Career Inspiration from Trailblazing Women in Politics

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week, the Financial Women’s Association of New York hosted an event featuring three prominent women in New York’s politics. Moderated by award winning journalist Marcia Kramer, the panel consisted of New York State Senator Liz Krueger, New York City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, and New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn.

The women discussed their views on leadership and power, as well as their advice for working in a male dominated environment. Throughout the evening, the panelists also shared stories of how they had been supported or inspired by one another throughout their careers, and they frequently discussed the importance of another panelist’s work.

This was one of the key takeaways from the event: we can’t do it alone. The power of women is multiplied when we work together and support one another.

Own Your Power

Krueger’s experience might sound familiar to many women – we don’t always realize our own capability until someone else points it out to us.

In fact, Krueger was reluctant to go into politics at first – she explained that she had never seen herself as politician, and it took the encouragement of others to get here there. “I’d never imagined running for anything,” she said. Yet, one night she got a call from some people on a Democratic search committee, who were impressed by her work as founding Director of the New York City Food Bank and Associate Director of the Community Food Resource Center. “I said, ‘I’m completely the wrong person,’ and they said, ‘Just think about it,’” she recalled.

She did think about it – and on the train to Albany to meet with the team, she composed a list of 29 reasons she was wrong for the job. It wasn’t until her trip home, she realized, that she was the right person. “I realized the things I cared about, the issues I was fighting for, were important enough for me to run.”

With her family’s blessing, she ran for the senate seat, and lost to the incumbent – as was expected. But the margin she lost by was much slimmer than anyone had anticipated. Realizing her own potential, she promised to keep at it. “I lost, but I realized I’d beat him in two years, and I made the commitment to run again.”

When that same seat was vacated mid-term and went to a special election in 2002, she ran again – and this time, she won. Sometimes it takes a push from others to help us realize what we are capable of. We just have to be open to opportunities when they arise.

Learn to Tune Out Naysayers

Politics was always a big deal in Quinn’s house while she was growing up, she recalled. But what really pushed her toward a career as an activist was learning about the change agents who came before her.

She explained, “The key thing that built on that was the library at my elementary school. In the right hand corner there was this rickety, black media rack of dog-eared biographies. It was the first woman this, the first African American that – trailblazers. They were people who made things different for themselves and their families and people in other parts of the world. And that was it.”

Today Quinn is the first female speaker of New York’s City Council – and when she was running, she had to learn the handle the tough part of being a trailblazer: the naysayers.

“When I was running, people would – not infrequently – tell me how I wasn’t going to win,” she said, adding that she got the sense they were trying to be helpful. “They’d say ‘You can’t win because you’re a woman.’ Or ‘because you’re a lesbian.’ Or ‘because you’re from the west side of Manhattan.’ Or ‘because you’re too liberal.’”

She continued, “I think you have to make a decision that you’re going to do it, and you also have to decide you’re not going to listen to self-appointed naysayers. And sometimes they’re external, and sometimes it’s your own head. But I made the decision to run, to work harder than anyone else, to come up with a plan and stick to it, and to have some laughs.”

When it comes to the workplace, even today, women are often still trailblazers – and trailblazers frequently encounter resistance. As Quinn shared, that means you’re doing something right. “It’s because they are afraid to do what you are doing. You should be proud you are ballsier than them,” she said.

Make Work Life Choices That are Right for You

“I wasn’t the first woman [on the City Council], or the youngest woman, or the youngest person. Sometimes it’s nice to not be the first one, but to be the beneficiary of having those barriers broken,” Lappin said.

Even still, as a young mom, Lappin explained how she sometimes experiences challenges that her male peers just don’t. “I have two young boys, and I think there is a double standard when men bring young children to an event. With men, it’s ‘isn’t that sweet.’ But I think sometimes with women, it’s ‘she couldn’t get a babysitter?’”

Serving on the City Council and raising two young children also means making choices, she continued. “I have to say no to certain things – but I choose to, and sometimes I take a little heat for that.”

Nevertheless, she said, the issues she focuses on are important, and she is enthusiastic about the ability to make change. “I have loved being on the City Council,” she remarked.

Don’t let work life challenges keep you from doing the work that you find fulfilling. Also, there may be times when you have to make tough choices, but talking openly about those choices, like Lappin did, can encourage other women to navigate challenging decisions about work and family as well.