“I believe that women are running for office–I’m sorry, I’m working and just…”
I heard a scuffling of papers in the background while Delegate Hala Ayala paused, early in our conversation about a wave of women candidates elected to the Virginia House of Delegates this past November.
“…Doing a lot. This surge of women are finding out that after this election, and after the Women’s March, we have to have a seat at the table, versus being on the menu. Women are stepping up and striking out against those injustices. We’re saying this is no longer acceptable.”
The scuffling continued, but Ayala, focused, finished our interview and her paperwork without further distraction.
Originally printed in RVA #32 Spring 2018, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
Multitasking is just one of her many strengths. She’s a single mother of two who served on former Gov. McAuliffe’s Council of Women. She’s a cybersecurity specialist who worked for the Department of Homeland Security and founded the Prince William County chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She helped organize the Women’s March in Washington this past year and now she’s the delegate for the 51st District in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
And she’s just the beginning.
In the 2017 election cycle, 11 new female Democratic delegates were voted into the General Assembly. This made the total number of women in the General Assembly (GA) rise from 17 to 27, including four Republican delegates – the highest we’ve ever had.
Delegate Vivian Watts described the recent election as a tipping point, saying, “Critical mass is when you reach about a third, so at 27 [women] we’re pretty close to critical mass.” In social dynamics, critical mass means there is a large enough number of independent changes in the innovation of a social system that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth. It creates a tradition of collective action, meaning enough people have committed to a cause that they devote themselves to that common cause.
Watts represents the 39th House District, a seat she has held intermittently since 1982. “I really do find some element of that critical mass” after the recent election, she said. “I know for myself, that I’m much more willing, or I feel much more comfortable speaking out on some issues because I know [there is] a better understanding of the issue around me. There’s only one thing worse than just enduring in silence, and that is to say something and have it absolutely dismissed.”
Watts has had a distinguished career, including service on over 35 boards and citizen task forces, and is the author of two books on criminal justice. She’s been a state legislative aide, president of the Fairfax League of Voters, and has two children and four grandchildren. She remembers when the few women who were in the House simply did not appear after hours at social functions.
“You can’t do business that way, especially when we have such short six and eight-week sessions,” Watts said. “You’ve got to get to know each other. That was one of the things I was determined, when I got elected, [that] I would be sure and participate as much as I possibly could. [I was determined] to also make sure that I kept relaxed and kept a sense of humor. Just try to be more part of a collegial setting, rather than assuming that there wasn’t a place for me.”
Watts says it’s far more common for women to have real connections with the other female members of the General Assembly. The shared experience among the women in the GA allows for a larger conversation than the male-dominated discussions of the past, and Watts knows she can stand up, talk about an issue pertinent to women, and have it understood by at least one-third of the room. “I look to ever greater influence, in the years to come, of this shared experience being a part of the legislative considerations about what really is in the best interest of all involved,” she said.
The number of women in office is just one of many significant firsts from the November elections, especially for the Democratic delegates.
Kathy Tran, who represents the 42nd district, is the first Asian-American to serve in the GA. She fled from Vietnam with her parents at just seven months old, on a perilous sea journey. Delegates Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman are the first Latino women in the GA. Local journalist Danica Roem became the first transgender person to ever be elected to a state legislature, and Dawn Adams, a nurse practitioner who also works for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, is the first openly lesbian delegate.
In total, 43 Democratic women, nine Republican women, and one independent ran in House races in 2017. Those numbers are record-breaking.
Emily Brewer (R), a small business owner and delegate representing the 64th House District, attributes the change to modern technologies and abilities, which she says make it easier for women to juggle their lives and also feel empowered to bolster change. “There are a lot of women now that are small business owners and leaders, entrepreneurs, and it’s a different time for women to really lead. And I think that’s led to having more women in politics,” Brewer said. “I don’t see a marked difference [in the GA]. What I do see is a sense of excitement, especially since women have more representation on both sides of the aisle.”
Ayala, along with several other women who ran for office this past year, sees the change as a direct result of dissatisfaction with the current president. “I left everything I knew and my blanket of security because I was unwilling to sit on the sideline and watch this leader that we have, of the free world that I honor and am so proud of, implement the policies in my backyard that he plans to implement,” Ayala said. “He comes with every attribute I don’t believe a leader should have.”
Another debut this election cycle was the #MeToo movement, which Watts sees as a major factor in women running for office and winning elections. She sees the movement as a way to not only address predatory sexual behavior but to go farther and tackle the systematic patriarchal power structure that has oppressed women, including herself, for centuries.
“It’s the fact that women in a professional setting are so often put into a no-win situation,” Watts said. “What you have in the Me Too movement is also that expression of, ‘I want to be the whole person that I am professionally as well as be a woman. I don’t want to have to be in a situation where that is compromised or dismissed.’ The Me Too movement I see is far more than just the issue of broadly stated sexual harassment.”
Not only are women sitting at the table, they’re bringing their experiences to it. Delegate Brewer, who was adopted, has already passed a new bill supporting and amending foster parent adoption. As many new mothers and women bring their dynamic life roles to the House, they are swaying the conversation.
“My interest is in looking at policy from a holistic lens that takes into account the interconnectedness of life experience and how we make policy that supports quality outcomes in our lives,” said Dawn Adams, who represents the 68th House District. “I put forward a bill to create the Commission for a Healthy Virginia. I think that’s a different kind of suggestion than male counterparts make, in that it’s a really broad lens on how we get to where we want to go, looking at it from an all-encompassing perspective, rather than just piecemeal and trying to put out fires from a policy perspective.”
Social movements like #MeToo are not lost on these women. They talk about community fears with empathy and foresight, where those concerns were previously dismissed as unimportant or matters of personal weakness. One policy, in particular, stands out to Delegate Watts as vital.
“We need to have a comprehensive workplace harassment policy so that the public feels very comfortable about what the procedures are, should they be concerned about anything that they are experiencing or that happened to them,” Watts said. “It needs to be broadly defined to include all of the public, not just employees of the GA, and I believe strongly that it needs to include our activities year-round. It’s not just walking in here for eight weeks in the building that has my desk in my office, but it is the entire interface with the public. They need to have that comfort level where there is full protection as well as proper procedures to make sure there is nothing where people might use their position of power inappropriately.”
Small changes have been enacted at the GA already, such as the addition of two nursing rooms, but some delegates say the changes don’t address systemic issues and hurdles.
“We cannot let up over the next couple of years, and we need to have that voice of diverse women jumping in,” Adams said. “If we’re just sitting in seats and we’re not able to make effective policy, we haven’t helped anyone. We have to stay engaged and I hope that more women with more diverse life experience will get in and support each other.”
Adams worries that because of the influx of Democratic Party members to a GA still dominated by Republicans, a vein of contention has been sliced open, driven by a fear of losing control. “My personal perception is that nothing has changed,” she said. “It may even not be as Democratic-friendly because of the big shift in people who are now in the GA.”
She says most bills proposed by Democrats are killed at the subcommittee level, often moving to pass by them indefinitely. “It kind of doesn’t matter how strong the policy, or what the policy might have to say,” Adams said. “There seems to be a very regimented process where you can almost tick the boxes. It’s prescriptive.”
Despite the challenge, Adams says this is exactly why women, or anyone with new ideas to tackle patriarchy, cannot back down. Critical mass has just begun. It’s time to create further growth.
Our vision of a typical politician is changing because of these women. They’re delegates, but they are also mothers, grandmothers, small business owners, advocates, nurses, cybersecurity analysts, authors, artists, humans. And they’re angry. And they’re doing something about it.
“Women are no longer willing to remain silent or on the sidelines,” Ayala said. “We’re grabbing our clipboards, we’re grabbing our sneakers, and we’re knocking the hell out of a lot of doors to make a lot of change.” And that’s all before lunch.