Katie Couric: See Jane Win tells the inspiring story of women running for political office. What was the impetus behind this book? What trends were you seeing with women and politics?
Caitlin Moscatello: I started reporting the book back in February 2017, so right on the heels of the 2016 election. It was clear that the public temperature had changed — women were channeling their anger about an impending Trump administration by pouring money into organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and millions took to the streets for the Women’s March. But what I was most interested in was, what would be the lasting action? Right around that time, there were rumblings that groups that train and support female candidates were being inundated with applicants. I started reaching out to women considering running, and after each call, I would get off the phone feeling energized and hopeful. I had no idea who would actually run, much less win — but I felt in my gut that this was a story worth telling. And then, in the two years I spent reporting, the book became about something much bigger. It became about women fighting back, and then also making history.
What is motivating so many women to run for office now?
A longstanding barrier that has kept women from running is that they too often think they aren’t qualified enough. But watching Donald Trump, a man with no political qualifications and who many Americans knew as a reality TV star, win the presidency flipped a switch. A lot of women saw that and thought, Well if *this guy* can make it to the Oval Office, then surely I can run for my city council, or state legislature, or Congress.
And then, what I also saw and heard as I interviewed candidates was that the stakes felt incredibly high. Women are running for office because they have seen what happens when rooms full of men make decisions on our behalf. People talk a lot about women needing to have a seat at the table — well in government, too often women aren’t even in the room. Women are running to change that, and in 2018, it was progressive women leading the charge.
You followed four candidates during the 2018 midterms. How did you select the candidates you would cover? What did you find interesting about their campaigns?
I knew that I wanted to tell the stories of a diverse group of women, running for various levels of office, in different parts of the country. And I wanted women whose stories represented what was happening on a larger scale. It was definitely a puzzle. Early on, I had a bulletin board in my office and I would print out names of women I’d interviewed or articles about women as they announced their campaigns, and I would tack them up and make calls.
Ultimately, the four main candidates in the book ended up being Catalina Cruz, a former Dreamer running in Trump’s backyard in Queens, NY — which from a storytelling perspective, is incredibly appealing. Then there’s Anna Eskamani, then a 27-year-old running a bold, progressive campaign in a purple district in Orlando. She was inspired to get into public service after losing her mother, an Iranian immigrant, to cancer when Eskamani was only 13 years old. And then the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in her district, and she decided she would run. I remember standing in her bathroom and she had scrawled on the mirror: “If I don’t win, people will die.”
I also followed London Lamar, poised to become the youngest Black woman in the overwhelming white, male, and conservative Tennessee state legislature. She could have gone anywhere after college, but she returned home to Memphis, a city struggling with high crime rates and a struggling economy, because she wanted to make her community stronger. I was at her campaign launch, and the room was filled with young people who weren’t fleeing their city, but were instead putting down roots and talking about starting businesses and running for office, and that was really compelling. And then there was Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative and mother of three young girls living in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, who decided to run for the U.S. House after her representative — an ardent Trump supporter — voted for a healthcare bill that would have been disastrous for millions of Americans. The book also features other women, but these were the candidates I followed most closely throughout their campaigns.
Aside from policy platforms, what ways did their campaigns differ — and what commonalities did you see?
All of the candidates had to get over those initial hurdles of deciding to run, organizing their teams, preparing their stump speeches, building a donor network, creating a social media presence — basically the nuts and bolts of being a candidate. But there were certainly differences in the obstacles they faced. Catalina Cruz had kept it a secret that she’d grown up undocumented, and that was a huge emotional obstacle for her. She also speaks really candidly in the book about having to deal with her complicated feelings around money and fundraising — this is a woman who, as a girl, would wait up for her mom to come back from cleaning motel rooms and worry that she’d been taken away.
Another candidate I spoke with, also a woman of color, had the cops called on her while she was canvassing in a white neighborhood. There are definitely differences when running for office as a woman of color, as a woman who grew up poor, as an LGBTQ woman, as a woman with young children, as a young single woman. I aimed to show those differences but then also how women overcame such obstacles. A question I kept on a Post-It in my office read, “How will women change a system designed by men for men?” and I would ask myself at the end of each chapter if I’d done enough to help answer it.
One universal thread I’ll mention is that all of the candidates in the book were attacked during their campaigns. Anna Eskamani had someone superimpose her face onto a pornography clip and threatened to distribute it. Both Abigail Spanberger and Catalina Cruz were targeted by an extreme right-wing website, leading to thousands of vulgar and troubling comments. When women are attacked, there is often this sexualized tone to what’s being said or threatened. The advice on how to handle this is changing, though. It used to be that female candidates were told to rise above any sexist attacks, and now the advice is to call it out publicly.
Now that we are in the midst of the 2020 election cycle, are you seeing any new trends with women and politics?
A lot of what we are seeing now is a continuation of what worked for women in the 2018 election cycle. We’re seeing female candidates talk about their experiences as mothers, as women in the workplace, as women of color. A winning strategy for women who ran in 2018 was to speak to their lived experiences and bring those experiences into their campaigns. It’s encouraging that the women running in 2020 are doing that as well. As more and more women run, there’s less pressure to fit into this mold of a “typical” politician which, let’s be real, is often an older white male.
For women interested in running for politics, what lessons do you think they could take away from your book?
First, don’t let anyone talk you out of running. Going into this, I knew that a common barrier keeping women off the ballot was that they aren’t encouraged to run. But what I didn’t expect to hear was that some women overcame that barrier and then still — still! — had people tell them they shouldn’t run or that they should start smaller. And then another big lesson is how much voters respond to authenticity. If you’re going to run, own who you are. It’s what helped women win in the last election cycle, what I suspect will propel women forward in 2020, and also inspire more women to run. I can’t stress enough how powerful it is when women see themselves, really see themselves, in their representatives. This isn’t about one or two elections. It’s about our whole future.