, they’ve lost jobs in record numbers, and they’re our frontline workers.

We’re just a few months away from the election! Do you have a message to voters who are thinking about whether to throw in a few hours or dollars to a campaign, or whether to vote at all?

Siebel Newsom: There’s this quote that I love: “If your vote doesn’t matter, why is the other side trying so hard to take it away from you?” We have a crisis in our country, and I believe it’s largely a result of a certain type of leadership, a very hypermasculine type of leadership that’s led us to invest more in wars and dominance and unfettered capitalism for the benefit of the few and the expense of the many, instead of investing in care and education, and all the things that ultimately make society healthy and whole. There’s a transformative leadership style that’s required, and I think women are very comfortable in that realm. So how can you act? You vote. You vote, and you participate in any public leadership that you can.

Rapinoe: Every part of life has been negatively affected—unless you’re superrich—by this pandemic and by the Trump administration. There’s a reason they’re trying their damnedest to stop as many people from voting as they can, because they know with the numbers on the Democratic side there’s no way for them to win an election. They’re a dying party because they don’t take care of people. My message for people is—if you take time to be educated about anything, it should be this. So make your voting plan; know where your polling sites are or request your mail-in ballot. Talk about the election with your friends and family, repost information on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. We can’t get bogged down in—of course the Trump administration is corrupt! Of course they’re cheating at everything! We have to try to combat that to get people in office who will not cheat, who will talk about health care and the environment and getting a hold of COVID and the economy. The most important thing right now is to understand what’s happening. Make a plan and don’t get discouraged.

Megan, you’re an athlete; Jennifer, you’re a filmmaker. But you both have these gigantic platforms that you use so well, even though neither of you originally pursued this work. How do you rise to that challenge?

Rapinoe: Well, I feel like one of the greatest sort of lies or manipulations that we’ve been told is that you have to be a politician to be political, when in fact every single person on the planet is political in some way. We all participate in systems—I stop at stop signs, I pay taxes, if my house is on fire, the fire department is going to come. I just don’t buy into the idea that I’m an athlete and that’s the only thing I can or should be. 

I feel like I’m on this team of America and I will constantly criticize it and look for ways to get better so we can be the best we can be, because I love this country.

I’m not a religious person, and I feel like—this is my only life, and I want the best for myself, my family, and my country. We live in a country that glorifies athletes and celebrities. And so if you’re going to give me the platform, if you’re going to give me the mic, I’m going to talk. I think people are made to feel as if politics is overwhelming and something they aren’t qualified to be in, but that’s not the truth. We should all use our vote, we should all hold people in office accountable, we should all be doing our part to make the country as good as it can be. Maybe that’s a thing that I got from sports, but I feel like you should always be doing your best, and being critical of yourself. As a country, I feel like I'm on this team of America and I will constantly criticize it and look for ways to get better so we can be the best we can be, because I love this country.

Siebel Newsom: When I was a little girl, I lost my older sister and I became the eldest. And I remember my mom saying, “Jen, you have to be a leader, you have to be a role model.” She really taught me that life’s about more than myself. I probably didn’t discover that I had a really strong voice until I made my movie Miss Representation. I’ve worked in [the entertainment] industry, which really discriminates against and devalues women and girls, and I knew that that was wrong and I didn’t realize, really, until I made the film that I had the power to speak up against injustice and inequity. That’s what I love about Megan—I think we’re both natural leaders.

Miss Representation, one of your documentary films, is very critical of how society rewards women for their appearance. To me, it feels like women get punished twice: First they’re forced to conform to certain expectations, then they’re criticized for doing so. How do you deal with the fact that, for example, Kamala Harris “has” to wear makeup, and Joe Biden does not?

Siebel Newsom: You’re 100% right that there’s a double bind. There are multiple binds—we’ve been conditioned as a society to value women for their youth or beauty and their sexuality. We’re trying to disrupt and rewrite that narrative; that’s the work we do at The Representation Project. That’s one of the reasons I’m first partner and not first lady. I have no problem with being a lady! But I have a problem with not being seen for who I really am—my husband couldn’t do his job if I wasn’t taking care of the kids and the home and having my other job so we can pay bills. And also, I’m a partner in that I’m the first person he talks to about everything when he’s struggling with issues and crises.

I do think there is pressure on Biden; I think people are super judgmental of people’s appearances and extremely harmful—to women in particular—as we age. My big push is that I want women to be taken seriously for what we have to say. It’s about taking power back into our hands, because the guys...haven’t done such a great job. My message to young girls is: Figure out what works for you in the looks department, but look at the pie and how much time you’re spending in the looks department, and have it be a small piece of the pie. And then just get on with your contributions to humanity.

Rapinoe: I want to jump in there too about looks—for so long we had so few women in office, so if you did want to be that woman in politics, you saw Nancy Pelosi and you saw Hillary Clinton and maybe a couple others you it was like, “I guess that’s the look.” But even in this conversation you have myself and Jennifer—we’re obviously very different. Our sexualities are different. You have long hair, I have short hair! I have pink hair, you have blond hair! We’re both wearing makeup. Then you look to Congress now, and you have someone like AOC, you have Ayanna Pressley, who has a bare head, you have Ilhan Omar, who’s wearing a hijab. Nobody’s rocking up to the Congress without makeup! But we’ll get there. The importance of different types of women that we have on TV, in the news chair, running for office—it can’t be overstated. You can’t be what you can’t see.

<h1 class="title">Jennifer Siebel Newsom with Governor Gavin Newsom and their children</h1><div class="caption">Siebel Newsom with her husband, California governor Gavin Newsom, and their children in 2019</div><cite class="credit">Stephen Lam/Getty </cite>

Jennifer Siebel Newsom with Governor Gavin Newsom and their children

Siebel Newsom with her husband, California governor Gavin Newsom, and their children in 2019
Stephen Lam/Getty

You’ve both done a huge amount of work on equal pay for women. Shouldn’t first partners be paid? I mean, these are positions that are mandatory and require round-the-clock work—it feels like an equal pay issue.

Siebel Newsom: You know, it’s not fair. Maybe that’s something I can champion down the line. I’m just trying, as the first step, to take the strongest equal pay laws in the nation, which are in California, and turn them into the lowest pay gap in the nation, and I’m focused on women of color. We’ve had 50 major corporations across California sign a pledge where they’re committing to reducing bias in hiring and promotion, and identifying the best practices to close the pay gap in their company.

I know this from Stanford business school, where I graduated, that more men than women negotiate their first pay, and the statistic is something like—you can lose a million dollars of income by not negotiating that first job’s pay. In California, women lose $78.6 billion annually to the pay gap, we know that the gap is greater for Black women and Latinx women. The fact that we don’t pay women equitably is a demonstration of how little we value women. I actually address this in my new documentary, The Great American Lie, which comes out October 2. This is my work. Maybe I’ll focus on first ladies toward the end of my career, because we have a lot to do.

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.

Originally Appeared on Glamour