Women In Politics

A Story of Strong Women Advocating for the Rights of the Developmentally Disabled

One of the most important aspects of our work is to illustrate how women in positions of political office can directly influence the next generation of female leaders.  This positive role-modeling effect is demonstrated through our PiP Youth nominees program--young women chosen by politicians who are exemplars of unfolding potential.  These young people are remarkable for their drive, talent, passion, intelligence, and conscience.  Below is an excellent example.  

Senator Gelser's nominee, Rachel, is clearly inspired to activism by her mentor's staunch civic-mindedness and community involvement.  Together, they are making an impact in Oregon.  Their story shows how women, separated by age, ethnic background, and life experiences, can work side by side for a better world.  Social values are not born in a vacuum.  These values are taught and demonstrated by those we look up to and love.  This continuum is what PiP will strive to support and promote in the future.  

Oregon State Senator Sara Gelser with her son at the abandoned Fairview Training Center in Salem, OR

Oregon State Senator Sara Gelser with her son
at the abandoned Fairview Training Center in Salem, OR

IN THEIR OWN WORDS...

Rachel Simpson- Age 23. Nominated by Senator Sara Gelser at her home in Independence, OR

Rachel Simpson- Age 23. Nominated by Senator Sara Gelser at her home in Independence, OR

Just as women should not be left to count on men to advocate their interests, women with disabilities must be supported to speak for themselves.

Fairview was Oregon’s last large institution for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  For nearly a century, people with disabilities were sent there to languish, separated from their families and society.  When my son was born with a disability in 1994, it was in the midst of the struggle to close the institution and support people to live in the community.  The stories from Fairview significantly impacted me as a young mother and inspired me to advocacy and politics.   

The full inclusion and equality of people with disabilities must extend to political life.  That’s why I’m so inspired by young leaders like Rachel, my PiP youth nominee.  Rachel is a powerful advocate in our state legislature, and regularly challenges the misguided assumptions and low expectations society still holds about people living with disabilities.  Rachel is an outspoken advocate for true equality and full inclusion.  By sharing her own story, she makes it clear that all people must have the authority to decide who they love, where and how they live, what kind of education to pursue, and what type of work and financial goals to pursue.  

As we encourage more women to claim their seats at the leadership table, it’s essential that we build a community that reflects the true diversity of our communities.  Just as women should not be left to count on men to advocate their interests, women with disabilities must be supported to speak for themselves.  Rachel exemplifies this, and I’m so eager to see where her life and political work take her.

--Senator Sara Gelser


I became an activist because I was tired of struggling and watching other people struggle.

I have cerebral palsy and I met Senator Gelser through my advocacy work and job with Oregon State's Developmental Disabilities Services Program.

I became an activist because I was tired of struggling and watching other people struggle.  It wasn’t fair anymore, so I decided to be a voice for them and myself.  Before I came along, I don’t think people listened to other people with special needs very well.  They started to listen to me because of my job with the State of Oregon. I’m coming out of that generation gap where people with disabilities are starting to work and empower themselves.

Yes, I have testified in front of the state senate and I helped save the Fairview Housing Trust (that aids in maintaining community and at home housing opportunities for our developmental disabilities population.)

--Rachel Simpson

Snowshoeing In Vermont

Returning from the snowy Rockies, I barely had time to unpack my luggage before setting out on another shoot, continuing PiP's winter-themed portraits of political women with a penchant for the colder climate.  Vermont, my adopted home state, has been blanketed in white since late November and this February was the second coldest on record.  But that didn't stop Representative Rebecca Ellis from keeping our appointment on the frozen shores of Lake Champlain.  I met Rebecca only several weeks ago at an event for Emerge Vermont, an organization committed to achieving gender parity in this state's government.  She enthusiastically agreed to pose for me and I'm so glad she did––we had a wonderful day and the photographs came out great.

The Abenaki say that, after God created the world, he turned himself into a rock in Burlington Bay.

The location was Lone Rock Point, not far from where Rebecca grew up.  She chose this setting because of its beauty and association with her past, but also because it tells a story about global warming and climate change.  When Rebecca was growing up, it was commonplace for the lake to freeze over.  Now, sadly, it is the exceptional year when she is able to enjoy snowshoeing along its shores.  In her political life, she is a passionate advocate for environmental issues, promoting policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as legislation that helps Vermonters adapt to an uncertain climate.  Being passionate about nature and the environment myself, I respect and admire Rebecca for all her hard work in this very sensitive area.

Native Vermonters are known for their resilience and resourcefulness, which might explain why Rebecca's mother, Nancy (age 81), acted as my photo assistant!  Yes, that's her, carrying my ladder.  I was amazed how mother and daughter barely seemed to notice the cold on this extremely frigid morning, chatting and full of lighthearted spirit as they walked along.  As I began to photograph, my fingers would freeze in a matter of minutes and I would have to warm them in my gloves before continuing with the shoot.  I felt like I was on a National Geographic assignment!  Ok, it wasn't like tracking the snow leopard in the Himalayas, but it was pretty darn cold.

The longer I live in Vermont, the more I grow into its unique and precious landscape, cherishing the values that are so deep-rooted here––the respect for nature, the respect for small-scale enterprise and sustainability, a love of community and an inborn desire to lend a helping hand to your neighbor.  And I'm grateful to know that Representative Ellis is working to preserve all these things through her tireless efforts in the Vermont legislature.

Representative Rebecca Ellis, Vermont Legislature, Vice Chair, House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Representative Rebecca Ellis, Vermont Legislature, Vice Chair, House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Gaining Altitude: PiP Goes to Denver

PiP stepped into the heart of winter this past week, meeting the spirited women of the Centennial State.  I arrived in Denver, Colorado with a positive feeling, knowing that this physically beautiful place was also the first US state to give women the right to vote in 1893, twenty-seven years prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited state or federal sex-based restrictions on voting.  Since that time, over 250 women have served in the Colorado General Assembly and the state also now leads the nation with the highest percentage of women (41%) in our state legislature.

My first portrait subject, Former Representative Amy Stephens, was suggested to me by Meg Froelich.  Meg is currently working on a kindred project entitled Strong Sisters: Elected Women in Colorado, a compilation of oral histories from past and current female elected officials.  I met Amy Stephens at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.  

The setting immediately struck me with its grandeur and unique beauty, a place of sweeping views and distinctive rock formations.  I learned that this spectacular location once inspired a woman named Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 to write a pastoral poem, later known as America the Beautiful, upon which the patriotic song was based.  And I could see where she found her inspiration for such laudatory words.

Amy is a wonderfully vivacious woman, full of energy, life, and passion.  She has served as a charismatic conservative leader in the state for many years, and continues to be very active in politics.  When asked about the significance of this place, Amy said: "When I have had a life transition or a big decision to make, where better to hear and pray than Garden of the Gods!  If not here, then nowhere.  I am never disappointed."

I noticed that Amy carried a book with her, part journal, part compendium of ideas, and I imagined her jotting down her inspirations amid this timeless landscape, full of patience and blue skies that stretch on forever.  On the cover of the book is advice I'd like to broadcast to every woman with even the faintest inclination of considering a future in the governance of our country.

Be bold, Take risks, Live life freely, Lead by example, Trust your gut, Say what you feel, Mean what you say, Express gratitude, Believe in your power, Exceed your expectations.

Onward to Pueblo where I met State Representative Clarice Navarro, currently serving her second term in the Colorado State Legislature.  Clarice brought along a very professional entourage with her: Jace, her husband, acted as consummate stylist and wardrobe consultant, while adorable Jorji, her daughter, managed morale by jumping into the shot to lighten things up and break the ice, which was pretty much all around us for as far as the eye can see.  Clarice chose a vantage high above the town of Pueblo (which lies in her district), looking down upon the vast reservoir there.  As we got down to business, I quickly caught on to her gamesome spirit, loving her willingness to try different outfits and alternate setups.  I particularly liked her leopard print shawl, seen above!

Towards the end of the shoot, friends of Clarice and Jace just happened to come upon us.  One of them was wearing a large white stetson and on a whim I commandeered the hat and used it as a prop.  That shot, as it turns out, was the magic one (look for it on my Portraits Page in the coming weeks).  That's one of the things I really love about this art form––it's a marriage of technical skill and creative vision, but it's also dependent on spontaneity and caprice.  More often than not, it's these playful last-minute shots that win the day. 


On the following afternoon, the mood was of an altogether different sort as I met Rhonda Fields.  Her story is an extremely difficult one, a story of terrible tragedy giving rise to hope and a chance of rejuvenation.  Rhonda is a State Representative from Aurora whose son, along with his fiancée, were murdered in 2005 in connection to upcoming witness testimony in a murder trial.  It was only after her son's death that Rhonda considered a role in government, and now she is a prominent advocate for crime victims, working hard to make change in a community that faces many challenges.

Her creation, the Dayton Street Opportunity Center in urban Aurora, is a multi-faceted support facility offering a wide range of social services and help for those in need.  Rhonda's surviving child, daughter Maisha Pollard, is the center's executive director, and clearly the effort is a family commitment with deep-rooted personal motivations.  Gang violence needs to be addressed at the street level, with practical community support systems and dedicated people who understand the economic and emotional trials of broken families and broken lives.  Rhonda, through her center, and perhaps retrospectively through her own tragedy, is holding out a hand to those in need.  I was truly touched by the strength and hope personified by this woman's example to triumph over adversity.  The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held on March 7th and PiP sends a hearty congratulations to Rhonda for this momentous achievement.

Happy Presidents Day!

Forty-three years ago, Ms. Magazine published their inaugural issue with this cover of Wonder Woman marching through Washington, DC with a mission to reverse the gender bias of US politics.  To paraphrase Linda Carter, who portrayed the superhero on TV from 1975-1979, we may have come a long way, baby, but our fight for equality is far from over.

As we celebrate those illustrious figures who have held the highest office in the nation's government, let's reflect on the gender imbalance of the presidency throughout US history.  Not a single female president in 226 years in our fair land.  But it's not a magic lasso that's going to get a woman into the oval office.

What we need is a concerted effort to reverse the socio-cultural structures that keep women from achieving great things in politics.  And one of the main ways we can do this is through images and role models.

There is a very good reason why the iconic presence of Wonder Woman has permeated our collective imagination.  The phenomenon explicitly demonstrates the POWER OF IMAGES.  Especially in this visually-driven age, it is more important than ever to reach young women by holding up a mirror that reflects their gender in empowered roles.  This is the driving force behind PiP.  Reaching young women through images.