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2017 issue
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Virginia's Growing Teacher Shortage

In 2011 I drove my beat-up, bright red, Chevy Cavalier to the Virginian countryside. I was en route to interview Eva Scott, who in 1971 became the first woman elected to the Virginia Senate."

On the way to Scott's house in the Virginia countryside, a group of men in a pickup truck held up a piece of paper with an explicit proposition scrawled in sharpie; it was the written version of the cat call. I went into that interview feeling angry and demoralized. Voiceless, following the one way communication I hadn't wanted.

2011 was also an election year for The House of Delegates That year 133 men ran for a seat in the House of Delegates. Only 29 women did the same. Less than 20% of the seats in the House were held by women, and this is still the case today. Women in Virginia do not have the same quality of representation as men do. Their voices are not being as well heard.

But it's been five years since 2011: five years since the sign held up to a car window, five years since I interviewed Eva Scott, five years since 29 women ran for office. We're approaching a new election cycle, and this year, 53 women are running for the House of Delegates.

I interviewed Viola Baskerville, the 14th Virginia Secretary of Administration and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1998-2005, in preparation for this piece. She spoke on the power of women in the 1990s, but how, in contrast, women's voices continue today to be absent on the local, state, and federal level.

"Well, gosh, we cannot have it so that we are not represented at every single opportunity at the local, state, federal level," said Baskerville. "We have been asleep at the wheel."

Baskerville attributed some of the increase of women running to the 2016 Presidential Race, as well as images of older white men signing legislation and executive orders.

"Women aren't feeling that their voices are being heard," said Baskerville. " I remember running for the House of Delegates ... that was 20 years ago since I first entered the House of Delegates. There were roughly fifteen women in the house and eight or so women in the Senate. Virginia had something like 15-16 women creating legislation. We're 52% of the voting population, so there's this huge disparity on voices and volumes of voices on issues that needs to be addressed."

On January 21, 2017, the Women's March organization marched on Washington D.C. to advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights and other issues, including women's rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers' rights. This powerful moment in history was evidence that women want to be heard, and it surely spurred many of Virginia's female candidates to run for office.

"I believe we have reached a point in society where we are no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and allow others to make decisions for us," said Rebecca Colaw, a first time candidate running for Virginia's 64th District.

"I'm running for office primarily because I went to the Women's March," Colaw continued. "It was one of the most amazing things I've ever done. It was all sorts of colors: black, brown, white, rainbow ... all colors working together to express what America truly is. When I came home I was trying to figure out what I could do and how I could be of service. I couldn't stand what was happening in our country and decided to run for office."

Kathy Byron, a Virginia Delegate since 1998, also mentioned the March.

"Many of the women seeking office as Democrats have expressed their unanimity with the goals of the march that coincided with the inauguration of President Trump," said Byron. "Although I do not believe those goals - other than opposing the President - were coherently or succinctly expressed, running for office can be an effective way to ensure your opinion is heard."

Another first time candidate, Elizabeth Guzman, also spoke on the importance of women stepping up to make a change.

"I think women across the country, especially here in Virginia, are tired of the divisive politics that Donald Trump and Republicans across the country are bringing to our communities. While many of us were inspired by Hillary Clinton and the achievements women have made today, we know we have to do better. Women are tired of government not getting anything done, and that's why we stepped up to lead this year. For me, public service was not just my only motivation. I want to show my children that you can achieve anything, and they have a future in Virginia."

Although the women running recognize the importance of women's voices being heard in Virginia, the policies and issues that they are interested in are at the heart of their decision to run. Another first time candidate, Linda Schlutz, for District 38, said the following:

"No matter the party, I am happy to see more women running for office — we have three Republican women running in Northern Virginia alone. What I am disappointed about is that the conversation around more women candidates is focused on 'Resist'. When women are only positioned as 'running to resist', this diminishes their efforts. We should be seen as running to 'Represent'. I want to believe that women, of both parties, are running because we want to make a difference in our communities and for our families. We want strong education, safety, and economic growth."

This dedication to doing the work ahead is foundational to every woman who spoke on running for office.

Margaret B. Ransone, was one of the 29 women who ran for office in 2011. She was elected that year and represents the 99th district.

"There's no difference for me as a woman," said Ransone. "I am a parent, a spouse, and I work full time. I would say this is true for most here in Virginia serving as part time legislators. It's a sacrifice for all of us, but it's our sacrifice and commitment that keeps us honest in representing our community and our Commonwealth."

Baskerville did note a difference between men and women in politics. She said that women were more likely to collaborate than their male colleagues.

"One of the things that I observed as far as the way women leaders work when looking at elected positions is that women were willing to talk across party lines at the state level, and at the local level women were more willing to work as a team," said Baskerville. "It wasn't about who got credit. It was about getting the job done. Getting the legislation passed."

Women across the state are stepping up to face the challenges and sacrifices that come with public service, and as they do, women will be better represented across Virginia. The issues, the legislation, the policies … this is the driving force behind Virginia's women. If women are not represented in decision making, that disparity will be apparent in the legislation that is passed. So this year, as more women run, we will also begin to hear more of the authentic, knowledgeable and empathetic voices of Virginia's women.

That 2011 day with Eva Scott we talked about her political career: her motivations, her failures, her successes. When I asked her about why women should run, she told me the following:

"Women sincerely believe in a cause," Scott said. "Women go down with a cause, and they conscientiously believe in that as a reason for election and service."

Lydia Freeman is a teacher at KIPP ENC Public Schools in Gaston, North Carolina where she pushes sixth graders to think deeply and engage with historical, social and political spheres while practicing reading and writing. She writes often, engages deeply in conversation with friends, and strives to live purposefully in her community.