Ivy League to Prom Queen: My First Run for Office

A local newspaper reporter asked on Twitter if I would be “nice” while campaigning.

A man posted on Facebook that I’m a “pretty puppet.”

A woman asked what I had done in my journalism career besides “just talk.”

Someone told me I should go back to reading the TelePrompter.

A mailer to voters called me a “flashy TV personality.”

An anonymous website popped up called “Rachel Barnhart for Prom Queen.”

An email chastised me for trying further my “ambition” and feed my “ego.”

An alt-weekly editorial said I’m a person who likes “drawing and demanding attention.”

A social media post called me “entitled” and an “opportunist.”

During a televised debate, a panelist asked if I knew how to craft legislation that wouldn’t fit into a tweet.

The day I lost, a man posted on my website, “The public recognized a dilettante when it saw one.”

No one wanted to talk about issues during the Democratic primary for the 138th District New York Assembly seat. They wanted to talk about me.

Losing was hard. Losing publicly is very hard. It was a horrible feeling to watch people cheer your failure.

Harder than losing was being subjected to misogyny and lies. Harder than losing was not being able to fight back and tell my own story — because we ran out of money.

I had spent nearly two decades on television. I had lived a public life. But I was unprepared for the torrent of attacks, many based on my gender. Few people outside of my circle came to my defense. Few people recognized the attacks as misogyny. Being a woman and running for office, particularly against the machine, is an isolating, terrifying, and even traumatizing experience.

I was taken back to that feeling little more than a month after losing the primary. I was watching the final presidential debate. When Republican Donald Trump called Democrat Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman,” it felt like a punch to the gut. Maybe this is going to come across to the casual observer as an extreme reaction, but I started to feel anxiety. For three months, I was a “nasty woman,” repeatedly called “negative” for discussing issues and my opponent’s record. For the first time since the primary, I didn’t feel alone. Women all over the country were proclaiming themselves “nasty.”

How did an Ivy League graduate who was valedictorian of her high school class get reduced to an egomaniacal flake? How did a woman who spent 17 years doing serious investigative and public interest reporting become a talking head? How did a woman who made a sacrifice by quitting her job to serve her community become entitled?

I’m stunned this happened — even more stunned the attacks came from fellow Democrats. The hypocrisy was astounding. Anything goes when it comes to maintaining the current power structure. I’m not sure everyone who engaged in this behavior knew what they were doing, as these gender tropes are so ingrained in our psyche.

There was overt sexism in the campaign. But there was also subtle sexism. Much of it focused on my motives for running for office.

“It’s normal for men to seek political power. It’s considered part of their nature. Being competitive is considered part of their nature. We don’t consider it normal for women to seek it. So she must be up to something,” said Hilary Shroyer, a campaign volunteer, attorney and feminist.

Many people told me I was running for office to seek attention. Feminist author Laurie Penney wrote in Cybersexim: Gender and Power on the Internet, “One of the most common insults flung at women who speak or write in public is ‘attention-seeking’ — a classic way of silencing us, particularly if we are political. The fact that ‘attention-seeking’ is still considered a slur says much about the role of women in public life, on every scale. From the moment we can speak, young women are ordered not to do so.”

My qualifications were attacked and ignored. Studies show voters treat male and female candidates the same, but when a candidate is called incompetent, women pay a higher penalty. Studies also show when gendered stereotypes are activated by the press or campaigns, they hurt female candidates.

I was constantly told there were not substantial differences between myself and my opponent. I was told I “had no reason to run.” But when I discussed my opponent’s record and my positions on issues, I was called “negative.” If I was quiet and “nice,” there would have been no contest. If I was assertive, I was a bitch.

Georgetown University Linguistics Professor Deborah Tannen says women often have trouble being seen as both likable and strong leaders. She wrote in the Washington Post in February, “Hence the double bind: If a candidate — or manager — talks or acts in ways expected of women, she risks being seen as underconfident or even incompetent. But if she talks or acts in ways expected of leaders, she is likely to be seen as too aggressive and will be subject to innumerable other negative judgments — and epithets — that apply only to women.”

I don’t believe I lost the primary because of sexism. I believe I lost because I didn’t have the money to fight these attacks. We were outspent about four to one.

Some people say, “That’s politics.” It’s not.

This is why women don’t run for office. This is why fewer women hold elected office. The next time a woman runs for office and is called ambitious, entitled, egotistical or unqualified, ask what’s really going on. Ask if a man would be characterized the same way.

On this issue, I’m happy to be “negative” and “attention-seeking.” Women who want to serve their community in elected office deserve better.

I wrote a book about this experience. Broad, Casted is available on my website and on Amazon Kindle.