The statistics aren’t good. According to recent estimates, women make up just under 20 percent of Congress and less than 25 percent of all state legislatures. Only six of our nation’s governors are women. But we are 51 percent of the population. And the research shows that when women participate in government, we make it run better, more collaboratively. Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But within weeks of the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced they plan to run. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them a periodic example of a woman who has run and won. The point: You can, too. This week, meet Abby Finkenauer, the Iowa state representative who’s running to represent Iowa in Congress.
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The last time we interviewed Abby Finkenauer, she was a 26-year-old elected official in the Iowa House of Representatives. The staunch progressive had beaten out three white dudes for her seat—each of whom had more than two decades on her.
But back in 2015 and despite all of her success, Finkenauer was an exception to the rule—a woman who knew she had what it took to represent Iowans, a millennial who didn’t want to wait to run, no matter the “conventional wisdom.” Now she’s not such a rare breed. Thousands of women have since followed Finkenauer into races nationwide. And Finkenauer is herself back on the ballot. She declared that she will seek to unseat Rep. Rod Blum, the Republican who represents Iowa’s First District. Since her announcement, she’s earned national attention, local endorsements, and the trust of donors, who’ve ponied up over $600,000 to see her win.
I was a kid who was always really interested in world events. I mean I was a 10-year-old who begged my parents for a subscription to Newsweek. So I don’t think I exactly knew what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to make a difference. The moments that I think back on that really shaped me were the ones I spent, sitting around the kitchen table with my relatives, and even those I was this little kid, I was able to come and sit at that table and talk about what was happening in Kosovo and Kuwait. I just think to be taken seriously as a young girl that early on and from grown men had an impact.
I had no idea for years there were so few women in politics. I realized that much later. But even back when I was a page in the [Iowa State] House at 18, there were a lot of lawmakers that I got to know well, and one of them is Janet Petersen, who is now the leader of the Iowa Senate for the Democrats. She had three kids, and she had her last while we were in my session that year. She would bring Buck, her son, to session and we would have to set up a mini-nursery in the Speaker’s office. I remember watching her and thinking, here is this woman who is working really hard, who cares about her community, who’s able to have a family. I paid attention.
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There are moments, though, that have an impact on you for different reasons. I remember my very first bill in the State House had to do with adding video testimonies to public hearings. We have legislative session in the winter, and it’s really tough for folks to get down to the capital, you know, if they’re three hours away in Dubuque, like some of my constituents were. It was so important to me because this was my first bill, and I was really into bipartisanship and wanted to be able to work across the aisle. I had 10 Republican cosponsors and 10 Democratic cosponsors on the bill. I was really excited about it.
And then one day, I saw down with one legislator, and he looked at the cosponsors and said something like, “Oh, I noticed there’s a certain demographic here for the Republicans you have on it.” Implying that they were men, that I was this young woman with 10 male Republican co-sponsors. Well, Republicans only had six women in their caucus. So, I was like, “If you had more women I would probably have some on this bill.” But, yes, the job can be interesting.
I try to remember that it’s not about you, this work. There’s a reason it’s called “representative,” right? You listen to folks. Your job is to take your constituents’ voices to those spaces that they don’t [have access to], to those tables where decisions are made. Since Democrats don’t control the state house, there’s been a lot of battles we’ve waged and we’ve lost.
But I’ve learned that one of our biggest responsibilities is to hear people and to use our voices to make sure they know their voices matter. It’s the same in this race. So many folks have come up to me and talked about the fact that they are working multiple jobs and are barely able to make it right now. I mean there is one woman I spoke to who was 25. She’s a [nursing assistant], so this is really hard work. She works 40 hours a week. And she told me that she wasn’t even sure she could pay her rent that month because she hadn’t been scheduled for the extra waitress job that she had on top of all that, that she needed to pay her rent. This is economic anxiety that this woman lives with every month. And she’s doing everything right! She got her education, she has a job, and she still isn’t able to make it.
I decided to get into this race, because, yes, I’m different than Rod Blum, because I understand what folks here have experienced. He has no idea what their lives are like. I’m still paying off student loans. I can’t buy a new car, because my payment would be what my new car payment would be. I come from a working-class family. It’s tough. I know a lot of people look at me and think, “But there’s no way that this girl will have the resources she needs to take on a guy like Rod Blum.” And to be frank, I mean they have some valid points. These races are expensive, and Rod Blum is a wealthy man who can write his campaign a check whenever he wants. I decided to just work really hard. I decided I would go to voters and tell them, “I will have your back, but I am going to need your help.” It turns out it works. Over 80 percent of our contributions so far have been $100 or less. I’m hopeful. I really am. We are here to prove that you don’t have to be a millionaire to run for office. You don’t have to sell your soul. Because I’m not. And I sure the heck won’t.
This interview has been edited and condensed.