Why More Single Women Should Run for Office
Jacinda Townsend on Her Experience in Electoral Politics
When a local candidate for circuit court judge was caught on camera flipping the bird at a city council meeting, she was skewered. The candidate in question, Allison Chopra, was also on the city council, and given the contentiousness of the meeting’s subject matter—neighborhood zoning—anyone watching could easily have forgiven the gesture. Given that the incident happened in Bloomington, a progressive island of sorts in the state of Indiana, one might, in fact, have easily forgotten the gesture, even: Bloomington is home to the flagship state university, as well as a highly educated populace that doesn’t tend to wet its pants at base discourse.
But Chopra’s opponents quickly seized upon the incident as a chance to discredit her candidacy, and in the ensuing social media skirmish, Chopra herself posted this bit of Internet flotsam: a photo of her standing beside her husband, their two children in front of them. “When they go low, we go high,” she’d captioned it, but the post’s implicit thought bait was obvious. I’m a good person, with a husband, the photo seemed to suggest. I’m a married, family woman, and that mutes any political sins I might have committed.
Electorally speaking, of course, Chopra’s instincts were wholly conventional. Political candidates have trotted out their spouses as some mythical proof of their fitness for office since the days of George and Martha Washington. As leaflets have evolved into websites, as still photography has sprung into digital footage, so has the electoral populace increasingly come to expect a catalogued focus on a candidate’s spouse as form of political proof.
More disturbing than the veneer is its underlying reality: unmarried people, and in particular unmarried women, don’t run for political office. According to data from the Pew Research Center, of the two percent of Americans who’ve run for political office at some point in their lives, 75 percent are men and only 25 percent are women. When disaggregated by race and marital status, the differences are even more stark, at every level, from local to federal office. And in fact, the last time Americans elected an unmarried President was in 1884. (I suppose we used to be more enlightened than we are today.)
Though his base was no doubt full of proponents of traditional marriage, Donald Trump was a refreshing break from the expectation. Married thrice and hardly involved with his children, Trump didn’t add his wife or kids to the trail until late in his candidacy. And few of us will ever forget the Inauguration Day misery on Melania Trump’s face, nor we will we forget how she mysteriously disappeared from public view shortly after the footage of her slapping her husband’s hand away at an Israeli airport. Progressives latched on to all evidence of Trump’s marital discord as some sort of presidential invalidation, as if his policy failures weren’t enough.
Meanwhile, America is increasingly single. In 1949, according to the United States Census Bureau, 78 percent of all households contained a married couple. In 2021? Only 47.3 percent of them do. Marriage is an increasingly antiquated institution, the province of certain American demographics (globally, of course, marriage is also on a steep decline, though the demographics who most participate in it vary from country to country). And single people, it would seem, should be invested in doing away with all the advantages—from tax incentives to spousal health insurance coverage—that accrue to married couples, giving them a built-in system of privilege that costs them about a million dollars less over the course of a lifetime.
Yet the electoral cosmology persists. We expect our candidates to be married, particularly if they’re seeking higher office, and we prefer that those marriages are longstanding, populated with children, with perhaps a cute cat or better yet a rambunctious dog. Even when appealing to the most progressive of bases, candidates present the nuclear family as proof, as if this were a primary reason for us to trust their candidacy. I can only assume that some unmarried people, watching the show, absorb it as irrefutable truth. We begin to believe that those who are allowed to run are the very people who’ve always run, and those people are not us.
During my own campaign to serve on the school board, I was (as I have always been, and will always be) a single parent. I did not put my children’s faces on any campaign swag, nor did I take photos with them for my Facebook campaign page. My ideas for change had nothing to do with my family and everything to do with my understanding of the issues, I figured, though other candidates splashed family photos on their websites, and media questionnaires had blanks to write in the name of my spouse. On every blank, I wrote “happily divorced.” In all caps.
I was elected by a landslide, and whilst serving on the board, interviewed several candidates for district superintendent. Over my objection, the board asked candidates to bring their spouses to the interview, because the American need to ensure people are married before they’re allowed to serve their communities doesn’t, alas, end with electoral politics. Only the male superintendent finalist was married: the two women finalists brought “significant others” to the interview. I cringed inwardly as these women, knowing they were bugs under a glass, performed their respective relationships: one candidate and her “significant other” went so far as to peck each other on the lips before he left the room ahead of the start of the formal interview.
I was reminded of the way Cory Booker, the only single Democratic presidential candidate, was made to trot out Rosario Dawson after the press kept asking him about his love life. Is this a real thing, we all asked, and Cory Booker’s boo became an instant meme. But Cory Booker is a man. The conjecture wasn’t the same, not exactly. When I objected to the suggestion that the school board needed to meet a future superintendent’s significant other, I pointed out that in an employment context, such a requirement will almost always disadvantage women applicants. “But we need to know they’re committed to the community,” I was told, when I pointed out that this was discriminatory. “We need to know what they’re all about.”
Such is the zeitgeist, too, around unmarried women who run for office. Never mind that the job or political candidate’s family will not actually be performing the role, and never mind that we singletons tend towards volunteerism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects statistics on how many volunteer hours Americans commit to in a year, single volunteers outperform their married counterparts in every single category of service save work done for religious organizations.
In 2020, however, when I pretty loudly proclaimed my single parent status on the campaign trail, I wasn’t alone, and I noticed an exciting trend of women campaigning on the very fact that they were single mothers. The most famous of these was Cori Bush, who gave an electrifying victory speech on November 3. “I’ve been that single parent, struggling paycheck to paycheck, wondering how much more I’ll have to sacrifice,” she said. “I’m proud to stand before you today knowing it was this person with these experiences who moved the voters of St. Louis to do something historic. As the first Black woman, and nurse, and single mother, to have the honor of representing the state of Missouri in the US Congress, let me say this—to the Black women, the Black girls, the nurses, the essential workers, the single mothers: this is our moment.”In 2022 and beyond, let’s explode some black holes in the patriarchy, why don’t we.
Bush continues to center her identity as a single mom, and most recently gave special shoutout to single mothers on Mother’s Day. But she’s also helped enact and introduce policies, such as the Keep Renters Safe Act as well as House Resolution 457, establishing electricity as a basic human right, that would foster more equality between single and partnered moms. We who are single mothers, who watched Donald Trump try to erase our Head of Household status in his 2016 tax plan, know intimately what’s at stake in being represented at every level of government. As I have , we are the last axis of acceptable discrimination from both the right and the left, and the people most particularly subject to the structural inequalities that result from patriarchy being patriarchy.
But all single women—and all women in general—stand to gain from our increased participation in the body politic. Twenty-five percent is a miserable number, ladies. We can’t complain about who’s running the world if we’re sitting there letting them run it. And single women, we need to address the fact that tax structures benefit married people while leaving us out in the cold. We need to address the fact that the legal protections we get when buying a home with a friend are less than those we’d have if we bought a home with a spouse.
We need to eliminate the penalties that unmarried people pay on IRAs when married people are exempted from such. As marriage is a vestige of untrammeled patriarchy, so we single women need to reimagine and better yet re-legislate all the ways that this country incentivizes it over other ways of living. If single people acknowledged that we need to eliminate these permanent, structural issues and voted accordingly, we’d be one of the more potent political blocs in America.
Party officials have traditionally had a hard time encouraging single women—even well-situated single women—to run for office. But there is hope in the trajectories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jacinda Ardern. And in party officials such as Natalia Galvan, Latino Democratic Caucus Chair for Indiana’s 9th District and Indiana Democratic Party State Central Committee Member, who helped recruit single women to run for office in Monroe County, Indiana.
“When I started recruiting people to run, especially women, I was cognizant that this might have been one of the first times anyone asked them to put their name on a ballot,” Galvan said. “And frankly, there was a burden to that ask—many of these women, especially BIPOC women, were already doing the work in their respective areas—whether in their neighborhoods, workplaces or schools, and now I was asking even more—for their names to be on a ballot. I remember the last message I received before filing closed at noon, from an amazing Black mom who wanted to get more involved but was torn because of a multitude of commitments already on her plate. She sent me a text of her filed PC paperwork. She’d decided to do it. And I cried.”
That mom was a single mom. Her story resembles that of Krystle Dupree, an elected member of the Board of Education for the Ann Arbor Public Schools (Michigan). “One thing I didn’t realize—” she told me, “representation matters. I didn’t feel it until I actually ran, until people started asking about my parenting, and how I balanced work and grad school. I think we’re getting there. The more you have single parents filling these positions, the more it can become normalized and accepted. We have to be able to see all of the village represented.”
Allison Chopra, the candidate for judge who flipped the bird, ultimately lost her bid for the Democratic party nomination. The winner of that contest was Emily Salzmann, whose campaign website features exactly one photo of the candidate by herself. The other website photos include a photo of her with her husband and two children, and one with her parents. “In 2013 Emily married her husband Carl Salzmann,” we are told on the website, before we’re even told that she is managing partner at a law firm.
The cosmology is there, single women, but so are we. In 2022 and beyond, let’s explode some black holes in the patriarchy, why don’t we. Single women, let us run.
Mother Country: A Novel by Jacinda Townsend is available via Graywolf Press.