When a woman becomes a candidate for high office, one question inevitably follows: All things being equal, should one vote for a woman simply because she is a woman? There is a problem with that question, however, which leads me to suggest a slightly different question when thinking about the current race for mayor of Denver. What if Kelly Brough's first name was Ken?
Let's take the problem with the original question first: the phrase "all things being equal." All things are not equal and have not been for some time. Trust me, I know from experience. In 1990, I ran Josie Heath's campaign for the U.S. Senate. And in 2002, I was a candidate for mayor of Denver.
When Josie Heath won her primary back then and became the Democratic nominee, true legitimacy did not follow. I witnessed the dismissive looks and heard the derisive comments. More than once, I heard jokes and laughter about "that girl from Boulder." That girl managed non-profits, served as a county commissioner for eight years, and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be Regional Director of Action.
Twenty years ago, after six years on Denver City Council, I made a long-shot run for mayor. I was prepared for skepticism, but not necessarily for the dismissive words and tone when visiting with many of Denver's most distinguished civic leaders. I was wasting my time, I was told more than once. There was one particular conversation that captures most directly the essence of my candidate experience. He said (and this is a direct quote that I have never forgotten): "How can you possibly think that I, or anyone else, would support some housewife to be mayor?"
It took me a moment before I realized he was talking about me. On my résumé, in addition to my years as a Denver councilwoman and decades as an educator, a social worker and campaign manager, I had an MSW and a Ph.D. next to my name. He was right, though: I was a housewife, too, proudly taking care of my family and managing the household. But in one fell swoop, his attempt to demean me and every other woman making her way in the world left me speechless. On their behalf more than mine, I wanted to share two unprintable words with him, but instead I simply sighed.
I understood that baked into our societal and cultural psyche — back then even more than today — was the assumption that a lawyer or businessman in an expensive suit and tie is automatically qualified for any leadership position, while a woman is assumed to be unqualified until she proves otherwise. Every woman who has ever raised her hand just a little too high knows what I am talking about. And we also know that if we put words to this double standard, it becomes labeled as whining, further proof that we aren't cut out for the big leagues, can't take the heat, and are using the woman thing as an excuse.
Thankfully, things have changed dramatically, at least partially because women haven't used any of this as an excuse and instead, around the country and the world, have been running for office and winning, and impressing with their leadership. In 1990 when Josie ran, there was only one woman in the U.S. Senate. Today, there are 25. Over the decades, the number of women governors and big-city mayors has doubled and tripled.
We've come a long way, baby! At least, that's what I tell myself even as it is not yet true in Colorado, where no woman has ever been elected governor or to the U.S. Senate. And not yet true in Denver. But now we are in a run-off for mayor of Denver, just two people left standing, and one of them is a woman. Which brings me back to the slightly different take on the original question. What if Kelly's name was Ken?
To find your way to an answer, simply fill a page with all that you know about Kelly. Jot down notes to yourself about her expertise, her knowledge, her experience in the city and in the world, her approach and ideas about governing, her background and journey and what she's accomplished. At the top of the page, write the name KEN in large letters. If the candidate on the ballot was named Ken, how would you vote then?
Even if her name isn't Ken, I was always going to vote for Kelly Brough. Because she is more prepared to be mayor than any person I know. Because she has more leadership experience, more expertise, more knowledge of city government, and more appreciation for how communities, neighborhoods and business contribute to the health of our city. I am voting for her, too, because she is a woman, which means she has had to take that unequal road to this election day, that she has had to overcome more hurdles, climb bigger mountains, and been buffeted by stronger winds and storms along the way, and has come out stronger for it.
I am also voting for Kelly Brough because, like Ginger Rogers, while Mike Johnston seeks recognition for all his dancing prowess, Kelly has danced longer and farther and with more skill and grace, all the while having to do it backwards and in very high heels.
Susan Casey served on Denver City Council from 1995 to 2001 and was a candidate for mayor in 2002. A former social worker and educator, and a top advisor to five presidential candidates, she now writes full-time. Her book Appealing for Justice was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for Nonfiction in 2017.
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