Help Elected Women Stay in their Jobs
Trolling. Harassment. Getting elected was actually the easy part of the battle
A record number of women were elected to public office in November 2018, and not just to Congress but also to serve on local town and city councils, school boards, and county legislatures. Many of these women are expected to navigate these opaque and archaic political waters without significant staff or pay, without allies or a meaningful network. Many of them have faced online trolling and threats — locally! Enter activist Allison Fine. She started the Network of Elected Women (NEW) to provide that missing support system. Fine is
Making Male Supporters Feel Welcome
CoveyClub: When we spoke before the 2018 election, your venture was called Underwire. Why the name change?
Allison Fine: I loved the name Underwire but it was getting in the way
CoveyClub: The women you are working with are on town and city councils, school boards, and county legislatures. Why are you focused on local officials? Why not work with members of Congress?
Allison Fine: There are two reasons. When you get to the federal level, you have more resources and you have staff. [Officials] at and below the state level are sorely left underprepared and unprotected. Most of the women we are working with, if they get any pay at all, just get a minimal amount. Usually, they are just volunteers if they serve on a school or county board. Yet, there are an enormous amount of obstacles. They are often the only woman at the table. They might face a significant amount of online trolling and threats, and several women have reported stalkers. One woman here in Westchester reported that an online troll posted pictures of her children in Klan robes. A school board member in Western Massachusetts reported someone following her around town. In order to build long-term political power for women, we need to focus on the local level.
Creating Circles of Women
CoveyClub: How will your program reach women in local elected positions?
Allison Fine: The heart of our effort is “Circles,” local gatherings of 10-15 elected women who meet over time to share experiences, build alliances and learn from one another. We plan to aggressively expand our Circles nationwide over the next two years. We will support elected women by helping them identify their own mentors and access information and training in areas such as alliance building, safety from harassment, fundraising and communications. We will strengthen the ecosystem within which locally elected women operate by catalyzing the power of existing networks of activists.
CoveyClub: Where does NEW currently have Circles?
Allison Fine: There are Circles in Boston and Westchester, NY. These were our pilot sites and we used them to create a Circle Playbook that provides step-by-step instructions for starting and sustaining a Circle.
CoveyClub: How do you plan to grow more Circles?
Allison Fine: We anticipate our circles growing through the volunteer model but also by raising money to fund local organizers in strategic places to start and manage these circles through grassroots organizations in Charlotte, NC, Oakland, CA, and Atlanta. We’re partnering with a number of organizations that help to recruit and train women to run for office. Our partners include Emerge America, Ignite, Vote Run Lead, Run for Something and Higher Heights.
Not Knowing the Rules of the Game
CoveyClub: What is the number one issue facing newly elected women?
Allison Fine: They don’t know the rules of the game. They get very little support and orientation as newly elected officials and they don’t know
CoveyClub: What’s your background? How did you become interested in this?
Allison Fine: I always worked in areas of nonprofit and public leadership. After the 2016 election, which I call “The I
Making Sure We Are Diverse
CoveyClub: How do you find diverse Circle members?
Allison Fine: It’s so important we talk the talk on including women of color with everything we are doing. One of the challenges of local circles is they can be cliquish if you don’t open them up. It’s about widening our social network and connecting with people we didn’t know before. You have to be very intentional about it. In the Westchester Circle, it was originally women who looked like me and then I had to roll up my sleeves and reach out to the local Black Women’s Political Caucus and a Latina church. I had to be intentional and keep asking and asking. Now nine of 19 members are women of color. It takes more work. You can’t just say they didn’t show up or I didn’t find them. It’s your job, as an organizer, to make sure they are there.
CoveyClub: What is your advice for women who are elected to public office?
Allison Fine: The first thing to do is get a mentor — someone who has been in that position who might be retired from the position so that ideally they have no stake in the game, who can privately share with you this is what’s going to happen and what you need to do to be successful.
I was originally thinking of just finding female mentors but there aren’t enough of them to go around. Finding male mentors and allies is important. The one thing I want to caution about is you want to find mentors who have the same value set as you. Finding mentors who share that point of view is more important than whether your mentor is a man or woman.
We are trying to remake the old boys club by building these relationships among and between elected women. Women have not always been the best allies to each other. Whatever their positions are, they need the strength of other women allies to be successful.
I was recently at a conference of young elected women, talking on a panel about building power. The moderator asked the women there to raise their hand if their number one obstacle has been older women. Every participant raised her hand. We have to stop that. We have to stop talking to younger women about what they’re wearing and saying.
CoveyClub: You are the incoming chair of the national board of NARAL: Pro-Choice America Foundation. Anything you can share on that front?
Allison Fine: For both these efforts, we need to harness the energy of younger women. I want to make sure we are listening to and empowering and raising up the voices and strength and power and fearlessness of young women and women of color. That is the feminist power right now.