I have the great pleasure of working with state legislators around the country to protect and expand reproductive freedom. However, the lessons they've taught me are more than just political, they're life lessons. Here are a few of my favorites from this year.
Bring your full self to your work.
The only Black woman legislator in Kentucky's legislature, Representative Attica Scott, knows she can't separate her life and her humanity from her job as a legislator. She drives the state's efforts to address racial disparities in maternal health and access to reproductive health care. Rep. Scott is also a leader in demanding justice after the murder of Breonna Taylor; she's been on the front lines of community organizing and holding police accountable, channeling the pain and outrage in Louisville and around the world into making change.
Another great example of this is the work of Nevada Assemblywoman, Rochelle Nguyen, who shared what it's like being the first Democratic Asian American and Pacific Islander person to serve in the Nevada Legislature, which is also the nation's first majority-female legislature. The anti-Asian racism she and her community have endured and forcefully condemned during the COVID-19 pandemic is outrageous. Her vulnerability in sharing her stories and helping the people in her district is inspiring.
Use the tools you have available.
If we waited for everything to be perfect before moving forward, we'd be stuck in place forever. As with most people, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way legislators work. With few opportunities to meet constituents in person, legislators have risen to the challenge by finding new and creative ways to serve. Legislatures convened remotely, held virtual storytimes (one even offered to teach a virtual civics lesson to kids at home), showed constituents how to make their own masks, and shared their own experiences seeking necessary healthcare during this pandemic. For example, Oregon State Representative Karin Power tweeted in April about her experience as receiving her 20-week ultrasound when PPE was limited and the virus was in its first phase.
Go big or go home.
The problems we face can feel overwhelming, but being clear about what is needed for real change can be inspiring. In Maine, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross isn't mincing words. Her goal is "the abolition of structural racism" and she's connecting the dots between state-level policy changes she's seeking and the subversion of our dominant framework.
In Ohio, legislators like Representative Emilia Sykes are pushing for a state resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. The need for this was crystallized when a fellow legislator questioned whether people of color—whom he called "the colored population"—were more susceptible to the coronavirus because of poor hygiene practices.
Legislators in Michigan, led by Senator Erika Geiss, pushed for similar recognition of the public health crisis that racism poses, declaring, "As legislators, we have the voices to speak about it and the power to introduce laws that could improve each aspect of life that systemic institutionalized racism touches—employment, healthcare, education, housing, criminal justice, and even policing/public safety."
Sometimes, you just have to leave.
When Utah legislators were considering a bill to mandate an ultrasound before a patient could receive an abortion in an effort to dissuade them from the procedure, all six of the women in the Utah Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, walked out to protest what they deemed the "invasive nature" of the bill (And yes, I hope we can all agree that politicians mandating health care procedures regardless of a physician's expertise or a patient's desires is invasive!). This was a completely unprompted and unscripted moment. Their actions led to the failure of the bill, with the sponsor saying the walkout had a "trickle-down effect." These Utah women legislators reminded me that sometimes your absence can send the biggest message.
Lean into your power.
After last year's election, a record number of women held office in Virginia, and they did not squander their opportunity to show their strength. After years of Virginia laws chipping away at abortion rights and access, this new legislative class, led by Black women legislators, made serious changes—repealing some existing harmful abortion restrictions and making it clear that to be a true leader, you can't shy away from opportunity. You work hard to build your political capital—don't be afraid to use it when it really matters.
2020 is not for the faint-hearted. Parents, teachers, grocery store clerks, health care providers, we are all demonstrating bravery daily just by navigating our new realities. Watching Michigan state legislators wade through angry crowds of armed stay-at-home-order protesters to get to the capitol building underscored that women politicians worldwide are subject to increased levels of scrutiny and even harassment and violence. Women shouldn't have to wear a bullet-proof vest to do the crucial work of governing.
Last week on August 18th, our nation marked 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment—100 years since women (really only White women) won the right to vote. We're still short of achieving political equality, and women are only 29% of our country's 7,000+ state legislators, with women of color comprising an abysmal 7.4% of state legislators. But the women legislators mentioned above, along with so many others around the country, are doing the work every day to change their communities and change the world. In 2020, I'm learning from these inspiring women every day.
WRITTEN BYKelly Baden