Smeared on the Internet, Young Women Candidate Fights Back
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When I was fifteen-years-old, I watched Hillary Clinton during the difficult times she faced when her private life and President Clinton's private life became public. Nevermind that the people conducting the impeachment hearings were having multiple affairs and oozed hypocrisy. Nevermind that they wanted to know every voyeuristic detail of the President's sex life under the guise of righteousness. What I remember thinking as a young woman was watching Hillary Clinton's expression after she had to face the entire country with her private life exposed for the world to see. I admired her so much. I thought she had this toughness and grit, style and pain, all at the same time. She must have been such a jumble of emotions inside, but she persisted. But what must that first time facing the public be like, knowing that everyone knows about your private life? Knowing that your political opponents did this in order to hurt you?
I am a 28-year-old wife, mother, Certified Public Accountant and small business owner, and the Democratic Nominee for US Congress in the 1st district of Virginia, where I was born and raised and where I am now raising my own daughter. My father has a Ph.D. in physics and did his dissertation on crystals. Fortunately or unfortunately, my mother allowed him to name me and so he chose the name Krystal Ball.
If elected, I would be the first woman under 30 to serve in Congress in our nation's history. When I decided to run for office, I had never been involved in politics before. My husband and I own an educational software business and we design software for charter schools and public schools, to teach everything from river ecology to Spanish.
In 2008, I was sitting in the hospital, holding my baby girl Ella in my arms. She was born on the day before the Presidential Primary. I remember looking at Ella and watching the election and thinking about Hillary. Thinking about how she, my own mother, and their generation of women proved that a woman can be just as competent as any man. They had to fight against the dominant narrative that women were somehow less capable, so they worked twice as hard, had twice as much experience and determined not to be victims of sexism but instead to smash the glass ceiling by sheer determination. This was not without cost. Women felt they had to choose between family and career, and they had to cover up almost any hint of sexuality in the workplace if they wanted to be taken as seriously as men. Many women of that generation came into their own after their children left the house, unleashing their intellects with a fierce determination to succeed, but somewhat handicapped by how far they could rise by having spent so much time subordinating their lives to their husband's careers.
So, I decided that part of the reason that things in this world are the way that they are, the reason I had to wonder whether the baby bottles I bought contained toxic BPA, the reason that there was not affordable day care, the reason that society would tolerate throwing anorexic girls out of treatment after the insurance expired and the reason that my own pregnancy had been legally treated as a pre-existing condition was because ultra-talented women, like Hillary Clinton and my own mother, weren't in Congress while they were young . I thought to myself, what if I ran for Congress, at 28 years old? What if I won? What if my generation ran for office as young women, often with young families? Could that change our country? Would my generation tolerate marriage inequality, failing schools, an often-tainted food supply and a level of scorched earth politics? Absolutely not. It's not an accident that the only two Republicans willing to consistently reach across the aisle in the Senate, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are both women. Put that rationality and willingness to compromise that women naturally possess together with the idealism and pro-growth environmentalism of my generation and we could be a powerful force in politics to change this country. So, I decided to run for Congress.
I also have to admit that even though I disagree with her on almost every issue, Sarah Palin was also a part of inspiring me to run. When I saw Sarah up on the stage with her baby, running to be our Vice-President, loving and caring for a baby and interviewing for the second most powerful job in the world, I thought, wow, maybe I can run for office even though I have a young baby. In that way, I think that Sarah Palin has done a tremendous service for women of my generation.
After I won the primary, I expected to receive huge fundraising support from Hillary Clinton and Obama donors, as well as the Facebook generation of my peers. I did things out of the box. I rented out the IMAX theater on Christmas day for fundraising showings of Avatar, making $5 per ticket on 1,000 tickets, selling them via Facebook ads and getting to meet every voter. We raised money online, more than 6,000 donors from all over the country who loved seeing someone their own age running for office. I was very successful getting support from those who supported President Obama, because my generation of young women is actually an Obama-Hillary fusion. We aspire to have Hillary's spine of steel and desire to over-prepare and we have President Obama's idealism. But I wasn't that successful in getting support from the powerful women who formed the core of Hillary's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit. These were the women I looked up to, who had blazed the trail for me, I hoped to earn their support more than anything and they didn't support me in the numbers I had hoped for.
I wondered, was it because they felt I hadn't paid my dues? Was it because they were worried, that with my relative inexperience, men wouldn't take me seriously and I might enforce the stereotypes they had worked so hard to break down? I was often told to cut my hair, to wear shorter heels, to dress in drab colors. I realized it was actually because they wanted to protect me. They did this because, for their generation, female sexuality was dangerous to display in the workplace, especially in politics.
Now, this may seem funny given the nature of the source of my small amount of ephemeral celebrity, but I am actually a fairly shy person by nature, pretty much of a policy wonk. I tried to be as fun as I could during and immediately after college, but I am generally private to the point that I don't even like to kiss my husband in public. I am always worried about what outfit I wear. Is the skirt too high? How's the neckline? Yet, for millions of people around the world, I am a joke named Krystal Ball, a party girl or a whore.
How did this happen? How did I end up with private photos of me at 22 with my ex-husband across the entire Internet, and in papers from London to New York to Boston? It's not because people care about the Congressional race in the first district of Virginia or because of my positions on energy independence, school choice, marriage equality, or pro-growth environmentalism. Here's what happened...
Politics is a nasty game. I knew that coming in. I thought I could take it. But the day that I bought my first radio ads, my opponent called the station and inquired as to the size of the advertising buy. Two hours later, these photos were released by a right-wing smear blog with close ties to my opponent. I don't believe these pictures were posted with a desire to just embarrass me; they wanted me to feel like a whore. They wanted me to collapse in a ball of embarrassment and to hang my head in shame. After all, when you are a woman named Krystal Ball, 28 years old, running for Congress, well, you get the picture. Stripper. Porn star. I've heard them all. So, I sat in my husband's arms and cried. I thought about my little girl. I couldn't stand the idea that I had somehow damaged the cause of young women running for office. I couldn't stand the idea that I might shame my family, my friends or my supporters in some way.
The tactic of making female politicians into whores is nothing new. In fact, it happened to Meg Whitman, one of the world's most accomplished business women, just last week. It's part of this whole idea that female sexuality and serious work are incompatible. But I realized that photos like the ones of me, and ones much racier, would end up coming into the public sphere when women of my generation run for office. And I knew that there could be no other answer to the question than this: Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. Sooner or later, this is a reality that has to be faced, or many young women in my generation will not be able to run for office.
On the day the photos were posted, I thought of Hillary Clinton. How she came out the next day after her private life was public and held her head high. Many advisors told me I was finished, that this was not what people wanted from their member of Congress. I decided that I had to fight. I had to come out publicly and raise my voice on this issue, even though I risked becoming some joke candidate named Krystal Ball. I also risked drawing more attention to the photos, which I still find tremendously embarrassing, but mostly because I'm shy, not because I think that what I did was wrong.
Against nearly all the advice I was given I decided to give interviews. Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, from Women's Campaign Forum, helped me to realize that the way to combat this was to take it head-on, to confront it.
Since this has happened and I have campaigned around my district, hundreds of people have come up to me to give me their love and support. I have not had one single person say an unkind word to me. Not one. Imagine, with all the stories of how much ugliness there is in the world, yet not one person has been rude to me in person in any way. I have received too many emails to count from all over my district and all over the world. From Bethel, Maine to Bethel, Washington. From veterans, government workers, seniors, young people, all expressing support for me, for my generation...saying in effect...we still love you, you have nothing to be ashamed of...run for office...win.
However, my biggest support during this whole sad episode of my life has come from supporters of Hillary Clinton. In effect, they have been telling me that what happened to me could have happened to one of their daughters. They will not see their daughters called whores when they run for office just because of some college or post-college party. They will not watch the tide of everything they fought for washed away by the public exposure of female sexuality. Once again, like the heroes that they were a generation ago when they made their careers, they are stepping up to protect young women like me and to support us and to help us to grow up. We are young women. And we are dedicated to serving this country. And we will run for office. And we will win.