The country’s 2018 election cycle saw a glorious rise in womxn running for and winning political seats that have long been held by men. But the victory for womxn politicians—seen by many as a response to the Trump administration’s blatant sexism—wasn’t anything new for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, a five-member body that hasn’t included a man since 2016. While the country celebrated a landslide of firsts for womxn candidates on election night, Multnomah County cheered for a more nuanced victory: Voters had elected a board with a minority womxn majority.
It would be a disservice to define Multnomah County’s top policymakers by their gender alone. But, for the sake of this article, we asked three commissioners to explain how being a member of an all-female political body changes the narrative around who gets to lead—and how it’s changing our county for the better.
There’s one memory Commissioner Susheela Jayapal has held onto from her first work experience out of college: “I remember noticing that all the men had photos of their families in their offices, and women did not. It wasn’t encouraged,” explains Jayapal, a first generation Indian American and the newest member of the county commission. “I was really struck by that.” She says the board’s female leadership trickles down to how the county offices operate—like the support offered when someone brings a sick kid to work, maternity leave, and certain cultural sensitivities.
“It’s those environmental things that are hard to articulate, and you don’t always notice,” says Jayapal. “Feeling comfortable can be treated as a privilege.”
That applies to the county’s constituents, too. Jayapal recalls a young womxn approaching her after a meeting to say how nice it was seeing someone who looks like she does in elected office. “It’s hugely important for women and women of color to see us and think, ‘If that’s her space, then that can be my space, too,’” Jayapal says.
Growing up without that kind of representation in government made Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson initially hesitant to get into politics. “I had a lot of doubts... I wasn’t sure I was ready, or if I had the right qualifications,” she says, reflecting on her decision to run for the Oregon House of Representatives in 2012. But meeting then-Secretary of State Kate Brown helped calm Vega Pederson’s reservations.
“She told me, ‘Men wake up every day and decide that they want to run for office... and no one questions it,’” says Vega Pederson. “So I went for it.” She became the first Latina elected to the Oregon House of Representatives.
Vega Pederson believes that she and the other county commissioners can improve the public’s view of government in a way that white male politicians are incapable of doing.
“Having a majority-minority commission expands the number of people who feel comfortable engaging with us,” she says. “People look at the board and think, ‘This is the place for me.’ They see themselves represented there.”
Lack of representation wasn’t as much of a deterrence for Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. That’s because her mother, Gretchen Kafoury, sat on the Multnomah County Commission in 1986, the first time the county experienced an all-womxn board. Gretchen also served in the Oregon Legislature and sat on Portland City Council. “I can’t remember a time [growing up] where there weren’t conversations about equal rights, feminism, and women trying to change laws to benefit women,” says Kafoury.
In the decades since her mother’s tenure, Kafoury says she’s seen a decrease in the kind of sexism that permeated a female politician’s day-to-day in the past. But that doesn’t mean it’s eradicated; she mentions one example of hearing phrases like “mean girls” used to describe female-led negotiations.
Kafoury doesn’t waste her time battling those critiques.
“We try to prove ourselves through our actions instead,” she says, pointing to the commission’s recent list of accomplishments. “I think things will change as people just become more used to seeing women in leadership positions.”
Jayapal sees the county’s female leadership positively reflected in the focus and effectiveness of the commission’s work.
“Women make decisions in a more open, less-hierarchical way. We work collaboratively,” Jayapal says. “A top-down approach does not work.”
Plus, she says, the commissioners rely more often on their own experiences to understand a situation. For instance, the county serves many people who are on the brink of poverty, including a large number of single womxn.
“As women, as mothers, we’re not immune from these economic circumstances,” Jayapal says.
Jayapal’s advice for young girls and womxn interested in running for office is to know exactly why you want to run. “You’re going to be asked over and over why you’re doing this,” she says. “No one asks men this question.”
She encourages womxn to be true to themselves, despite pressures to fit some ideal of what a female politician should look like. “I’m an introvert. There was a period of my life when I thought that I was supposed to overcome and hide... and I am so done with that. I carve out time for myself to recharge,” Jayapal says. “Women need to know that whoever you are, whatever you’re tasked with, rely on your own unique strengths. You don’t need to make yourself anyone else.”