An Air Force Mechanic, a Cult Survivor, and Thousands of Other Women Are Saving American Politics

In Trump's America, women are running for office in unprecedented numbers. Here are their stories.

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As soon as Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, could pick her "jaw up off the floor" on November 9, her first concern was that women nationwide would "flee" politics forever. "I worried that they would be so discouraged and depressed and disgusted with the process that they'd just witnessed that they would just kind of crawl under the covers and sit it out," she says.

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But then the emails poured in. Within a few months, so many hundreds of women had paid to attend the organization's annual Ready to Run candidate boot camp that Walsh needed to rent a bigger space. And CAWP isn't an outlier. Since the election, more than 15,000 women have reached out to EMILY's List alone to find out how to run for office. At Emerge America, an organization that trains women to compete in down-ballot races, staff and volunteers have hustled to keep up with outsize demand.

A'Shanti Gholar, Emerge's political director, tells me she and her team launched a webinar after the election to teach women basic campaign skills. The first session of "Dare to Compete" netted 300 viewers. The second time, 500. The third time, more than 1,000 women tuned in. In Nevada and Virginia and Pennsylvania and more, the organization's in-person candidate classes have reached capacity in a matter of days. In Massachusetts, there's been so much interest that Emerge had to launch a second class to accommodate all the well-qualified women who wanted in.

For decades, research has shown that women need to be asked not once but up to seven times to run for office. And while the recent flood of candidates upends that conventional wisdom, Walsh, at least, thinks her work has been validated. "We have found, over and over, that men run to be politicians, and women run to fix a problem," Walsh says. "Well, thousands of women have seen the problem, and they want to contribute to the solution." Going forward, she and Gholar both place the onus on our political parties to recruit and train women who've put themselves forward. "A million women can all step up," Walsh says, "but without that institutional support, it's really, really tough."

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Walsh, for the record, believes women will continue to turn out. This isn't some blip that can be conveniently overlooked, she says. "It's like we've always said in politics: 'If you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu.' I think it's become really clear to women what their lives will look like if they're on the menu."

Here, we interviewed three first-time Emerge America–backed candidates about their experiences in politics so far. Their stories will leave you livid, impressed, and inspired. And then, you tell us: What the hell are you planning to do about it?

Katie Sponsler

Like more than 65 million Americans, the outcome of the presidential election horrified Katie Sponsler. But it didn't surprise her. "I've spent most of my career in male-oriented worlds, and so I don't really expect women to be given respect and a fair shot," she says. And in the end, it happened just as she'd feared: "People decided, no matter what was on the other side of the aisle, it was still preferable to a smart, qualified woman."

Sponsler grew up just outside Youngstown, Ohio, a witness to the Rust Belt's economic crisis decades before it would become a media obsession. She graduated from high school and married almost immediately, giving birth to her first child, a girl, soon after. When it became clear that waitress gigs wouldn't begin to cover tuition for school, she joined the armed forces and trained as an Air Force mechanic.

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Within a few years, she was divorced, basically a single mom, and stationed in Germany. "It was 52 men and me," Sponsler recalls. "I was the first woman they'd ever had there. And on my first day, the chief called me into his office and told me explicitly that he didn't want me there, that he'd done everything in his power to avoid having a female in his shop." Sponsler wasn't scared, but she didn't exactly feel invulnerable. "Three weeks in, I'm handed this mechanism called a recoil adapter," Sponsler remembers. "I would describe it as a big, pretty phallic structure, and for it to work, it has to have lubrication worked into its grooves. I learned how to do that with over 50 men crowding around me, giving me tips. It took about 45 minutes. And that was really my introduction to my coworkers — a lesson in how to give a hand job."

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After four years in that post and two more on a flight line, she joined the reserves in Ohio, eventually deploying to Afghanistan. After she put herself through school at Youngstown State University, she joined the National Park Service and moved to Virginia, where she'd been offered a plum gig. "At that point, I was working 70 hours a week," Sponsler says. She had just had her second child, a son. "I decided it was in my partner and children's best interest for me to take some time off."

And then November happened. Sponsler had loved service work and wanted to make a difference. And now, she explains, though she understands better than most what women face when they dare to infiltrate men's ranks, she felt compelled. "I've always believed we're put on this planet and we're expected to put our abilities to use," Sponsler says. "And I'm pretty great at getting beat up. It doesn't change who I am or what I believe. I'm not afraid of it."

Which is good, because Sponsler is running against a 28-year incumbent who hasn't had an opponent since 1995 and who's raised almost exactly 100 times what she has. Plus, Sponsler admits, Virginia's 66th District is "deep red" and suffers from low voter turnout. "But that's what we can fix," Sponsler says. "We want folks to come out and be involved."

"At the end of my life, I want to be able to look at my children and say, 'My hands are clean. I did everything I could to give you the world you deserve,'" Sponsler says. "I think that's my responsibility as a mother, and I think it's my responsibility as a human."

Sponsler, unchallenged in her primary, will be on the ballot to represent Virginia's 66th District in its House of Delegates in November 2017.

Paula Phillips

If Paula Phillips has a message, it's that running for office is an insane idea — mentally stressful, financially daunting, it's-winter-in-Wisconsin-and-my-toes-are-literally-freezing demanding. It's also the single most rewarding experience she's ever had. Phillips, 28, moved to Milwaukee in 2010, beginning her career in service there as an AmeriCorps fellow. But while she fell in love with the people and her neighborhood and volunteered on local campaigns, she never imagined she'd run for office herself. It seemed presumptuous. "Like, 'Oh, you have to be from here, born and raised here.'" She wasn't and hadn't been.

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And so it wasn't until then-school-board member Claire Zautke decided to vacate her seat that Phillips was convinced she should run. At first, Phillips, who doesn't have children, worried that she didn't have the experience she needed to put her name on the ballot. "But Claire really walked me through it," Phillips remembers. Zautke reminded Phillips that she'd logged countless hours at local organizations, volunteered at church, organized service trips, studied cultural economics, and, above all, cared. Phillips could continue to be a volunteer, or she could do as Zautke had and oversee the revitalization of an elementary school, kick off a second-language-immersion initiative in the district, and "be part of what's keeping public education intact."

It's been an "impossible" few months, but Phillips finds that the race has given her a new self-confidence. "I learned I'm awesome and pretty badass," she says, laughing. And the revelation matters, because it's had a fundamental effect on how Phillips plans to fulfill her duties. She isn't just flattered to have a voice, to "have been invited; like, no, I'm here, and I want to lead."

Phillips was elected to the Milwaukee school board in April 2017.

"Men run to be politicians, and women run to fix a problem."

Chelsea Savage

Chelsea Savage, 46, a nurse and activist, never intended to run for office — "It's scary as heck!" — but she's always believed that people, and women in particular, should be open to the unexpected. "It's my responsibility to say yes to opportunity," she explains. So she did. She said yes to a leadership boot camp, and she said yes once more when Emerge Virginia invited her to participate in its own training program for women in politics. It was at a meeting with the Democratic caucus in the Virginia State Legislature, organized by Emerge, that Savage let herself seriously consider whether she could really run for office.

"I just thought I'd throw it out there. I asked, 'Well, I'm gay. What kind of handicap does that give me?'" The panelists looked back at her, confused: "It doesn't give you any kind of handicap." Savage suddenly saw a path unfurl before her. A few weeks after that meeting, Emerge Virginia coordinators sent out an email; the deadline to declare was imminent, and the state needed candidates. She decided to run for the House of Delegates. The seat, which Republican incumbent John O'Bannon has held since 2001, has been contested by a Democratic candidate only once.  

Emerge stepped in to help Savage learn the nuts and bolts of elected politics — how to fund-raise, canvass, host a meet-and-greet. And while Savage didn't have technical political experience, she did have less teachable skills — resolve and grit. It's how, Savage explains, she escaped a religious cult after nearly two decades in its grips. "Yes, from 5 to 24," she continues. "I was taken out of school in sixth grade, taught myself after that, and got my GED at 15." After Savage's single mother was lured into the Charles Church Christian Life Center, Savage was made to wear stuffy, covered-up dresses, to read only preapproved books, to work unpaid for the church's leaders. Looking for an escape, she married at 23 and found out she was pregnant; she was divorced by the time she turned 30. But Savage plowed ahead, earning her bachelor's degree and, later, a master's in health administration.

At the end of April, Savage lost the primary in Virginia's 73rd District, conceding to Debra H. Rodman. But when I reach her by phone in May, she sounds upbeat. She's spent the past few weeks thanking the people who worked on or volunteered for her campaign. She's spoken to Rodman, whom she's pledged to support in any way she can. And though she won't commit to another run in politics, she puts the odds she'll try it at "above 50 percent."

"Once you do this once, it's like, 'Oh, I know I can do this,'" Savage continues. "When I launched my campaign, I couldn't even sell my daughter's Girl Scout cookies, and by the end, I'd raised probably over $17,000. And I guess that's what I want to tell women. You physically can dial a number. You physically can knock on a door. And if you do it, if you push yourself, eventually, your mind will follow. Don't wait until you're confident. Do it scared. Run scared."

Mattie Kahn is a writer for elle.com.

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