Women politicians beat the odds and make history
Female politicians look back on trials, triumphs of serving in public office
Shouldering the responsibilities of public office takes its toll on everyone who steps into the ring, but female contenders often shoulder more.
For women, there are some unique challenges when it comes to running for public office. For example, former Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw gave up her private psychotherapy office to juggle the demands of politics and motherhood. Former delegate Sue Kullen remembers pulling all-nighters and running two businesses while in office.
While women make up half the population, there are no female county commissioners currently in office in Calvert or St. Mary’s counties and one female state legislator in office: Del. Deb Rey (R-St. Mary’s). Currently, women make up just over 19 percent of members of Congress.
Three women — two of whom beat the odds by being the first women in their elected offices — recently told their stories of the triumphs and trials of their time in office. ‘We made history’
“I’m going to blame it all on George W. Bush” is going to be the first line of Sue Kullen’s autobiography, if she ever happens to write one. The former Democratic Calvert County state delegate from 2004 to 2011 first got into politics while she worked with people with disabilities and saw how politically active the people were. So she decided to get involved in the presidential election.
Her candidate didn’t win and George W. Bush won a second term, but she caught the political itch. Around that time, Democrat George Owings III was a state delegate for northern Calvert and was selected to be the secretary of veterans affairs by then-governor Robert Ehrlich. She decided to put her name in the hat for Owings’ open delegate slot.
Rather than running a traditional campaign, since it would be to finish out Owings’ term, the recommendations for candidates were done by the Calvert County Democratic Central Committee and then approved by the governor. Kullen was up against some bigger names, like former secretary of agriculture Hagner Mister.
She was the inexperienced one of the bunch, but she got the appointment to finish the last two years of the term. Kullen was the first female delegate representing Calvert County’s District 27C, and has been the only woman since. “We made history,” she said. But some people were angry that she got the position without having prior experience, Kullen said. Some people wouldn’t even talk to her, one saying, “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the democratic process.”
After two years in office, she ran in the election for the seat in 2006. Throughout her time in office, she said she passed more than 100 pieces of legislation and has “absolutely no regrets.”
“To this day, I don’t know where I got the energy,” Kullen said, adding that every four or five nights during her campaign, she would pull an all-nighter to get everything done. She said she had the advantage of already being in office and being quite comfortable with door knocking.
For Kullen, politics comes naturally, but she recognizes that for many other women, it doesn’t.
“Women aren’t predisposed to think about their ability to run for office … Women aren’t naturally partisan, they’re problem solvers,” Kullen said. The motivations of men and women to get into politics are different. Kullen said men are attracted by the prestige and the opportunities for advancement, she said, while women are motivated by causes.
“It takes an extraordinary woman,” Kullen said.
Kullen doesn’t have any children, so that wasn’t a concern to her while in office, but she ran two businesses during her time in Annapolis. She said many women say that once their children are older, they’ll think about getting into politics.
No longer in politics after working for Sen. Ben Cardin (D) for five years, Kullen sees her role now as supporting women running for office and have lunch with them. But, the support needs to come even sooner in life.
“Women need to be encouraged all along while growing up that they are powerful and can change the world,” Kullen said. ‘Anybody really can run for office’
Being a woman, and a Republican running for office in St. Mary’s County in 1990 meant beating a lot of odds. Barbara Thompson, who served as commissioner from 1990 to 1998, said she didn’t stand a chance. But she was elected. Twice. She was the first woman to be elected as a St. Mary’s County commissioner and the first female president of the board in her second term.
“I did a lot of door knocking. That’s how I made myself known,” Thompson said. She also had four prior years of experience on the St. Mary’s County Republican Central Committee.
Thompson’s interest in politics began in high school when she participated in Girl State, a program sponsored by the American Legion where girls learn about government and every participant runs in a mock election.
“That experience said to me that anybody really can run for office,” Thompson said.
Early in her first term in office, Thompson faced a steep learning curve because of a bit of a recession, the state passing off teacher social security to the counties and confronting revenue problems in the county when the biggest employer was the federal government which doesn’t pay taxes.
“I found it very interesting and very rewarding in a lot of respects,” Thompson said.
Thompson said since she left office after losing the 1998 election, there have been women who have run for commissioner, but not many.
“Why don’t they run? To some degree I think it’s the time commitment,” Thompson said, saying that meetings each week plus work sessions, public appearances and homework is a lot to ask of a woman who may also be a wife, mother and a worker. Thompson said when she would ask women to serve on the planning commission or the board of appeals or something, they’d often respond “I can’t do that!”
When she first ran for office, two of her four children were living at home. Her youngest was in the early teen years and her husband stepped into the gap of being at games and school events if she were busy. Yet, she tried hard to have dinner together as a family each night.
“As helpful as many men are, it’s still hard,” Thompson said, recognizing that being in office will interfere with a woman’s nurturing side.
The exposure of being in office is hard, too, Thompson said. For her, it was mainly being a public figure and being in the press, but now there’s also social media. When you don’t win an election, there’s a feeling of rejection and a period of grieving and analyzing what went wrong, and in Thompson’s case of losing an election after two successful campaigns, wondering why the people didn’t want her anymore.
“I am much more empathetic to any politician … having done this,” she said. ‘You really have to have the fire in your belly’
When former Republican Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw moved there in 1974, she said “I just couldn’t believe the old boy network down here.”
Long before she ever ran for office, she attended one candidate forum where she said a male candidate boasted about his wife’s anatomy.
“The context was from my perspective, coming as an outsider, this was the good old boy South,” Shaw said, who served as a commissioner for 12 years, ending in 2014. “I figured I would deal with it.”
She already was accustomed to blatant and implied sexism from working in the health care field. Once when she interviewed for a doctorate program, she was told she was only allowed in if she agreed not to marry or have children before she graduated. That was before Title IX.
Before running as a Republican in Calvert, Shaw started out as a Democrat, which didn’t bode well with the central committee at the time, which Shaw said preferred “women they could control,” and they saw her as uncontrollable. The Democratic central committee held a meet-the-candidates event, so she showed up. But she was told she was not invited and was asked to leave.
“I refused to leave. I declined to leave,” Shaw said. And people told her she had guts. Throughout that first campaign, people told her she was in the wrong party, and as she looked more into it, she realized they were right.
With Calvert County facing huge growth and building a school a year, Shaw’s anti-growth platform fit better with the other party.
“By the second campaign, I had learned a lot,” Shaw said. She did things differently in 2002 and 2003 and the GOP
central committee was supportive and excited.
“To win, you really have to have the fire in your belly,” Shaw said.
After being elected, it was well known that Shaw and the late commissioner Linda Kelley, a fellow Republican, frequently butted heads.
“I think I was extremely annoying to her because I wouldn’t back down,” Shaw said. The commissioners faced millions of dollars in deficit spending, the high growth rate and other big issues, but the commissioners were able to balance the budget and eventually control the residential growth.
On a personal level, she gained custody of her 13-year-old adopted daughter shortly after being elected. Shaw also kept her private psychotherapy practice going in her first term. But with her daughter’s needs and being a commissioner, it was all too much and something had to go. So the practice went.
Being in office is exhausting, Shaw said. It’s hard on families, and politicians need a lot of family support. There’s a lot of criticism that comes with the job, too. Shaw said that politics is a “nasty contact sport.” Since everything in a politician’s life is under scrutiny, it affects relationships and work.
“It’s different for women to take on that kind of responsibility, because we have other responsibilities,” Shaw said.
Barbara Thompson plays with her dog, Byrne, in front of her home in Hollywood in this file photo.
Former county commissioner Susan Shaw answers phones at the Calvert County Republican Central Committee headquarters in this file photo. The committee hosted an election watch party in Prince Frederick.