A common analysis of the 2016 presidential election holds that Donald Trump won in a surprise upset because of how much voters disliked his opponent Hillary Clinton, an unpopularity attributed in large part to her being a woman in politics—even more so, the first woman presidential candidate from a major party in the United States. And yet commentators continually intone that it’s the “year of the woman,” including in 2018, when a record number of women ran and won in the midterms.
But there are still numerous obstacles facing women candidates, as the film Represent, airing and available to stream via Independent Lens on Monday, October 26, shows.
“My working thesis—and I think it does bear out in the film—was that there is entrenched sexism and racism, even in these hyper-local offices,” says Hillary Bachelder, the Chicago-based director, cinematographer, and editor of Represent. “It felt valuable to see, okay, this isn’t about Hillary Clinton and people saying horrible things about her. This is about, when your neighbor runs, what are the things that get whispered behind her back? I thought that focusing locally would give a different lens on where the seeds of these systemic issues start.”
In the film, Bachelder follows three first-time candidates as they run for office in 2017 and 2018: Myya Jones, a 22-year-old Democratic candidate for mayor in Detroit; Julie Cho, a Republican candidate for state representative in a blue district in the North Shore of Chicago; and Bryn Bird, a progressive Democrat trying to win a seat as a Granville township trustee in rural, conservative Ohio.
Throughout their campaigns, each of them are forced to absorb constant small indignities as a result of being a woman, as well as a mother of young children (Bird and Cho), a Black woman (Jones), and a Korean American woman (Cho). “I didn’t realize that everyone would tell me I was running for the party of old white men,” Cho says. “It was frustrating, because I would say, ‘Well, if you want to change that, then vote for people like me!’ ”
Cho says she wasn’t prepared for the covert racism she would face running as a Korean American Republican in a liberal district. “A woman called me a white nationalist, when it is pretty clear that I am of Asian descent,” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘Me?’ ” At a racial equity training, another woman told her she shouldn’t be there, because she is a Republican.
“It was eye-opening to see how much was being hurled at Julie from the Democrats,” says Bachelder. “I identify as a Democrat here in Chicago, and it was deeply disappointing to see members of my own party really treating Julie poorly.”
Beyond people’s treatment of Cho, Bachelder was surprised by how open people were while she was filming. “I certainly had a sense that micro-aggressions were occurring, but seeing how plainly or baldly those were exposed even with a camera there was surprising and disappointing.”
“Unfortunately, I think it’s sort of a universal story of women in almost any kind of professional space, especially in a public space,” she says. “The bird’s-eye thing I was trying to get at was, even though these three women are fundamentally different, with different ideas and political backgrounds and pretty much everything else, they all approach this role and try to shape it on their own terms. They didn’t want to shrink themselves to fit the idea of what a woman should be like as a candidate or in a public space. And I think that is another kind of universal in the story.”
All three women persist in running because they want to improve their community. “I saw some problems that needed to be addressed and discovered some of their roots while running,” explains Cho, whose major issue was the Democrat-led gerrymandering of districts in Illinois.
“I was incredibly moved by how everyone constantly picked themselves up and kept doing it, and how passionately the candidates I was following and all the folks around them were pursuing this, based out of a commitment to making their communities better,” says Bachelder.
And yet: “It was disheartening for me at times to see how unjust democracy can be. It was like, ‘You’re working so much harder, you’re so much more qualified, you have so much better ideas’—but those aren’t the people who always win these races. They’re so rarely the people who do.”
Cho, who did not receive the support of the Illinois GOP and lost to the incumbent, now works with an organization she founded that is dedicated to providing education for minority children, she says. “I decided I could do more in community organizations rather than running again.”
But she’s glad she did it. “Since I was running as a Republican candidate in a blue district, I had to work much harder to learn what people actually wanted,” she says. “If it’s an easy election, you don’t have to work hard to find out what people need. I learned so much that I would never have in a classroom.”
What does Bachelder hope a viewer might learn from watching Cho and her fellow candidates? “I hope people watch the film and feel like the onus of democracy is on all of us,” she says. “This film is not about democracy being a spectator sport. It requires all of us to be engaged, whether it’s voting or volunteering or running, whatever it is.
“I didn’t want to wrap it all up in a bow and say, ‘Great, some inspiring women ran for office, now all the problems are solved.’ That’s not the case. There’s plenty of work to do.”