Hopes for a female president dashed, women take running for office into their own hands

November 26 at 4:40 PM
On Wednesday, she woke up inconsolable. On Thursday, angry. But on the Friday after the presidential election, as she prepared posters to join thousands in protesting Donald Trump’s victory, Mia Hernández came to a quiet realization: If she found her country’s direction intolerable, she would have to try to change it.

She would change it not just by signing petitions, or protesting, or calling her legislators. For the first time, she sketched out a plan to run for elected office.

In 2020, Hernández intends to make a bid for a seat on the San Jose City Council or the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Her focus will be reproductive rights and community empowerment, she said.

“Everybody says organize, don’t mourn, make a change,” said Hernández, 22, a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “So I said to myself, ‘How am I going to be an active member in this? You know what, I need to run for office. I need to be a part of that decision-making. I need to make sure Trump’s voice is not the only voice out there.’ ”

Among young, liberal women who expected to see the country elect its first female president Nov. 8, Hernández is not alone; many are responding to Hillary Clinton’s defeat with a new sense of obligation to seek political power. After years of never imagining a career in the public eye or only vaguely entertaining the idea of working in politics, these women are determined to run for elected office.

They don’t speak for all women, many of whom voted for Trump — 42 percent of them, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research. Notably, a majority of white women favored the Republican. But Clinton still benefited from an overall gender gap, and young women supported her by a margin of 32 percentage points.

For many of those rooting for Clinton to break the glass ceiling her campaign repeatedly invoked, her loss, painful as it was, could be an even greater mobilizing force than a victory might have been.

“It’s incredibly ironic,” said Alexandra Melnick, a 22-year-old from Florida who recently decided to run for a spot on a local school board after she obtains her master’s degree in education. “But to think this could inspire women like me to run for office — it’s the only belief one can have without losing hope.”

For Hernández, the ascent of a man she sees as menacing to her full inclusion in American society as a Latina — and menacing to the safety of her undocumented friends — has changed everything.

Her focus had not been on electoral politics. She considered herself an activist, concentrating on rent and eviction issues in her home town of San Jose. She used to spurn city council members and state legislators, politicians against whom she had “spent so much time fighting.” But the election convinced her that these offices wield unparalleled influence, and it made clear to her the scope of the power she could exert and the scale of her responsibility.

Michele L. Swers, a professor of government at Georgetown University who specializes in gender and policymaking, said this response has historical precedent.

In the early 1990s, televised hearings brought the Senate debate over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court into living rooms across the country. The all-male Judiciary Committee’s treatment of Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment, helped motivate women to run for office, Swers said. In 1992, four successfully ran for the U.S. Senate, increasing the number of women in that body threefold. They were Patty Murray of Washington, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, all Democrats. Their electoral success branded 1992 the “Year of the Woman.”

“You had people who decided they didn’t like what they saw,” Swers said. “In general in politics, anger is a very motivating factor.”

Swers said this year’s election may be another pivotal consciousness-raising event for women “deciding the only way to change things is to get into the halls of power.”

The volume of calls and the amount of cash coming in to Emily’s List, a political action committee that seeks to elect Democratic women, testify to this effect, said the organization’s spokeswoman, Marcy Stech.

“We have heard from women across the country who are raising their hands to be part of the solution,” she said.

Motivated but directionless

Although women remain underrepresented at all levels of government, Stech said, young women searching for role models can look to the slate of Democratic women who found success on Election Day. She pointed in particular to Stephanie Murphy, who unseated Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican nearly twice her age, to become the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress. Women like Murphy, Stech predicted, will play a major part in the evolution of the Democratic Party as it aims to represent the growing diversity of the electorate while making renewed overtures to working-class voters forfeited to Trump.

“We’re going to have to fire on all cylinders,” Stech said.

More than 1,000 miles from Santa Cruz, where Hernández watched the election returns in her dorm room, Emily Sheridan, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, sat in a crowded theater and watched Trump notch a victory in Florida. Then she saw Pennsylvania begin to take on a red tint.

It was then she decided she would stay in Boulder after graduation and run for a position at the county level.

“I wanted desperately to be able to do something but I couldn’t. . . . I felt so powerless as something so historic for all the wrong reasons was happening,” said Sheridan, 21, who studies evolutionary ecology and biology and serves as president of the campus’s college Democrats.

Many young people are motivated but directionless, Sheridan said. They’re angry but lack an outlet for that anger; they flocked to Bernie Sanders but disengaged from the election after he failed to win the Democratic nomination. Sheridan said the election’s outcome could be a wake-up call.

“I’m hoping the revolution starts the day after. That’s what Bernie said,” Sheridan said. “What I’m hoping is that the biggest thing that comes out of this is a change in the idea that it’s not cool to be in politics.”

It wasn’t concern for her social capital that kept Lindsay Fletcher, 30, away from politics. It was the sleepless nights staying up with her two children. After four years in the Air Force, Fletcher now cares full-time for her children — a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son — at Sheppard Air Force Base in north Texas, where her husband is stationed.

She feels called to politics, which she sees as an extension of her responsibilities as a parent. After the election, she started a list on her phone of military spouses who have run for office.

“I want to show my little girl that you stand up for what you believe in,” she said. “I’ve never been involved in politics. My focus has been on my home. But my kids are getting older, and I’m getting antsy. I’m ready to get out and do something.”

In a year and a half, Fletcher and her family will relocate. Once they’re settled, she plans to explore local races, perhaps starting at the city level. Fletcher said she would like to focus on women’s issues — from parental leave to health care — as well as the treatment of veterans.

Years from now, she sees herself competing for a seat in the U.S. Senate, she said, in the model of Elizabeth Warren, the liberal firebrand from Massachusetts whom she admires.

For young women with more long-standing political ambitions, the election results solidified their plans — while also laying bare the obstacles they may face.

It has been Aurea Bolaños Perea’s dream to be a congresswoman virtually since she immigrated to the United States from Mexico about a decade ago. On Wednesday she set a deadline: A graduate student at California State University at Chico, she plans to run for a local position in the San Joaquin Valley or San Diego area in the next four years, before ultimately moving to the federal level.

She sees her life story as a refutation of Trump’s rhetoric. For immigrants who fear for their safety under his presidency, she said, “there needs to be someone in power who will understand. That has to be me.”

But she now knows how difficult her path will be.

“You see men who do not internalize failure like women do,” Bolaños Perea said. “If before I thought I would need to prove myself five times over, now I see that it’s more like 10 times.”



Mothers In Prison

“Prison got me sober, but it didn’t get me anywhere.”

By NOV. 25, 2016  New York Times

TULSA, Okla. — The women’s wing of the jail here exhales sadness. The inmates, wearing identical orange uniforms, ache as they undergo withdrawal from drugs, as they eye one another suspiciously, and as they while away the days stripped of freedom, dignity, privacy and, most painful of all, their children.

“She’s disappointed in me,” Janay Manning, 29, a drug offender shackled to a wall for an interview, said of her eldest daughter, a 13-year-old. And then she started crying, and we paused our interview.

Of all America’s various policy missteps in my lifetime, perhaps the most catastrophic was mass incarceration. It has had devastating consequences for families, and it costs the average American household $600 a year.

The United States has recently come to its senses and begun dialing back on the number of male prisoners. But we have continued to increase the number of women behind bars; two-thirds of women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. America now incarcerates eight times as many women as in 1980, and only Thailand seems to imprison women at a higher rate.

And the situation may well worsen under the Trump administration; the president-elect’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has in effect defended mass incarceration.

The global capital for female incarceration may be right here in Oklahoma, which incarcerates 142 out of every 100,000 women, about 10 times the rate of low-ranking states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I wouldn’t argue that mass female incarceration is worse than mass male incarceration — they’re both counterproductive — but the imprisonment of women has heartbreaking collateral damage, because women are disproportionately likely to be primary caregivers, and 60 percent of American women in state prisons have children under 18.

“There’s a devastating impact on the children,” said Amy Santee of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which supports an alternative to imprisonment for women. “They’re put in chaotic homes, they’re more likely to be sexually abused, they’re more likely to be imprisoned themselves.”

Research shows that prison routinely fails at helping women straighten out their lives — although it does mess up their children.

“I felt my life was going to repeat my mom’s, and it did,” said Alisia Hunter, 37, who said her mother was imprisoned for financial offenses while she was a child. Hunter then ended up having a baby at age 16 by one of her father’s buddies, and she soon began doing stints in prison for drug offenses.


Alisia Hunter is a client of Women in Recovery, a Tulsa program that is an alternative to prison for women with drug offenses.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

“Prison got me sober, but it didn’t get me anywhere,” Hunter told me. Each time she went to prison, she would get clean, and then once out she would return to drugs.

She did try to get into a drug rehabilitation program. But the state, while willing to pay to imprison her, was unwilling to pay for drug rehab except for the most serious addicts; she didn’t qualify.

One reason mass incarceration doesn’t get fixed is that society regards felons with a mix of fear and contempt. In fact, the women should evoke sympathy; even more than male prisoners, they have been through the wringer.

A quarter of women in state prisons reported having been sexually abused as children, one 1999 Justice Department study found. A different study found that 43 percent of women in jails that were examined had serious mental health problems, and 82 percent had drug or alcohol problems.

Anessa Rabbit, 31, says she grew up in a family of addicts and was born with drugs in her system. I can’t confirm her life story, but she told how she was molested by her father beginning when she was 7, began smoking methamphetamine daily when she was 11, moved in with a man when she was 13 and dropped out of school in the ninth grade.


Anessa Rabbit, right, being trained at work by Floyd Massey at Webco Industries in Tulsa. Ms. Rabbit also participates in Women in Recovery. CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

Like many female felons, Rabbit seems to have gotten in trouble because of a boyfriend who manipulated her into committing crimes.

“He always put me in the position of doing the dirty work,” Rabbit said, speaking of a boyfriend who used to choke and beat her when he wasn’t coercing her to commit crimes. She says they committed robberies and other offenses, sometimes she at his behest; he ended up with a sentence of four years probation and she faced a possible sentence of 26 years in prison.

Prosecutors often understand what’s going on but threaten the women with long sentences (sometimes based on conspiracy laws) to get them to testify against their men. That’s how the criminal justice system works, but when the women refuse to cave, they go to prison for many years — and the guys then drop them.

When men are in prison, they seem to get visits frequently from girlfriends, who also add money into their commissary accounts so they can buy small items and make phone calls. But the prisoners and social workers I spoke to said that when women are imprisoned, they get fewer visitors and their accounts are often empty.

Mass incarceration also has an abysmal record. Recidivism is high, and imprisonment breaks up and impoverishes families. A newly published study from the Russell Sage Foundationfound that incarceration of a family member is associated with a 64 percent decline in household assets, magnifying poverty and the race gap in America. And the 2.6 million American children who have a parent in prison or jail pay an enormous price — which, as Rabbit’s story shows, isn’t always necessary.

Rabbit was diverted from prison to a model program in Tulsa called Women in Recovery. (Hunter also is in the program.) It reduces the numbers of women in prison, saves money and has had remarkable success helping troubled women shake drugs and restart their lives.

It has a two-generation approach that works with both the women and their children. The program offers counseling, intensive support, coaching on budgeting and conflict resolution, and help getting high school equivalency diplomas, housing and jobs.

The upshot is that Rabbit has now been clean of drugs for nine months — the longest since she was a young child — and has a job in a warehouse with some prospects for promotion. She has custody on weekends of her son, 12, and daughter, 11, and is trying to rebuild relationships with them.

Women in Recovery programs last 17 months and cost $19,700 on average; after that, the woman is in a job, and recidivism over the next three years is just 4.9 percent. Without the program, the state might imprison the women for years at a much greater cost — and end up with a much higher recidivism rate.

So if we want to reduce female incarceration, we have a solution here in Tulsa that will also reduce crime and pay for itself.

I know some of you are glaring at this article and thinking: It’s their own fault. If they don’t want to go to prison, they shouldn’t commit crimes!

That scorn derives partly from a misunderstanding of drug abuse, which is a central reason for mass female incarceration in America (and a major reason for mass incarceration of men as well, although to a lesser degree). As Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general, noted in releasing a major report this month: “It’s time to change how we view addiction. Not as a moral failing but as a chronic illness.” In short, we should think of drugs not primarily through the criminal justice lens but as a public health crisis.

If you think all this is just coddling criminals, consider for a moment Michelle Vavrick, 24. I can’t independently verify her story, but her counselors believe it, and it tracks what many other women in her position have experienced.

Vavrick says she was raised in a chaotic and violent home with alcohol and drugs. Beginning at age 7, she says, a pedophile named Sean began picking her up at her house and taking her away to rape her on an almost daily basis. She responded by acting out, self-mutilating and becoming violent.


Michelle Vavrick at Katy’s Pantry, where she works as part of the Women in Recovery program. She hopes to run her own bakery some day. CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

“At 10, I became uncontrollable,” Vavrick remembered. “Sean and his friends would shoot me with heroin so they could do what they wanted to me. Six of them.”

Vavrick self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, went through rehab programs that didn’t work and ran away at 18. She lived on a park bench, sold sex, connected with a gang and robbed people. “I was a big ball of anger,” she recalled. “I couldn’t stand being in my own skin.”

Last year she was finally arrested for drug running and faced a sentence of 15 years to life. Fortunately, she was diverted to Women in Recovery, underwent intensive cognitive processing therapy — and transformed. She has now been clean for 10 months and is warm and hopeful. Instead of sitting sullenly in a prison cell, she works in a bakery, loves it, and hopes to run her own bakery some day.

At one point when I was interviewing her about her past, she began crying. Alarmed, I quickly apologized, but she shushed me up. “This is progress,” she said, beaming through her tears. She wants to let herself feel again.

Reporting these kinds of topics is often tough: I see people stuck in cycles of poverty, drugs and incarceration, with their children often headed in the same direction. Even well-meaning help is sometimes rejected, for we humans have an astonishing capacity for self-destructive behavior — just as society does, with policies like mass incarceration. That backdrop makes it exhilarating to see a program like Women in Recovery succeed, and an individual like Michelle Vavrick blossom through it into a new future.

“I know how precious my life is, and I never want to stick a needle in my arm again,” she said. “I want to live.”