ENACT holds forum on Women in Political Advocacy

April 13, 2018

Massachusetts State Senator Cindy Friedman and former New Hampshire Speaker of the House Terie Norelli discussed their careers as women in politics at the Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation (ENACT) forum Monday, April 9 in the Shapiro Campus Center Multipurpose room.

Launched in 2015 under the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis, ENACT is a national program that engages undergraduate students in political action and legislative experience. ENACT’s academic course offerings are now available at 29 universities across the country.

Friedman and Norelli discussed their entrance into politics. Professor Melissa Stimell (LGLS), the academic program director for ENACT, moderated the panel and asked the women about their studies and how their academic background led them to political involvement. Both said their areas of study and work experience were not politically related, but they became politically engaged because of their work in community service.

Both women agreed that they had always felt more comfortable behind the scenes. Norelli turned down New Hampshire House recruiters multiple times before finally agreeing to try it. What changed Norelli’s mind was realizing she would be doing the same advocacy work as an elected official that she was already doing as a concerned citizen. Her new platform was simply a “different venue with statewide impact.” Self-doubt, however, is something Norelli says she still encounters all the time as a woman in politics.

Friedman had similar experiences of feeling insecure and “not good enough” but explained that she learned to care more about the work than her personal feelings. Over the years, she has found that the self-deprecating voice in her head is not something she necessarily needs to get rid of. She simply does not dwell on it and focuses on moving forward instead.

On the topic of meeting opposition, Norelli added that “politics is about relationships,” and it’s important to respectfully reach out to people that disagree with you. She admitted that this value has unfortunately faded over the years. As a Democrat, Norelli had a lot of Republican friends in the legislature 22 years ago when she first started in the House. Nowadays, compromises across party line relationships are much more rare. However, Norelli found in her own experience and in research findings that women legislators received more support across the political spectrum on legislation.

Friedman and Norelli also discussed the power of drawing from diverse personal life experiences rather than political education as women advocates. Norelli pointed out that women in particular are disposed to advocacy work because they interact with social issues everyday.

As Norelli put it, women are usually the ones involved in their child’s school, so they have some knowledge on the education system. Women are usually the ones taking children to doctor appointments, so they must know something about healthcare. Norelli’s work in the rape crisis center especially informed her on women’s rights.

Advocacy experience was more valuable to Norelli and Friedman than schooling, but one student audience member wondered whether they wished they had additional preparation before entering office. Norelli said her first two years in the House were mainly dedicated to learning the ropes of “this whole new world.” It took her an full term to grasp the process, identify the key legislative players and understand their roles and influence. With the knowledge she worked to acquire, Norelli is now the mentor to inexperienced freshman legislators that she never had.

Friedman addressed the difficulty of working in a male dominated and oriented system. “It is about power,” she said. According to Friedman, political institutions are set up to be hierarchical. Women, Norelli argued, are more inclined towards collaboration than men and are disadvantaged in a system that does not play like a team sport.

Friedman recounted being interrupted and talked over by male colleagues during discussions. She also remembers speaking in person with other advocates who would only look at and address her male chief of staff standing next to her.

Norelli stated that leadership qualities are not primarily male qualities. Women need to be actively and consciously recruited for leadership positions because they possess unique skill sets that are just as conducive to success. At some point, she says, a woman must stop wondering if she is qualified enough and just do the job.

This event was sponsored by ENACT, Legal Studies Program, the Social Justice and Social Policy Program, the Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Gender and Sexuality Center.

The forum was moderated by Professor Melissa Stimell (LGLS), the academic program director for ENACT. David J. Weinstein, the ENACT coordinator and Communications Specialist for the Ethics Center provided opening remarks about ENACT. Also present was Massachusetts State Representative Jay Kaufman, a Brandeis alumnus and ENACT Distinguished Legislator, who introduced the two panelists.

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