What Former Congresswomen Learned From Running

Edwards: ‘Women have to stop waiting to be asked and just step up and do it’

Left to right, Nydia Velazquez, Eva Clayton, Carolyn Maloney and Barbara Kennelly are seen at a reception for new women members at freshman orientation in 1992. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and election, there has been a major push to get more women to run for Congress. And it’s paid off — the number of women who have filed for or are planning to run for office is at an all-time high, according to a study from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Some women who served in Congress want those political hopefuls to know exactly what they’re in for.

“The [Women’s] March was wonderful. But there’s a big step between marching and running,” former Connecticut Democrat Rep. Barbara Kennelly said of the millions of women who marched in Washington and across the country shortly after Trump’s inauguration. “There has to also be more follow-through.”

[Former Congresswomen Share Stories of Harassment]

Having lived a political life, Kennelly is aware of the how it can affect a woman’s life. But “women ... they have to understand that the way the country is now and the need for good politics, it’s going to be a sacrifice.” 

When Kennelly ran for the House in 1982, women made up 4.3 percent of the Congress. It has never exceeded 20 percent.

Watch: ‘There’s a Big Step Between Marching and Running’: Former Congresswomen on Getting Women to Run

Former Republican Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland set herself apart from the men she was running against by showing she could work harder.

She campaigned by knocking on as many doors as possible and meeting people. She added that longtime political journalist Charlie Cook said at a recent event that the only way you could avoid shaking Morella’s hand was if you were in the men’s room.

While there is a push to get more women to run, Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards, who served in the House from 2008 to 2017, said they shouldn’t wait to be pushed.

[Getting Into the Boys Club]

“Women have to stop waiting to be asked and just step up and do it,” Edwards said.

California Republican Mary Bono first ran for Congress to replace her late husband, Rep. Sonny Bono, who died in office.

“In just a few minutes, my life was completely turned upside down and next thing I know, I’m running for Congress,” Bono said. “For a lot of women, take your time to plan, look at the best time in your life, it may be tomorrow and it may be 10 years from now. There’s no telling.”

When she was elected, Congress was 12.3 percent women. When she left in 2013, it was 17.9 percent women.

Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., says women can be on the menu if they don’t have a seat at the table. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Overcoming stereotypes

There are plenty of reasons for women to convince themselves not to run — the perception of Congress as an old boys’ club, the way women who work on the Hill have been treated, and for some, the way they were raised — and that women can’t succeed at things like politics.

“Somehow women grow up believing that there are certain things that they must not do. Certain things that they can go overboard a bit but not too much,” Morella said. “So it’s kind of a cultural thing.”

Men don’t face those kinds of barriers, she said.

“We have right here in Maryland, a man … he’s in the federal Congress, never went to the state Legislature. Nice man, and he’s not running again because he’s running for president of the United States,” she said of Democratic Rep. John Delaney.

“Now, I’m going to tell you, a female doing that? No. You can’t even get her to run for Congress, or you can get her to run, but then she knows that she might just be dismissed.” 

Edwards said she’s experienced being dismissed firsthand.

“I remember when I ran for Congress and decided to take on this challenge, there were so many people who said to me, ‘Why don’t you run for school board and county council?’ They laid out this pathway,” she said.

“I started doing the math on that pathway and I figured that I could make it to Congress by the time I turned 80,” she said.

“I think that too often women run for one job because they think that that is a pathway instead of just going for the thing that they want to do,” she added.


All four congresswomen were mothers during their political careers and had to balance a life running for or being in office and raising their children.

Bono’s children were six and nine when her husband died.

“I had to decide, could I run for Congress and be a member of Congress and be a good mom?” Bono said. “I think anybody who runs for office has to ask if they can balance their life. It’s a very difficult balance, and generally speaking, the family suffers.”

“It’s almost impossible to sort of translate or let people know how difficult and complicated it is,” she said “I used to go just crazy because why Halloween night wasn’t a sacred night for parents to have off, as silly as that sounds ... why couldn’t parents have that night off to be home with their children?”

Kennelly had a better idea of what the life was like because she was raised in a political family.

“I had four children. One was with going to college, two were in high school and one was in grammar school,” the former congresswoman said. “So of course I thought about it. I came from a political family, I married a political man, so I was ahead of the game as far as not fearing it.”

Morella said she spent so much time out of the house during campaigns, her children made a joke out of it — “They’d say, ‘Elect our mother and get her off the streets.’”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.