“I’m just a big fan of women,” Brooke Baldwin tells Ms. by phone from CNN’s New York City studio. “I believe in empowering women.”
Viewers are used to seeing Baldwin, who hosts CNN’s Newsroom every weekday, in the anchor chair. But this past summer, Baldwin took to the campaign trail—interviewing candidates from across the aisle, including Gina Ortiz Jones, who is running to represent the 23rd Congressional district in Texas, and Stacey Abrams, who would be the first African American woman elected governor in the history of Georgia—and the country.
Ahead of the premiere of “American Woman In Politics,” the second installment of her “American Woman” series, Baldwin talked to Ms. about the importance of equal representation, telling women’s stories and following the advice of Gloria Steinem.
How sure were you when you started planning season two that it would focus on the election?
It’s a good question. Out of the gate we did season one, and that was more famous women celebrities, Hollywood, music, film. We all put our heads together after that, and were like, you know what, we should feature who I like to call “extraordinary ordinary women”—women that ladies can relate to and, because it’s CNN and we’re covering so much politics, it’s the story everyday.
We started thinking ahead of time—if I may toot my own horn, months ago—realizing that one of the stories this fall will be all of the women on the ballot. Not to mention, I actually bumped into Gloria Steinem—Ms. magazine shout out!—I bumped into her at an event where I was presenting and we started talking about it and, you know when Gloria Steinem says “this is a story,” you listen.
#MeToo is a cultural force and we’re also seeing all this research about how it’s changing the way candidates are campaigning. How much did #MeToo come up in your conversations?
It didn’t overtly, but I think it’s all part of the greater arc of what’s happening with women in this country. Off the top of my head, none of [the women] really name-checked the president, but in the wake of November 2016 realized “we have everything to lose.” And I think it was a combination of the election, a lot of them had wanted history to be made that November, and realizing—look, if not her, why not me?
You know the Shirley Chisolm quote [“if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”] kept coming up. Just like the first Black woman in Congress, if you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair. Something snapped in an amazing way this year for women, where these women, in particular, weren’t just bitching about politics at the dinner table. They are actually running for office.
We saw that a lot in the series’ first episode, where you travel to Alabama to interview Audri Scott Williams, who is running for Congress; Jamirah Moore, candidate for probate judge; and Cara McClure, a formerly homeless single mother who is running for a spot as Public Service Commissioner.
That episode is so special to me, I think, number one, because I’m from the South. I remember going as a kid to the 16th Street Baptist Church and learning the story about those four little girls. This was a town known as “Bombingham.”
We roll up to this church, knowing the history. And just to have these grown women, you know, running for office, in whatever capacity, in the state of Alabama, and thinking about the girls who lost their lives back in ‘63—my goodness, how far we’ve come—and to hear one of the women how she used to have to duck on her way back from church because the KKK was maybe pulling over her dad’s car…
It’s so important as we talk about this wave of women—that we remember what we have overcome to get to where we are today.
Did you ever think you would be reporting about seeing this many women on ballots across the country?
I am a glass-half-full kind of gal, and I believe that we women have a lot to say and a lot to give, and so I have always been hopeful that we would see a tide turn and we would see more women, both from the left and from the right, on the ballot—because it matters. We have different things to offer. It’s a more well-rounded Congress, or state [government], to have equal representation, and we are so not there yet.
I was talking to a Republican woman in Congress who was just like, “this is ridiculous.” They know that the representation isn’t there, and we’re moving in the right direction, and I think, given, you know, everyone was talking about the year of the woman last year, with #MeToo, and it just makes sense that—given the election, given the march, given how women feel emboldened—it makes sense that these women are not just helping people run, but are running themselves.
Was there anything that surprised you during the course of filming?
Let me talk about Christina Hagan—because I’ve covered far too many shootings, and I was at the March For Our Lives, and the CNN crew is walking into this woman’s home, and her ad was “I got an AR-15 for Mother’s Day.”
First of all, I am grateful to her for opening her door to us—because she could have said no, like others have, and we had a very open conversation. I wanted to understand where she was coming from as a mother on guns, because she’s in the episode with Lucy McBath [a Congressional candidate whose 17-year-old son, Jordan Davies, was fatally shot in 2012] so I wanted to hear from both of them.
Once the conversation left guns, and it got on to being a Republican woman, it was an incredible a-ha moment, hearing her talk about the smoke-filled rooms of older white men and how it is still such an uphill climb for Republican women—in a very different way from Democrats. Republican women don’t have the apparatus like Democratic women do, with EMILY’S List. She was telling stories of being at events and people turning to her and asking when the candidate would get there.
I think people who are watching who may have a preconceived notion of how they may feel about her—because of her stance, say, on guns—and may walk away appreciating her fight a little bit more to be a woman and a Republican.
You mentioned Shirley Chisholm’s quote about pulling up a folding chair was something that really rang true. Can you talk about a time when you pulled up a folding chair in your personal or professional life?
I would say this series. Most of my bosses are male, and this is obviously a series called “American Woman.” And I have a platform every day at CNN, but this particular series is female-centric—and I, in starting this whole thing, went to my male bosses and got some yeses, got some pushback and I just believed in the purpose of this so much and clearly in the end so did they. I felt so strongly that this series needed to exist, that this series needs to grow, that I made sure I brought my folding chair to make it happen.
Last year, you told Ms. that one of your prerequisites for the women you interviewed was “how are you reaching back and helping?” Did that prerequisite stay with you this year? Did it change?
I think implicit in all these women is service. I knew going in this—to be in a position of service, to want to run to serve others—I knew they would be women who want to give back and do give back in their communities. You know, I just hope people watching they realize they don’t have to run, that it could be city council, that it could be school board, it could be the mayor. I just hope that the service and the heart and everything about these women helps inspire other women to do something.