Susan Byseiwicz ’83 B.A. first met former Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso at an American Legion event at her high school. That chance encounter with the first woman elected governor in the United States proved to be a definitive moment. Between her junior and senior years at Yale, Byseiwicz gathered stories about Grasso. That research became her senior thesis, and that thesis formed the basis of Bysiewicz’ biography of the barrier-breaking politician, “Ella.” Without realizing it, she was also laying the foundation for her own political future.
Now, more than four decades after Grasso became the first woman governor, Stacey Abrams ’99 J.D. in Georgia is positioned to break another barrier. She’s the first black woman ever to be a major party nominee for governor, and, if elected, will be the nation’s first black woman governor. Abrams has a women-led campaign team — “not intentional,” she says, “but very fruitful,” — and she has become a focal point for national interest in women running for office and winning nominations.
A notable feature of Abrams’ campaign is 1,000 Women Strong — a coalition of women in Georgia and across the nation who pledge to support Abrams’ run with a small donation, a commitment to engage voters, and a pledge to promote Abrams’ message to their networks. The initiative quickly exceeded 1,000 participants when it was announced in December 2017. Other campaigns have now adopted the strategy.
“When I launched this campaign, I wanted to enlarge the electorate and bring more voices to the table, and women are central to that,” Abrams says. Abrams won her primary nomination by 76%, winning nearly all of Georgia’s 159 counties and turned out many voters who had never voted before.
It was at Yale Law School, says Abrams, that she gained experience working for nonprofits and saw how law and policy connected to social issues — and that led her to specialize in tax law. “So many causes that mattered to me didn’t have access to Yale lawyers,” she says. Abrams became a tax attorney at Atlanta-based Sutherland Asbill & Brennan where she specialized in working with tax-exempt organizations like hospitals and universities. She would go on to become deputy city attorney and then state representative, where she was elected to the Ways and Means Committee. “Not because of my political connections,” she says, “but my command of tax policy.”
Many Yale alumni women currently running for office come armed with a law degree and a background in legal advocacy. There’s Zephyr Teachout ’93 B.A., a former death penalty defense lawyer and associate law professor at Fordham University who is running for attorney general of New York. In California, Katie Porter ’96 — who studied under Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at Harvard Law School — is running for Congress. She’s a professor at University of California-Irvine School of Law and has led the fight against predatory lending practices by banks in California. In Minnesota, Senator Amy Klobuchar ’82 is seeking her third term in office. Before becoming the first woman elected to the Senate in Minnesota’s history in 2007, she led the largest prosecutor’s office in the state. Krish Vignarajah ’01 B.A., ’08 J.D., a former policy director for Michelle Obama, ran for governor of Maryland but lost the June 2018 primary to former NAACP president Ben Jealous. Heather Ross ’96 B.A. brings a different skillset to her run for a congressional seat in Arizona. She’s a nurse practitioner, professor at Arizona State University, and researcher scientist keenly interested in healthcare reform. And Connecticut State Representative Gail Levielle ’81 M.A. came to politics armed with a degree in comparative literature and an MBA in finance, as well as a career in international business.
These Yale alumni women are part of a rising influx of women entering politics. Across the country, 185 women have been nominated to Congress, up from the previous record of 167 in 2016. And a record 11 women have been nominated to run for governor this year – up from the previous record of 10 in 1994.
“There’s excitement across the country with women who want to harness their political power,” Abrams says.
State Representative Lavielle says being admitted into Yale’s comparative literature program was a defining moment. It gave her a sense of her own potential. “To be at the very best place for that discipline … that stuck with me all these years,” Lavielle says. She learned French, and lived in France for years working as senior vice president of Suez Environment among other roles. She found the work, and global focus, engaging. But when she returned to the U.S., something was missing. So Lavielle joined her local Republican Town Committee as a social outlet and was soon applying her communications skills to various campaigns. Before long, people were asking her to run. “I like the intellectual work of it,” she says of politics. “I consider every issue on its merits.” Lavielle says the humanities gave her an important foundation for political life. “All that writing, deconstruction, and structural analysis of text is so important when you are trying to parse words and figuring out what to say.”
Ross first considered entering politics when she attended a Yale Club event in Phoenix in February of 2017. Patti Russo, executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, was there, talking about the need for women to get politically engaged. Not long after, Ross saw that her classmate from Grace Hopper College — Katie Porter — had launched a congressional run in California.
“I had never known anyone personally who had run for federal office before,” Ross says. The final decision came when she was teaching a health policy class at Arizona State University. “Standing in front of the students, I thought, ‘I can represent all of these identities and experiences and bring them to Congress.’”
At Yale, Ross studied cultural history and graduated with a degree in religious studies. She recalls reading “The Varieties of the Religious Experience” by philosopher William James, in which he describes different religious experiences as paths up the same mountain, reaching the same destination. “Through my life in public health, nursing, and education, that really informed how I understand people. It helps me to build consensus,” Ross says.
Yale has long been a proving ground for would-be political leaders from both sides of the aisle. Yale’s multidisciplinary approach encourages creative problem-solving, its global focus invites engagement with the outside world, and its emphasis on impact drives students to look for ways to use their skills to advance the greater good.
“Yale students are trained for the public sphere,” says Kathryn Lofton, deputy dean for diversity and faculty development; professor of religious studies, American studies, and history; and chair of the Religious Studies Program. “They come here having thought of themselves as a public person — they started nonprofits and small businesses, they went on service trips, wrote plays. They come to Yale to sharpen their skills and be part of a ‘community of kindred.’” She adds: “I’ve never been in an institution where students are so confident they can change the world.”
Vignarajah, who says she was motivated both politically and personally to launch a run for governor, says, “Yale and Yale Law School set me up to go into public service.” Her parents fled civil war in Sri Lanka to move to the United States when she was 9 months old, and Vignarajah says she wanted to preserve the American Dream, because it was her story. “At Yale, I was surrounded by people who also felt that their calling was tied to public service,” she says.
“I’m always thinking about what I need to do to take my skills and amplify them,” says Lauren Graham ’13 M.E.M., who participated in the Women’s Campaign School at Yale (WCS) this past June and is considering a future run for Congress. Graham says she once imagined she would go into law but then was “bitten by the ‘green bug’ — everything became about the environment and social justice.” She is currently chair of the alumni shared interest group Yale Blue Green.
WCS is not a university program, but is sponsored by and hosted at Yale Law School and counts prominent alumni and faculty on its board, including Marta Moret ’84 M.P.H., president of Urban Policy Strategies and Yale’s “first lady.” For the past 25 years, WCS has welcomed women from diverse backgrounds and political affiliations across the country to learn the ins and outs of effective campaigning from bipartisan experts and strategists. Topics range from communication strategies, to funding, research, polling, and getting out the vote. The week ends with a mock campaign.
This year, WCS received around 600 applications for their 80 available spots — double their typical numbers, according to executive director Russo. “Politics is a tough business,” says Russo, “the mentorship and sisterhood is critical.” Alumni from the programs provide ongoing support via an active closed Facebook group and include New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords among their ranks. The nonprofit has undergone a significant demographic shift since it started, says Russo, from mostly white women in their mid-to-late 40s to a majority of women of color, most in their 30s.
“We’re looking for people who have a passion for politics and demonstrated work in the field,” Russo says. “Those who are active in their party, and have run a campaign or run for office.”
A scholarship established by Bysiewicz 10 years ago allows two Connecticut students to attend each year (three this year). “We plant the seed for women to think about running and the powerful impact you can make,” Russo says.
Bysiewicz, who recently won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Connecticut alongside gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont ’80 M.B.A., says: “I’m passionate about helping other women because I know it’s not easy. Women especially need people to say ‘I can do this. Here’s the roadmap.’”
As encouraged as these alumni women are by this political movement, they admit they remain cautious: running for office is one thing; winning is another. While Vignarajah says women are welcomed as legislators down-ballot “there’s still a barrier in viewing them as executives.”
And there’s a long way to go before gender equality is reached in Congress, where women hold just 20% of seats. But, Vignarajah adds that among the public, “There’s a thirst when it comes to new ideas and diverse voices — not just to get a seat at the table, but at the head of it.”