washingtonpost.com
Where to Now?
2008 was a spectacular year for women in politics. But the sober reality is that the race has just begun.

By Vanessa Gezari
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jennifer James Soto arrived in Georgia on a Friday afternoon. The air was thick with humidity, and the campus on the outskirts of Atlanta was deserted except for her and the other women. They carried their suitcases into dormitories and laid out their clothes on narrow student beds. That evening, Jennifer dressed carefully, choosing dangly earrings because her kids weren't around to tug them. This weekend would be the longest she'd spent away from her son and daughter since they were born.

She made her way downstairs, where she and the other women found seats in a windowless conference room. They would spend the next two days here, listening to women who held elected office and women whose job it was to prepare other women to run.

"Consider yourself the candidate this weekend," a conference organizer told them. "Wear it. Try it on."

At 37, Jennifer still radiated the youthful energy of the track star she'd been in junior high school. She had degrees from Harvard and from Columbia Law, and had worked 13-hour days as an intellectual property attorney in Palo Alto, Calif. More recently, she'd been living in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., changing diapers and making sure her kids ate enough green vegetables. She was no politician, and she wasn't completely sure she wanted to become one, but on this summer evening, she was feeling her way toward a half-acknowledged ambition that had dogged her for years.

She and 79 other women had come to Agnes Scott College in Decatur for a weekend-long political training conference run by the White House Project, an organization aimed at boosting the number of women in elected office. In a matter of hours, Jennifer would stand at the front of the room, looking out at the tables surrounded by women in suit jackets, jeans and, in one case, screaming electric-blue stiletto heels.

"Good afternoon; thank you so much for coming," she said. "My name is Jennifer James Soto, and I hope to have the opportunity to be your next governor."

It was the first time she'd said this aloud to anyone outside her immediate family, but there was no time now to contemplate its significance.

"One of the most important people in my life has been my father," Jennifer went on. "He instilled in me integrity, discipline, but also most important, or equally as important, how to dream."

A retired Army officer who had grown up poor in rural Georgia, her father had drilled that sense of possibility into Jennifer every day until his death when she was 19. He encouraged her ambition to join the school football team: You're fast; you can catch a football; try it. (She ended up becoming a cheerleader.) The family moved from Cheverly to Florida when Jennifer was in junior high, and in ninth grade, her all-white classmates elected her, the sole African American, class president.

Two years later, she went to Washington to serve as a congressional page. It was 1988, and only 23 House members were women (today, three times as many are). Being so close to Congress awed and excited Jennifer, but garden-variety sexism thrived. She and the other female pages quickly sensed that some congressmen doubted their abilities. "It was always questioned: 'Can I handle it? Can I do it?' " she recalled.

The Iran-contra hearings, which were winding down, added to Jennifer's lingering distaste for conventional politics. She was appalled by the bitterness of the debate. "The level of disrespect, even if it was just a few people, that was enough for a 16-year-old to be like, 'Wow, these are our leaders?' " she said.

Jaded, she began looking for other ways to make a difference. She took a year off before Harvard to volunteer with City Year, an urban community service program and later traveled to South Africa to work with a conflict-resolution group. The day before she graduated from Harvard, she received the Ames Award, given to two graduating seniors for "selfless, heroic, and inspirational leadership."

In the years that followed, the award -- a silver bowl engraved with her name -- stayed with her wherever she moved. But then Jennifer's life turned in a direction that had little to do with political ambition or public leadership.

She enrolled in law school in New York, graduated and got married. Burdened by student loan debt and with a husband heading to business school in California, she found a high-paying job at a law firm in Silicon Valley. Her son, Santiago, was born in 2004, and when he was 18 months old, Jennifer quit to care for him full time. Her daughter, Isabella, was born a year later. It was only then, after she and her family had moved back to Florida, that Jennifer found herself wondering what more she could do.

Then, last summer, her husband, Germán, became self-employed. Worried about losing her health coverage, Jennifer pored over their insurance policy. She considered the millions of low-income Americans without insurance and, like an aging athlete exercising an unused muscle, she rediscovered her passion to serve.

One night on the phone, Jennifer told her mother she was thinking of getting involved in politics. "I know God put me here to do more," she said. Her mother mentioned that she had been getting regular e-mails from a group called the White House Project. A short time later, Jennifer was visiting the group's Web site on her home computer.

Now she was here, in Decatur, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the red-white-and-blue lipstick-kiss logo of the White House Project and telling her life story to a roomful of women she barely knew. The conference participants included a woman running for superior court judge in Cobb County, Ga., and two women who had battled each other in a school board primary, also in Cobb. There were many more like Jennifer, with little experience but a hunger to learn more.

"Today we start you to live a political life," Rhonda Briggins-Ridley, a lobbyist and political consultant, told them on Saturday morning. "Let's say it really quick: 'I from now on will live a political life.' "

"I from now on will live a political life," the women repeated.

The trainers didn't sugarcoat it. Running for office is "a rocky road," Briggins-Ridley said. The women's private lives would be public. They would lose friends. It would cost money. And there was no way to ward off the sting of public disapproval. The best they could do was prepare for it.

"You're going to have those folks -- it doesn't matter what suit you wear; it doesn't matter what color lipstick you have on, what purse you carry -- they are not going to like you," Briggins-Ridley said. "And, guess what? . . . You cannot convince them to vote for you."

On Saturday afternoon, the women broke into small groups to craft stump speeches. The speechwriting coach, Catherine Gray, urged them to tell a personal story as concisely and memorably as possible.

Each table chose a woman to deliver her speech before the group. Gray said to stand up, explain why they were running and ask for votes and campaign contributions, because research shows that asking for money is typically more difficult for women than for men.

It wasn't until after Jennifer had returned to Florida that she realized the effect of declaring her political ambition in public. But on this afternoon, she was just a woman in a room full of women, talking fast to beat the clock.

"Again, my name is Jennifer James Soto; I'm asking for your vote," she said, wrapping up. "And I want you to remember to dream big."

Some women clapped and cheered, but a few others looked perplexed.

"I think you have very good public speaking skills and you had a presence about you, very assertive," one said. "I just would have liked to hear more about what qualifies you to be governor."

Jennifer didn't have an immediate answer. She'd have to work on that.

"Are you running now?" someone else asked.

"No," Jennifer said.

Not yet.

***

Barack Obama's election is a dramatic reminder that a nation can transcend its past, and perhaps even its expectations for the present. But for women, the highest executive offices -- president and vice president -- still lie out of reach.

The 2008 election season will be remembered partly for Hillary Clinton, who became the first woman to run a presidential campaign that was not just admirable, but credible, losing the Democratic nomination by a slim margin. And for Sarah Palin, the second woman in history to hold the vice presidential spot on a major party ticket and the first female Republican candidate to do so. Voters were reminded in stark terms that gender isn't the defining factor when it comes to a candidate's policy positions or, at the very least, that gender influences the priorities of female candidates in radically different ways. Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor and expert on women and leadership at Stanford University, predicts that the presence of viable female candidates from both parties will have "enormous ripple effects in terms of changing people's attitudes towards women in leadership."

Yet the election also epitomized a broad and somewhat disheartening trend: Women are making great progress everywhere but at the very top. Women now make up 57 percent of college students but, a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education survey found, less than one-fifth of college presidents . They account for more than 40 percent of MBA candidates, but only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women in business. Nearly half of law and medical school students are female. But women comprise only a quarter of federal judges and less than one-fifth of law firm partners and Fortune 500 general counsels, according to the American Bar Association.

Nearly 89 years after they earned the right to vote, women hold 17 percent of the seats in Congress and 16 percent of governorships, and run city hall in 11 of the country's 100 largest cities. The United States ranks 69th in the world in the proportion of women in the lower house of its national legislature, behind Cuba, Uganda, Pakistan and Sudan. That's down from 39th a decade ago, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization of national parliaments.

Why this uneven progress? What comes between the outrageously accomplished girls and 20-somethings who are taught they can rule the world and the women in their 30s and 40s, whose political ambitions bend to accommodate other desires or fade amid a shortage of time and energy? Is this the final result of decades of activism, courage and hope? Or is it just one step in a longer journey that will end with a woman every bit as likely as her male competitors to occupy an executive suite or win the White House?

The election highlighted the difficulties women still face in the political arena. The classic double bind -- a woman who's feminine can't be competent; a woman who's competent can't be feminine -- emerged as a key element of press and Internet commentary on the campaign. Clinton, considered unfeminine by some but generally respected for her policy experience, inspired the marketing of a nutcracker with steel thighs and was likened to "everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court" by Mike Barnicle on MSNBC. Palin, meanwhile -- feminine and attractive, but relatively inexperienced and under-prepared to run a national race -- spawned a pornographic spoof on the Hustler Web site and a blow-up "love doll."

In a year of unprecedented attention to women in politics, female candidates made only marginal gains. A record number of women hold seats in Congress, but the net gain over last year is small: just two seats, bringing the total to 90 women out of 535. "I try to be up and think it's at least moving in the right direction; it's just not moving at the pace we'd like to see," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which tracks the success of female candidates across the country.

What Walsh finds even more troubling is that the number of women running for and holding statewide office appears to have stagnated. Statewide politics is a path to higher elected positions. Over the past decade, the share of women in state legislatures has crept from 22 percent to just 24.3 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

A report published last spring by the Brookings Institution suggests that a key cause is simple: Women aren't as interested in running for office as men are. The research grew out of a hunch that the conventional wisdom about how to increase the number of women in politics was wrong. For years, observers had assumed that as more women entered the fields of business, law and political activism -- "pipeline" professions that tend to lead to political involvement -- more of them would run for office. Yet the study found that the gender gap in political ambition was roughly the same for people ages 22 to 40 as it was for those 65 and over. That meant that younger women were only slightly more likely to run for office than were their mothers or grandmothers.

Although women fare as well as men when they do compete in elections, roughly 80 percent of men and women don't believe that's the case, the study found. "If you think the electoral environment is biased against you, it might just be a rational response not to enter it," said Jennifer L. Lawless, the assistant professor of political science and public policy at Brown University who co-authored the report.

Women are less likely to be recruited to run for office than men, the study found, and although they have as much or more experience doing things that could easily transfer to politics, such as fundraising or organizing group events, they consistently view themselves as less qualified to be candidates. They are more likely to view political activities as unpleasant, and even if they don't, women are still responsible for the majority of household tasks and child care, limiting their freedom to pursue what is often a third career. "If women aren't running the world, it's probably because men aren't running the vacuum cleaners," said Rhode, the Stanford law professor.

The study also found that women are more concerned than men about losing their privacy. That may be partly because a key aspect of what defines them culturally -- childbearing and child-rearing -- is on display in a way that it isn't for men.

"Voters never ask male candidates how they take care of their children. They just assume their wives do that," said Sarah E. Brewer, former associate director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. "For women, that is part of your résumé about whether you're qualified to even have the job. In no other job is that the case."

There's some evidence that public views on this are changing. Young children used to be seen as a liability for female candidates, but a Pew Research Center study released last fall found that given a choice between fictitious female congressional candidates with and without school-age children, Republicans were more likely to vote for a childless woman and Democrats for a working mother. And that was before Sen. John McCain chose to run alongside Palin, a mother of five whose gritty realness sparked an automatic kinship with working mothers of many political stripes.

Lesbians, too, are running for office and winning in greater numbers than before, suggesting that conventional ideas about femininity and gender roles are giving way to a more varied political culture. In 1991, the Victory Fund, a political action committee aimed at electing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to office, endorsed two candidates, both women. In 2008, it endorsed 111 candidates for state, local and national office, of whom 39 were women; 29 of them won.

Perhaps better than any other study, a survey released last summer by the Pew Research Center highlights the poorly understood forces that hold women back in the realm of political leadership. While respondents ranked women higher than men on a majority of traits considered crucial for leadership -- including honesty, intelligence and compassion -- only 6 percent said that women make better political leaders, compared with 21 percent who said that men do. (Encouragingly, the largest chunk said that men and women lead equally well.)

The survey of 2,250 men and women suggests that some gender bias persists even among those -- like the survey respondents -- who single out "gender bias" as a key reason for women's underrepresentation. It's as if women are missing something, not a characteristic or skill, but something intangible that men have and women don't. People who believe men are smarter, more decisive and more hardworking translate that support directly into a conviction that men make better leaders. For women, the connection between leadership skills and the ability to lead gets lost.

To elect more women faster, Marie Wilson, president and founder of the White House Project, suggested a government commission to work toward gender equality in public office. Until the government makes expanding female leadership a policy goal, she said, it won't become a national priority.

One solution is to start small. Female candidates are more likely than men to begin incrementally, sitting around the kitchen table chewing over an issue with friends, stuffing envelopes for someone else's campaign or running for a low-level local office.

"Women are slower to come to the table, slower to think they can do it," Wilson said, and she considered this when creating the White House Project's candidate training program. "It's why we don't say, 'You have to come and run.' We say, 'Come on in; maybe you'll want to run sometime.' ... If you get them in, they say, 'Oh, this is not a mystery.'"

Everyone agrees that to significantly increase their representation, women must start running for office younger. A 2004 study by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers found that the majority of national elected officials won their first elective office when they were 35 or younger. In 2002, only 12 percent of state legislators under 35 were women. For women's leadership programs, that means focusing on girls, and it's one more reason to view the role of women in the most recent national election positively. High-profile female candidates reach down into the consciousness of girls and shape their aspirations.

In one of the few surveys to emerge since the 2008 vote, four in 10 girls said the election had a "positive impact" on their desire to be a leader, according to a study released in January by Girl Scouts of the USA. Forty-six percent of girls and 38 percent of boys surveyed said they think more highly of women's ability to lead now than they did before the election. But 43 percent of girls said they strongly believe that "girls have to work harder than boys" to gain leadership positions, nearly double the number who thought so in 2007.

***

One morning last year, 31 teenage girls lined up outside an entrance to the U.S. Capitol. They wore white shirts and beige vests heavy with patches and pins, which they laid on the security belt as they passed through metal detectors.

The Girl Scouts who made their way down the echoing hallway into the Capitol rotunda that morning occupied the vanguard of adolescent female leaders. They talked easily about global warming and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and coolly analyzed the wartime role of President Harry Truman. From a range of trips including surfing in Costa Rica, they had chosen to spend two weeks of their summer vacation at a program called Pathways to Politics, run by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers and the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey.

Yet as they climbed the stone staircase and walked beneath the wooden plaque that says "Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi," the girls harbored serious reservations. They worried that running for office would open their lives to public scrutiny and prevent them from spending time with friends and family. While nearly all the girls agreed that more women should hold office, only a few expressed strong interest in running themselves.

"I don't know if I could be in politics," one said. "I'm not aggressive enough."

A study released last year by Girl Scouts of the USA found that while girls rate themselves higher than boys on nearly all leadership-related qualities, including caring about others, intelligence, passion and confidence, most feel they still aren't qualified to be leaders. Girls have more experience at tasks that require responsibility than boys, the study found, and often consider themselves leaders in an informal sense. But formal, public leadership in the grown-up world is a goal so lofty that to many girls it seems virtually out of reach.

The study and the accounts of the Girl Scouts who traveled to Washington highlight two sides of a paradox that lies at the heart of girls' views of leadership. On one hand, the study found, the greatest single barrier to leadership for girls is "a lack of self-confidence in their own skills and competencies." Yet the same perfectionist streak that might convince a girl that unfailing confidence, honesty and brilliance are requirements for leadership could also lead her to take a dim view of the things that real leaders actually do: fight to win, make compromises, put their personal lives on hold in pursuit of their jobs. These and other activities -- the small, practical, even distasteful steps that lead to victory -- don't always line up with the high expectations girls set for themselves.

There are other drawbacks, too. One-third of the girls who said they didn't want to be leaders attributed their reluctance to fear of being laughed at, coming across as bossy or not being liked. Indeed, girls who had held leadership roles reported much more negative reactions than boys to the stress and exposure they experienced. Emotional intelligence, often stronger in girls, wasn't valued as a leadership trait until very recently, and it has often made girls more vulnerable to the social vicissitudes of standing up for something, said Judy Schoenberg, director of research and outreach for the Girl Scout Research Institute and the study's lead author.

That morning in Washington, the Girl Scouts took seats around a large conference table in a room near Pelosi's office. Reva Price, a Pelosi aide, ran through the House speaker's schedule. Pelosi was meeting with colleagues and staff.

At the back of the room, Katherine Corson, 17, raised her hand. Tall and studious-looking, in tortoiseshell glasses and green sneakers, Corson served on the youth advisory council of Voorhees Township, N.J., where she lives, and attended regular meetings of the economic development committee. Protruding from her blue faux-leather purse on this day was "Banker to the Poor," Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus's book on how micro-loans can end the cycle of poverty. Katherine had been thinking a lot about the U.S. economy.

"Do you know have they been working more on supply-side policies or demand-side policies?" she asked.

"Um, they've been looking at different pieces that would most affect the consumer," Price said, looking slightly bewildered. "I mean I think it's -- "

"More demand-side?"

"Right . . ."

Katherine was captain of her school debate team, but she hadn't thought much about running for office. Student government seemed like a popularity contest.Running for president sounded "awesome," but there were things that worried her.

In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote of her terror as a young woman trying to choose between an ambitious career and life as a wife and mother. Returning to her alma mater, Smith College, to research "The Feminine Mystique," she found that the graduating seniors faced a stark choice: Get married or pursue a career -- not both. Most had decided on the former, putting their professional aspirations aside in favor of a future as homemakers.

For the Girl Scouts visiting Washington in the summer of 2008, the conundrum persisted. Katherine saw the choices coming, though her options were broader and her decisions would be different. She planned to go to college and launch a career in business or enroll in law school. But when it came to the bigger picture, things grew more complicated.

"I guess in terms of children, I'm kind of scared of the thought," she said. "I do have that fear that if I'm married and I have children, that I would be the one who would have to give up the job . . . I know I would probably make a very good mother. But at the same time, I want to make sure I get to experience the career that I dream of."

Katherine's mother had left her job as a teacher to start a business, allowing her to work from home and be more attentive to the needs of Katherine and her sister. While Katherine appreciated her mother's presence, she also saw this as a woman's role. And it struck her as problematic.

"You know, on the flip side, there are women who have the careers, and then the man is the one who stays home, and he sort of gets labeled as being a manny or whatever," Katherine said. "And I mean, that's awful. It should be equal . . . And I know there are plenty of parents who, both parents have a career, and they work that out. But at the same time it is difficult, because there are so many conventions that people expect, or that you expect of yourself to live up to."

As the Scouts listened to politically powerful women discuss their careers, questions about work-life balance came up repeatedly.

"How do you balance having so much responsibility . . . with, like, relationships, like your friends and your boyfriend or whatever?" 16-year-old Kim Martinez asked Jill Bader, a Girl Scout alum who is now press secretary for the Senate Republican Conference.

"It's really difficult," Bader, 25, said. "I've kind of decided that right now in my life, the thing I'm going to focus a lot on is working really hard."

During their two days in Washington, the girls toured the Capitol, sang Billy Joel songs on the Metro and perused bookstores. One afternoon, they boarded an open-walled bus for a tour of the memorials. The sun was gold and pink behind the clouds, and the girls, tired from the day's events, leaned back and let the cool breeze lift their hair.

They raised their cameras to photograph the Capitol and passed the Department of Labor building, named for Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member.

The guide told them that Perkins, who served under President Franklin Roosevelt, wrote much of the legislation that led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "She spent close to 12 years in Labor," he deadpanned. "That's a long time to be in Labor."

Good-natured groans rose from the back of the bus, but the subtext was not lost on the girls. No matter how powerful a woman became, biology might ultimately be her greatest distinction. Later, at the end of the night, they circled back past the Capitol, where the guide pointed to a statue of two female figures: America weeping on the shoulder of History. Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Cantrall wondered aloud: "Isn't it funny that America is always portrayed as a woman, and yet we're so sexist?"

***

The women sipping white wine in a sleek downtown Washington bar one evening last summer were notable for their energy and poise, and for the fact that not a single one seemed to be listening for a pickup line. Vibrant 20-somethings in pumps and stylish blazers exchanged hugs and congratulations on new jobs, while a cadre of more seasoned women, most in their 30s, mingled near the bar, trading contacts.

The happy hour at Palette Restaurant and Bar at the Madison hotel brought together two groups of women set on infiltrating Washington's male-dominated political establishment. The younger set, mainly recent college graduates in their first jobs, was taking part in a yearlong women's leadership program known as WeLEAD, run by the Women & Politics Institute at AU and designed to inject young women into politics, government and related fields. The 30-somethings included female campaign consultants and Hill staffers who had volunteered to serve on the program's leadership board.

Among the younger women circulating through the bar on this night was Rachelle C. Olden, 25. Born to a Jamaican father and raised in Brooklyn and South Carolina by a single mother who worked as a corrections officer, she was finishing a master's in public administration at George Washington University and envisioning a future utterly different from the lives of her parents.

"Politics for them -- they vote for president," Rachelle said. "Happy hour for them -- every hour is happy. I could call my parents and say I'm a janitor on Capitol Hill, and they'd be like, 'My baby's on Capitol Hill!' "

Rachelle's own aspirations were considerably higher and remarkably detailed. Within 10 years, she planned to run a nonprofit that empowered women and children, consult for advocacy groups and occupy her first elective office, perhaps as a city council member. She would have at least one child and divide her time between Washington and the Dominican Republic. If the right partner didn't materialize by the time she was 32, she would consider adopting. And if that partner did materialize, he would have his work cut out for him.

"He's going to be an artist, cause if I'm going to do politics and the serious side, he's going to have to be creative and flow," Rachelle said. "I don't want a nanny ... If I have to work and have late meetings, he's going to tailor his work schedule ... I definitely know as a woman, I'm going to have to make sacrifices for my family. But I definitely expect my husband to make just the same sacrifices."

The tensions between family responsibilities and professional ambitions were more evident among women in their 30s. Pew research shows that about one-third of women say that family responsibilities are a key obstacle to women running for office. And that number is rising. In 1999, only 23 percent of women said family responsibilities were a major barrier.

At an induction ceremony for this year's WeLEAD class, Kelly Holly, the 31-year-old Republican co-chairwoman of the Young Women Leaders Board, offered an enthusiastic shout-out to Palin, whose decision to run for the second-highest office in the country drew renewed attention to the demanding lives of working mothers. "It's a great year to be a woman in the Republican Party!" Kelly told a buzzing group of young women and a handful of men in a marble-tiled reception hall at Jones Day law firm downtown.

But Kelly's own views on balancing career and family were more complex than her endorsement of Palin suggested. Her father died in a helicopter accident when she was 5, and her mother, an Army nurse, raised Kelly and her sister on bases all over the country and in Germany. In addition to working for the Defense Department, Kelly was finishing her master's and had recently married. "It's the greatest thing I've ever done," she said. "I love being a wife."

It had also shifted her priorities. During nine years in Washington, Kelly had interned on the Hill, worked on a reelection campaign for a Republican House member, volunteered on numerous other campaigns and toyed with the possibility of running for Congress. But the idea of putting aside her career to raise children sounded more and more appealing.

"I worked for a woman [House] member, and I saw what toll that had on her," Kelly said. She remembered the congresswoman being pulled in two directions, trying to spend as much time as she could in Washington and as much time as she could in her home district, where her young daughter lived. It reminded Kelly of her own mother, who worked nights, made Kelly and her sister oatmeal for breakfast, took them to school and then came home and slept until their school day ended. "That's what I grew up with -- a mom who had a very, very good career and tried to make every single swim meet, every PTA meeting," Kelly said. "I sometimes wonder if I want to miss any PTA meetings."

Kelly had fantasized for years about an ambitious career in public service, but now she didn't know. "The thing I struggle with most is, my mom did it. I can do it. Do I want to?"

***

Jennifer James Soto stood in front of her kitchen sink, eyeing a pumpkin the size of a beach ball. Her 4-year-old son, Santiago, climbed onto a chair at her side. "Can we cut this big old one?" he asked, laying a hand on the pumpkin's orange skin.

Jennifer nodded. It was late October, a week before Election Day, and she and her kids had spent the morning at the pumpkin patch, Jennifer's eyes misting as Santiago boarded a yellow school bus for his first-ever field trip. Now the kids were decorating pumpkins with glitter and pipe cleaners.

Much had changed since Jennifer returned home from the White House Project conference 31/2 months earlier. She still drove her 20-month-old daughter, Isabella, to tumbling class, listened to Santiago practice piano, cooked dinners and shuttled her kids to the park. But as election season drew to a close, she was juggling a set of political commitments that had been multiplying for months, making her family long for Nov. 5.

"It was all-consuming," her husband, Germán, would say later.

Jennifer was as surprised as anyone at the turn her life had taken. The White House Project had energized her, but back home her lack of spare time was evidenced by the 26,178 unread messages in her Yahoo inbox. A registered Democrat, she had not voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary. She felt that Clinton, in her effort to appear commanding, had lost touch with some of her womanly qualities. "I felt the part of herself that she left behind was the part I could have connected with," Jennifer said. She liked what she knew about Obama, but she couldn't find 10 minutes to visit his Web site or examine his policy positions.

But when Santiago started pre-kindergarten in late August, things changed. For the first time, Jennifer had only Isabella to look after in the morning, and she could catch her breath. Germán traveled less and worked from home more.

One Saturday, Jennifer persuaded him to stay home with the kids so she could attend an Obama campaign meeting at a local library. At the end of the meeting, she surprised herself by signing up to volunteer for the campaign twice a week. She would canvass door to door on Saturday afternoons and call voters on Tuesday nights.

Their first Saturday canvassing, her team split up to cover more ground. Duval County had voted Republican in the last presidential election, but there were some surprises. "Oh, I'm totally voting for him," a woman would say of Obama. "And my husband is; his brother is." Other times, Jennifer heard dogs barking behind closed doors, and when those doors opened, a few slammed shut in her face.

Jennifer began wondering how she could drum up more votes. She remembered from that first meeting someone mentioning two local neighborhoods, both historically African American, where large numbers of residents typically hadn't voted. Jennifer knew one of the neighborhoods because Santiago had gone to nursery school nearby. One Friday after dropping off Santiago at school, she glanced back at Isabella in her car seat and recalled a conversation she'd had with a woman she'd met that weekend at the White House Project. The woman was a community activist, going door to door to gather support for various issues, and she had a son the same age as Isabella.

"What do you do with him?" Jennifer had asked.

"I take him with me."

So that morning, Jennifer told Isabella, "We're going to check out some churches."

They drove to one of the neighborhoods, a mix of government-subsidized housing and single-family homes. Jennifer hadn't called ahead. She parked in front of a church and asked to speak with the pastor. Isabella clung to her. Would they be interested in hosting a voter registration drive? They would, the pastor told her.

Technically, she was volunteering only twice a week, but she found herself working on the campaign every day. Her black Mercedes SUV with the "Obama for America" sticker on the bumper became a mobile office, scattered with voter registration forms. She joined campaign conference calls on her BlackBerry while ferrying her kids to activities. She took Isabella to the doctor and registered four voters in the waiting room.

It all seemed to fit, somehow, yet Jennifer worried that her kids were getting less attention. "I don't want my children to be sacrificed because of this," she said.

At home, the strain was beginning to show. Since they met in college, Germán had been struck by Jennifer's natural leadership skills, her arresting presence and her ability to bring disparate groups together. He had encouraged her to go to the White House Project conference.

"This is something she's been very interested in for a long while, but we have children, and that tends to drown out a lot of stuff," he said. "I just wanted her to know that I support that, and if she wants to pursue it, that's something she should do."

But the more Jennifer did, the more people asked her to do. In August, someone mentioned that the campaign was looking for lawyers to serve as poll-watchers. Jennifer attended a three-hour training session and dove into her 238-page packet of Florida election law with a highlighter.

On this Tuesday night, after the field trip to the pumpkin patch, Jennifer had promised to work the phones for the campaign, and she wanted to get dinner on the table before she left. After settling her children in front of the TV and slipping in a phonics DVD, Jennifer returned to the kitchen and scooped brown rice into the rice cooker.

Looking back, she credited the White House Project with making her current political involvement possible. Just as the conference had prepared her to volunteer for the Obama campaign, so the canvassing, phone-banking and poll-monitoring were building her practical experience and confidence. Most important, she thought, had been the opportunity to stand in that windowless conference room before a group of women and say those words out loud: "My name is Jennifer James Soto, and I hope to have the opportunity to be your next governor."

"It's not just in my head anymore," she said. "I'm saying that I'm going to run for office someday."

There seemed to be some kind of multiplier effect, by which one political experience spawned another. When her local chapter of Mocha Moms, a support group for minority mothers, needed a new president that fall, Jennifer stepped forward, even though she wasn't sure what the job entailed. While organizing the voter registration drives, she showed up at a local Democratic Party meeting, introduced herself and asked for volunteers. A week later, someone from the local party office called. Would Jennifer be interested in serving on the board?

She took out a package of the Pillsbury biscuits Santiago liked, spread them on a cookie sheet and slid them into the oven. Then she glanced wistfully around the kitchen. She thought about what she would miss that night: Santiago's loud solemn "amen" when Jennifer finished saying grace. Isabella's hair, damp and silky after her bath.

By 6 p.m., Jennifer had made dinner for her family, though she herself had yet to eat. She piloted her SUV down Highway A1A, her worn pinstriped blouse flecked with green glitter and pumpkin juice.

She parked near an anonymous office building. Inside, Obama volunteers sat at desks, dialing voters, and a team captain handed Jennifer a list of names and numbers. Sitting cross-legged on the stained purplish-brown carpet between a defunct microwave oven and a stack of cardboard boxes, she took out her BlackBerry, plugged in her headset, scribbled a few notes and started dialing.

"Hi, Brenda, my name is Jennifer, and I'm a volunteer with the Obama campaign. How are you this evening?"

Her voice warmed, reaching for a connection. When she started making calls for the campaign back in September, some people said, "You don't need to go any further," then a click and a dead line. But tonight, most people were friendly. She relaxed.

"Hello, may I speak with Christina? My name is Jennifer, and I'm a volunteer for the Obama campaign."

She clicked her pen and picked at the food in her takeout box. Maybe this was how a woman's political career began: a missed bath time, fish fingers and fries instead of dinner at home. After the election, she and Germán would talk about her commitment to public leadership, about how many outside obligations Jennifer and the rest of the family could handle.

In January, Jennifer would take over the presidency of her Mocha Moms chapter. She would join her local Democratic club, choosing to start out as a member rather than an officer to keep her time commitment in check. She would consider joining the board of a local museum. She would talk with someone about volunteering at a home for at-risk kids. Now that opportunities for social action had become visible to her again, she saw them everywhere.

Germán supported Jennifer's involvement, but felt that she should limit herself to one or two leadership positions. He knew her too well, he said. If she took ownership of a project, she would pour energy in. So he and Jennifer agreed to take it slow. If she could take the kids to meetings -- as with the Mocha Moms -- that was fine; if the meetings took place at night -- such as the local Democratic club's -- that was okay, too.

"I think there might be a point where someone would urge her and say, 'Yes, run for this.' And when we get to that point, we'll talk about it," Germán said. "I think if she wanted to do it, she could do it sooner rather than later."

Jennifer wanted to spend more time with her kids to make up for what she'd missed during the campaign. But more than ever, she saw a major leadership role in her future. She still wanted to be governor of Florida -- or, if not governor, she said, whatever office would allow her to bring the greatest change. The governorship appealed to her, as it does to many women considering running for public office, because it is one of the few elected offices that allows its occupant to essentially work from home. If Jennifer served in the state legislature or in Congress, she would spend weeks at a time away from her family, though she didn't rule it out. She'd gone to boarding school as a kid and knew it was possible for parents and children to live happily apart.

She also knew she'd have to hold intermediary posts before she made it to the state's top executive office. But the White House Project had taught her that volunteering and serving on boards are the first steps and that those things are possible even when you have kids. Now she had to build a support base. She had been e-mailing with local party officials to learn how the system worked, talking to people, making contacts. And she told herself, as always, to dream big.

"I really don't know how it's going to unfold; it just is," she said. "Things just do."

For now, though, no yard signs bore her name, no advisers counseled her, no campaign manager urged her on. She stretched her legs on the dingy carpet and leaned back against the wall. She dialed, exhaled.

"We've got time available between 4 and 8," she said into her headset. "Oh, excellent, that is so great to hear! Do you have a pen and paper so I can give you the address?"

She dialed again. Silence, then the beep of an answering machine.

"Hi, Rachel, this is Jennifer from the Obama campaign." She hung up and realized how quiet the place had become.

"You're the last one here," someone yelled.

Jennifer looked down at her list and kept dialing.

Vanessa Gezari is a freelance writer who lives in Washington. She can be reached at vgezari@gmail.com. Join her and Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics, for a live discussion Monday at 12 noon ET.

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