Q&A: Author Caitlin Donohue on Electing Women and the Power of Representation

Q&A: Author Caitlin Donohue on Electing Women and the Power of Representation
Author Caitlin Donohue holds her debut book She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics… and the World.

Though female politicians have gained power and influence, they are still too often squeezed into constricting, one-dimensional, “girl boss” narratives. No more.

In her new book, She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics… and the World, first-time author Caitlin Donohue recounts the stories of 44 women who are influential in global politics yet have diversified beliefs, achievements and journeys. It follows famous and not-so-famous feminists and women leaders—from Speaker Nancy Pelosi; to Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, who drew attention for taking family leave while in office; to Marielle Franco, an openly queer Black city councilor from Rio de Janeiro who was killed because of her activism.

The book exemplifies the importance of female representation and empowerment while underlining that those alone will not bring equality and justice.

Complemented by Philadelphia artist Briana Arrington’s illustrations, the accessible and enjoyable read informs readers of the many paths politicians take and how understanding their background allows us to hold them accountable in improving our world. 

Writer Caitlin Donohue’s roots are in labor organizing, but she started her formal career as a cultural journalist at the San Francisco Bay Chronicle writing on and for the sex worker community.

She spoke to Ms. about She Represents, the role of politicians, and what she hopes readers will take with them for the upcoming elections. 

Hannah Silver: What’s the She Represents origin story? Why did you want to write this book?

Donohue: I was lucky enough to be approached by Lerner Books for She Represents. They had done a previous title about famous feminists throughout history and they wanted to tweak the concept to focus on women politicians from this era.

At first, I thought it was an interesting choice for me because I don’t write about electoral politics. I identify as a cultural journalist. The things I write about touch on politics like marijuana and gender issues. But I’m not up in City Hall or the U.S Congress reporting on laws. But the more I thought about it, I realized it could be useful for young people to have a voice of someone who is removed from politics. 

I know it’s easy to think that this is a girl power title and these are 44 women who you should be like! It’s not that. It’s more about learning about these politicians for what they say about the path to power for women in 2020 and how we can hold them accountable and understand where their values and motivations come from. So, going forward when they inevitably mess up, we’ll have that knowledge to work with them. 

The original concept was a bipartisan book. It’s hilarious because having lived outside of the United States for six years, I know how much that word, “bipartisan,” only applies to the United States. We had originally tried to do equal Democrat and Republican, but for obvious reasons, it became clear that wasn’t possible.

One thing that I brought to the book was the suggestion that we make it about the world. It’s important that young people from the United States get to hear about other parts of the world. 

Silver: The power of representation is one of the key takeaways. You included a quote by Katrín Jakobsdittór, the prime minister of Iceland: “I don’t see the struggle for women’s rights as a box-ticking exercise; this is a battle for fundamental human rights and it demands a shift in our cultures; we need to change how we treat and perceive each other.”

How do you think representation connects to the necessary cultural shift for advancing women’s rights and achieving gender equality? 

Donohue: This book is about the power of representation, but it’s also about the limitations. One road to power is for women to align themselves with certain, slightly more conservative forces like fractions that don’t have as much women representation. A woman arriving to a high level elected office by definition is going to have made compromises along the way.

The other danger of representation is, “Oh, we elected this woman so women’s issues are solved”—which is clearly not the case. I didn’t want to be gender essentialist. All genders play a role in making a world better for all genders. 

I had a couple of opportunities to be reminded of why representation matters. An example is from one of my favorite figures in the book, Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender Black woman elected to public office in the United States. She serves on the Minneapolis city council. Obviously, Minneapolis was the site of George Floyd’s death and the site of a huge kickoff for Black Lives Matter protest and the Movement for Black Lives. In response, the Minneapolis city council decided to disband the police department.

Andrea Jenkins isn’t the only trans person, there are two trans people on the Minneapolis City council [she serves with Philip Cunningham, the first and currently only out trans man of color elected to office in the United States].

These radical steps are only going to be taken by people who understand the severity and graveness of the problems that are facing us and unfortunately it falls to people who have been victimized by those problems to do that. It underlined the importance of making sure that we have trans women of color in power because they are the ones who are going to save us. 

The other example that resonated with me this summer was COVID. It’s been well remarked upon that many nations led by women have done a better job of dealing with this pandemic than many nations that are led by men. The biggest failures, both being countries I live in or have lived in, Mexico and the United States, are led by these men who don’t believe in science and who aren’t showing compassion for families or for working people.

It’s a stark contrast to Jacinda Arden of New Zealand or women leaders in countries like Taiwan and Germany that have had a lot more success. In general, you can see how certain women in power are showing us why women need to be in these positions.

Silver: How has your background in labor organizing and political campaigning influenced your writing and ambitions for She Represents?

Donohue: I grew up in a big labor union family. My mom is a labor educator and my dad is a radical economist who mainly has clients or unions that are going through the collective bargaining process. I grew up on picket lines and observing the California Grape Boycott.

A job that I got when I was 17 was as a labor union organizer for the Service Employees International Union Local 503. I worked with them on and off, culminating in work during the election cycle that brought us Barack Obama’s first term. It was a great opportunity to explore and support the values I’d been brought up with.

The child care workers union and the home health care workers union that I later worked for are made up and organized by a vast majority of whom are women of color and many grandmas. The people who we worked with were receiving child care subsidies from the government, so these are people who are taking care of children from low resource families, so mainly poorer women. It was incredible to work with members on developing our activist skills and seeing how our efforts of talking to other labour union members did lead to changes in local elections.

A lot of our work was based around election cycles. I have a lot of respect for those who have labor union work—because man, it is exhausting. I was able to learn a lot about how politics work in my early career and those lessons have stuck with me in my writing today.

Silver: There is no monolithic woman in She Represents, as they vary by ideology, identities and geographical location. What was your process and criterion for selecting politicians? How did you decide to include women whose ideologies differ from your own?

Donohue: My mom’s been great about forwarding the book to all her friends and one of the comments that comes back every single time is, “Why do you have Betsy DeVos in there?”

It’s not a book about heroes. The defining characteristic of these women are that they are the most influential in global politics today. That’s why we have women from the Trump administration like Nikki Haley and Betsey DeVos, and other conservatives like Sarah Palin.

There are four women in this book who are not currently in office: Sarah Palin; Hillary Clinton; Mia Love, who was a Black Republican congresswoman from Utah; and Marielle Franco, who was the assassinated Rio de Janeiro council member, but they were too influential.

Also, I have people there who are not as well-known, but who had stories that were important in terms of what young people need to know about politics like Camila Vallejo from Chile. Camila was one of the first women leaders within the Chilean radical student movement and her transition into becoming a legislator is a good thing for young people to keep in mind when they’re thinking about their own activism and how it can translate to taking power down the line.

That was pretty much it: influential and geographic diversity. It’s hard to pick 15 people to represent the entire world outside of the United States and “She Represents” is by no means exhaustive. 

Silver: In the introduction, you write “many of the women’s stories are inspirational, but politicians are not celebrities.” 

How are you hoping She Represents alters the reader’s perception of politicians, especially in a time where journalism and social media give rise to sensationalism and performative displays? 

Q&A: Author Caitlin Donohue on Electing Women and the Power of Representation

Donohue: Talking particularly about the United States, it’s no secret that we’re in an incredibly polarized moment. It was surprising to me that people thought that we don’t have to learn about politicians whose values we disagree with. Even if you didn’t vote for them, they are still your employee if you’re their constituent. Something that my dad always told me is, “Politics is working with people that you don’t like to make change.”

In this era, when we find a politician we like, we tend to put her on a pedestal and get her face on our cell phone cases and rejoice when she wears our favorite designer’s handbag. Those things give me the creeps; that’s not the role of politicians in our society. To make democracy work, we need to utilize these people and hold them all accountable. We need to not let our adulation get in the way of that.

Silver: Kamala Harris’s biography includes her controversial history as a prosecutor and role in drafting harmful legislation. What are your views on the responsibility to remain critical of female politicians in a political system where women are underrepresented and face sexism and intersecting oppressions? 

Donohue: [Harris] is a perfect illustration of why this book is important. Personally, I learned about Kamala when I was an alternative weekly journalist at the San Francisco Bay Guardian reporting on and for the sex worker community. I first heard her name in connection to her failure to protect sex workers from a law that made it so the presence of condoms could be used as evidence that someone was doing sex work by the police.

Later on, I was reporting on her as a cannabis journalist. While serving as California’s attorney general, she famously laughed in the face of a reporter when asked about the possibility of marijuana legalization. She has completely reversed her position on marijuana and that’s not a bad thing.

It’s important that we leave room for our politicians to learn things and grow and it’s a perfect example of the importance of learning about where someone comes from in order to prepare ourselves for the possible moves they can make once in office.

Kamala’s story highlights that cultural identity and racial identity is not the be all and end all of our beliefs. People can’t be summed up by catch phrases or one-word identifiers. That chapter is a must read for those who may not be aware of her background and wants to know about her possibilities and potential limitations going forward. 

Silver: You tweeted, “Honestly, cats don’t believe change stems from electoral politics, but I still excessively appreciate everyone who has sent me this glamour shots of them graciously posing next to She Represents pre order copies…”

How would you respond to the cats and the readers who agree with them on this issue? 

Donohue: I would respond that Angela Davis is voting for Joe Biden, so if you think you’re smarter than Angela Davis then you can go f*** yourself.

Electoral politics are limited. If you want to fight for another system that’s admirable and you should do that—after you vote. I’m speaking from the United states in the year 2020; there are many reasons that can make us doubt the veracity of our electoral politics right now. You have to be crazy to not doubt it. I want to be supportive of all of my friends who do not vote and a diversity of political opinions, but they should vote. Radical change is needed and necessary. Again going back to that stupid concept of bipartisanship, it’s a lame excuse of summing up a broad political spectrum. That’s not a way of structuring how politics work in our mind. We can take into account all this context and still use the few tools that have been given to us by the system. 

Silver: So voting is a tool to be used with other tools outside of the system? 

Donohue: Of course, and that’s illustrated well by the very readership of this book. I’m in Portland right now, which is crazy, and I have been attending the day time protest for the Movement for Black Lives and a lot of them have been led by this incredible group of high school activists called Fridays for Freedom. Most teens can’t vote. but they are finding ways to impact the system and make a difference. Voting is not the be all and end all for political activism. Young people know that better than the rest of us. 

Silver The book is being released during multiple crises—a global pandemic, continued racial violence and injustice, and a climate emergency—as well as during the U.S election season. What are you hoping readers take away and do after reading She Represents

Donohue: I would love for people to experience the importance of stepping away from the news cycle for our information about politics. It’s so frustrating and blatant the way the media tries to structure our thoughts, especially about political candidates. Instead of being glued to our Twitter feeds or to NPR and CNN, it might be good to take a step back and take a wider lense.

Read about U.S history … because if we don’t then there is no way of understanding what our country is doing right now. It’s worth widening your pool of information about a candidate and it’s worth reading what was written about them last year.

Be skeptical of political coverage during this election, maybe more than any other point in history. Right now, there’s a lot of resources going into trying to make people afraid. 

One way to try and fight that fear, which has definitely overwhelmed me at many points during the last couple months is through education. If it’s in your power, get first hand knowledge of things and focus on the people you trust within the political world who have community backing. Absolutely not government agents; they are trying to get us and we cannot be got.

Donohue now can be found speaking on cannabis and music during her weekly show, Crónica on Radio Nopal. 

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Hannah Silver is a sophomore at McGill University.