You Gotta Have Friends: The Female Buddy System of Politics

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Washington, DC, September 21, 2016 | comments

Pacific Standard Magazine

You Gotta Have Friends: The Female Buddy System of Politics

As women ascend higher in politics, one key network often gets overlooked: the power of their group of friends.

By Andrea King Collier

Donna Brazile, the recently appointed acting chair of the Democratic National Committee promised to give a peek into a little-seen phenomenon of women in politics?—?their friendships, support, and mentorship. Brazile and her crew of powerful political insiders that she affectionately calls the “Colored Girls”?—?Clinton aide, Minyon Moore; chief executive of the Democratic convention, Leah Daughtry; director of the convention’s podium operations, Yolanda Caraway; and former President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy?—?are working on a book, tentatively by the same name. Yet they also represent a broader picture of women all over the country and even the world who form professional and personal alliances in the political arena.

At an event at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Brazile said: “When you are a black woman in politics, nobody expected you get to the table. And when I got to the table, not only did I keep the door open, I told people to scoot over, because I’m bringing everybody else in. That’s my position.”

Unless you are a Beltway insider, you likely don’t hear much about the Colored Girls or the many deep and strong female relationships in politics that are hidden in plain sight. It just doesn’t look like Carrie, Charlotte, Amanda, and Samantha from Sex and the City, or Oprah and Gail on a road trip. And it doesn’t look like the guys on the golf course with a beer friendship. The female buddy system is real and significant. It should be noted that the first time that many of us heard the “I’m with her” slogan was when Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world, said it on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show.

Female friendships built through politics are personal but they are also extremely functional. It is a brutal game, and implausible to think that any woman can make it through without a support system of “ride or die chicks” who will go to the mat when needed. Without them glass ceilings don’t get cracked and elections don’t get won. Yet all the things that make a woman a good candidate also present perception challenges that their male counterparts don’t face as often. Women leaders in business and in politics have to be perceived as tough in order to get elected. They are prized for their intestinal fortitude. But those same women have to spend a lot of time softening their images and working to prove that they are likable and trustworthy. While they are shown as being mentors and managers, they are seldom shown as being friends, even though they must have them for many reasons including simple survival.

Female friendships built through politics are personal but they are also extremely functional.

Take, for example, a well-connected young woman namedValerie Jarrett, who, in 1991, when she was chief of staff for Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, met and hired a Harvard University-trained lawyer named Michelle Robinson for her first political job. Robinson later introduced Jarrett to her fiancé, a Harvard-educated lawyer and grassroots community activist named Barack Obama. Jarrett opened doors and introduced them to people who also became a part of the network. Obama became the first black president of the United States. Michelle Robinson became Michelle Obama, the first lady. And Jarrett became senior advisor to the president, overseeing the White House offices of public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.

Then there’s the friendship of Senator Kristen Gillibrand, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz that started when they came to Washington. Since then, they have truly seen each other through the best and worst of times. Gillibrand has talked many times about sharing political war stories with her friends over pizza. Both Gillibrand and Wasserman Schultz were constants at her bedside when Giffords was a victim of a near-fatal shooting of Giffords at a political rally. These are the ties that bind. Both women were probably there for Wasserman Schultz when she was forced to fall on the sword and resign as head of the Democratic Party during the convention because of leaked emails.

Think about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton is often portrayed in the media as being harsh and polarizing. Yet behind the scenes, and over the years, she has amassed many fiercely loyal female friends; political power brokers and cultural icons befriended over her decades in the political arena. It was her longtime friend and senate colleague, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who brokered a secret meeting between Clinton and Democratic nominee Obama after she conceded to him in 2008.

She has mentored and supported her top aide, Huma Abedin, since she came to work for her in 1996 as an intern in the White House. Over the past two decades the two have become close, acting as confidantes and wise counsel for each other. Now you seldom see Clinton without her wing woman.

And it was her longtime friend Senator Barbara Mikulski that got the honor of nominating Clinton on the floor of the Convention this summer, making her the first woman to get the nod from a major political party.
Hillary Clinton and the Danger of Defying Gender Stereotypes

In February, two friends of Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, came down on young women voters who were excited about Bernie Sanders. “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Albright said. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” The stern talking did not go well, causing anger and ire among many 18- to 35-year-old Millennial female voters. To young women it didn’t look like change, but establishment women rallying the troops around their friend.

This brings about several questions of how female political friendships will look moving forward. Tensions are high. Millennial women seem to have a distrust of the old guard of women in politics. Only time will tell what roles friendship, loyalty, and deference will play and what their impact will be.

And yet, every day women of all ages and stages are being nurtured and groomed to be pushed through the pipeline by other women who will become mentors, gatekeepers, and lifelong friends. And they won’t just be candidates for office but the behind-the-scenes rainmakers?—?the fundraisers, strategists, organizers. In many ways this is where the real power begins and where the friends are born. When they say “I’m with her,” they mean it. 

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