“I’d rather buy you a purse.”
My blood started to boil right when he said it. I had just asked a male friend of mine if he’d contribute to my campaign for Congress in the current special election for California’s 34th District. I had expected to have his support, or at least his encouragement, and I felt my stomach immediately knot from the betrayal.
I, of all people, shouldn’t have been that surprised.
Sexism and misogyny are nothing new in politics. Female political staffers and politicians have been facing off-color comments and leering glances and have been excluded from “at capacity” meetings for decades. In fact, I assumed I’d already faced my biggest dose of sexism back in 2009.
I had graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a master’s degree in public policy the year before and moved to Chicago to work unpaid on then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for president. Never mind that I had just covered my full graduate school tuition with student loans. I was inspired and ecstatic to have the opportunity to work to elect someone whose vision for our country I shared. Living off credit cards was worth it to me, and even though I couldn’t afford health insurance, I took the job anyway. Where I come from, safety nets don’t exist, so I was used to the free fall.
I just didn’t expect for my next free fall to take place because of my underwear - and in front of the entire White House.
I was raised by a single mom and by my grandmother, who both immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. I spent most of my childhood in a tiny, low-income apartment that burst at the seams with members of my extended family. We had a lot of love but not a lot of resources, and we got by on welfare and other programs like WIC and Medicaid at times.
Like many, I’ve had to work since my early teens and have had a lot of jobs. As a waitress. As a live mannequin on Venice Beach Boardwalk. As a retail employee at a clothing store. And almost 15 years ago, I worked as a model. My time as a model was short and it helped me pay some bills.
After President Obama was elected, I was appointed to work in the White House, initially in the chief of staff’s office and later serving as the first ever White House deputy director of Hispanic media. This moment was the fulfillment of dreams that a younger me could have never conceived, and I felt a deep sense of responsibility to translate that perspective into action at the highest level.
Then the photos hit.
One week into the job, photos from an old shoot for Maxim surfaced and spread like an arsonist’s fire. Right behind the photos followed the hotter, more humiliating blaze of unveiled snark that pointedly implied that I didn’t deserve what I’d accomplished and had been overambitious for even trying in the first place. And it was everywhere - from Gawker to the Daily Mail to Perez Hilton to the front page of a random newspaper in India. I was now stamped as the “White House Maxim Model.” I had been reduced to a stereotype.
After crying for a week, I put my head down and worked even harder. The only thing that ever got me anywhere was working hard, showing up when I said I would or earlier, and doing more than just the job I was hired to do. And that’s what I did for my next four years at the White House.
Now, eight years later, as I run for Congress, I understand a lot more about the systemic sexism in politics than the young woman who beat herself up and took all the shaming so personally. Yet when I recently found myself forced to answer questions about Maxim by a reputable newspaper in my official announcement for Congress, I knew I had to speak out about this double standard. Enough already.
Men get to be broad and complicated and contradictory. Yet as women, we aren't granted the whole person. We get typecast as the Sexy One, the Brainy One, the Girl Next Door. We don’t create these boxes for ourselves and usually don't agree to them, so why should we have to live within them? Women shouldn’t need to choose between being intelligent and being feminine. Female sexuality and intelligence are not inversely related.
I’m proud of the mosaic of experiences that make me who I am. My life experiences have forged me into a fighter and that’s why I decided that I won’t let others’ boxes stop me from doing what needs to be done - running for office, standing up to Trump and Republicans, and standing up for women in Los Angeles.
But that's my experience, and I'm fortunate to have come through it. The larger problem is our need for many more women - diverse, young, and from a range of perspectives - to run for office, now more than ever. Few women are able to navigate their way through college and build a career in a way that is perfectly linear and that all ties together with a pretty bow on top. Most of us figure it out as we go along. In real time.
Right now, there are young women all across the country who are exactly who we need to run for office. They are passionate, they are fighters, and they are real, with backgrounds that aren’t cookie-cutter. It’s urgent we send a message to these women that they will not be kept out of the political process by the mere fact of being human, of being their wonderfully nuanced, complicated, sometimes contradictory selves.
From this generation forward, every woman will have grown up in the digital age where, unless she sat in a turtleneck at home for all her teens, she will have pictures readily available online that can be used to shame her. And if these women decide to sit this one out because of that, we will miss out on talented, transformational women leaders in every public-facing field, especially politics. This will be a loss for our country and our future.
Now more than ever, we must recognize and accept the complexity of real women, and celebrate them in their quest for leadership roles. Whole, multidimensional women. Please throw your name in the arena, whichever one you’re in - because it only gets better every time one of us tries.
We do not need to be cleared for contention. And we can buy our own damn purses.
Follow Alejandra on Twitter.
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