Interview with Donna Lent – President, National Women’s Political Caucus

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Donna Lent is the President of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Her profile states: “Donna Lent, a member of NWPC for twenty-five years, was elected to an unprecedented third term as President at the NWPC Biennial Convention in 2019. Donna has successfully reduced overhead for the National office by 62%. Prior to this position, she was First Vice President of the National Board and Vice President of Political Planning for four years. She has also served as President of the New York State Caucus.

Before entering public service, Donna enjoyed a successful career as a Law Office Manager and small business owner. In 2001, Donna left the private sector and joined an NYS Assemblywoman as the Chief of Staff, where she played a crucial role in the passage of important legislation protecting and expanding women’s rights. After serving the constituents of the Third Assembly District, she was appointed Chief Deputy Town Clerk for the Town of Brookhaven in 2010.  Donna is currently the elected Town Clerk of Brookhaven, NY, a role she assumed in 2013 with 60% of the vote and elected to a second four-year term in 2017.

In 1992 Donna was one of the principals spearheading the nearly three year effort to create the NY State Choice Party; a counter to the NY State Right to Life Party.”

Here we talk about American politics and women’s rights.

*Interview conducted on August 3, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, this is the National Women’s Political Caucus. For those who do not know, what is the National Women’s Political Caucus in the United States? Also, how can some in Canada learn from such an effort and build on this to make sure Canadian concerns around these issues are more robustly supported as well – akin to this for the Americans?

Donna Lent: That is a very interesting point that you’ve made. Let me start out by saying, the National Women’s Political Caucus was formed in 1971. It is the oldest multi-partisan grassroots women’s organization dedicated to increasing women’s participation in the political process at all levels.

Our acronym, NWPC, refers to how we recruit, train, and invite pro-choice women at all levels of government. Also, we seek to put more women in appointed office. So, we have been doing this since 1971. Our founders include Americans Stella Adler, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Dorothy Height, these were great wonderful women who saw an opportunity that was not being addressed. They took the opportunity to getting more women involved in political office.

Because if we do not have a seat at the table, then you don’t have anything. That is what we’ve been doing. We have been doing trainings. We have trained many of the leaders of the country. We do training across the country. We have a “train the trainers” program.

I remember a few years back sitting in a training a few years back in Seattle, Washington. There was a woman from Canada for this. I cannot remember the name. People endorse us. The prospect of talking to somebody in Canada and doing something similar there; I would welcome it.

Jacobsen: How do American women’s rights campaigners, on the political level, look at the Canadian example? So, what is Canada doing right? What is Canada doing wrong?

Lent: I would say the first thing you are doing right is having the right kind of Prime Minister.

Jacobsen: Right [Laughing].

Lent: For one, it is is not really a discussion being had, but, maybe, it is an interesting topic to explore. It is not something to explore to me. We are so busy taking care of chapters across the United States. Not much thought is given to what is going on in other countries.

Sometimes, there will be comparisons to what happens here or other events at different locations when it comes to equality.

Jacobsen: As the NWPC President, the big picture view, what are your major concerns? Other than some of the daily putting out of small fires.

Lent: The reason, and 25 years ago when I got involved in the NWPC, is simply because my interest is in the political side. We are the NWPC. We grew out of the National Organization for Women. They are known as NOW and are more issue oriented. The caucus grew out of the political.

Jacobsen: One of the major political issues with social, economic, and policy implications in the United States has to do with the upcoming election with some caveats around some commentary around delays, as of recent.

However, given the erratic nature of the current Trump Administration, it could change. It could change in a number of ways. It could be worse. It could be better. You never know. However, assuming the election will run later this year, and with some of the candidates proposed now, what is the central concern outside from particular political candidates – we’ll get to those soon – for women who are of a progressive orientation looking at this very crucial election? What is the big “must” moving towards this election?

Lent: The big “must” is we must oppose Donald Trump [Laughing]. I do not know if the country will survive another 4 years. He has attacked the system, whether de-regulation, climate control, women’s rights, immigrant rights.

He has really methodically, methodically, been tearing down the fabric of what we have been building for years by trying to become a more progressive nation. In 4 short years, look at what he has done, there is nothing more important than removing him from office for us.

We were on board and behind Hillary Clinton before. To say we were disappointed, you cannot put that in words. There is no way to really express how devastating it was to women across the country. Not all women, I get that.

I remember the following day. I was getting calls from people who had worked with us, e.g., interns, staff person, etc. We realized that we had to pull it together because we had to show the younger women how to get into the fight again and continue working.

That is what we have been doing. In 2018, the women we endorsed for office, the campaigns that we helped, the trainings that we did. We have record numbers of women running in the United States. We have an assurance or a promise from Joe Biden that he is choosing a woman as his vice presidential choice.

We do not really care. It could be anyone. You see the different women who we profiled in the Imagine series. It could be any one of them. One thing is sure. If Biden is running, then there will be a capable woman running who will have our endorsement.

As an organization, we have already voted to endorse whoever is elected because when women show up; women win, and everyone wins. That is what we’re working for. We are really excited about the announcement that is going to come next week.

There is no proof as to who it is going to be. However, as I said, any one of them will be, certainly, someone who we will be proud to get behind and to help support, and to help this ticket win in November. That was our goal in the Imagine campaign.

It was to highlight the women being considered because we don’t want it to be a situation where once Biden chooses his vice presidential running mate; that the other women are forgotten. My sense is probably every one of those women will somehow be chosen to work at a high level in the Biden administration, if not even a Cabinet position.

We want to be sure. Even if they are not chosen to be the vie presidential nominee, we really did want to highlight them and to say, “We’re behind each and every one of them.” It is a great opportunity for a woman to be in the second command of this country.

Jacobsen: Who are the main threats in terms of organized groups in the United States to issues very much touchstones for women’s rights, i.e., reproductive healthcare, women’s free access to opportunities in education or employment, and the freedom to pick one of the three choices in life – in terms of free choice – in the home, a mix between home and professional life, or purely professional life?

Lent: When the announcement finally happens, I am looking to having, at least, one day of celebration.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Lent: And to feel some joy, because I know shortly thereafter the misogyny will begin and go on the attack. We have to be prepared for that. I think one of the things that we need to have in this country, and which Joe Biden supports, is the Equal Rights Amendment. We do not have one in this country.

Other countries are democracies. The United States will require the imagination that they have an equal rights amendment in their constitution. Yet, we do not have one in ours. I know many people are not aware. Women are not equal here.

The Equal Rights Amendment is for all people. It is not codified in the Constitution. So, a lot of the things mentioned by you. There is a lot of activity in the United States right now surrounding it. We are one of the lead organizations in another group called the ERA Coalition.

We have gotten hearings in Congress. We have assurances from the Senate minority leader. There is going to be a push for the ERA. The initial law requires 30 states. They have extended the time limit. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify.

The other 13 had time expire. We joined and filed an amicus brief in a case to do away with the time limit. We are hoping that that will be heard in next year’s session.

Jacobsen: As a side question, what state in the United States has the worst reputation and status for women’s rights?

Lent: Oh! There are so many.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Lent: Mostly, it is the southern states: Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee. Even though, I have chapters in Tennessee to get women elected. Mississippi has never had a woman serving in Congress. There are other areas in regards to education.

There are so many. You have South Carolina. North Carolina, now, has a new governor. There is an effort in North Carolina to pass the ERA too.

Jacobsen: If Joe Biden is elected, and anyone of the women from the Imagine campaign is put forward and made the vice president, how would you rank order the top three asks as an organization, as NWPC, for improving the status of women’s rights? This will be time-bound because of the shredding of some facets of the institutions and the policies built in the past for the stabilization and implementation of women’s rights in the United States.

Lent: The first step would be passing tan Equal Rights Amendment. That would go a long way. Then we have healthcare. We have childcare. Those are really important issues, which are really compelling and deserve a lot of attention.

Then you have climate control. We have gun control. There are so may issues. Women bring a different perspective. I think that very often, especially in some of the states or the more [Laughing] red states with gun rights and fun ownership, families, and God; the gun rights can become more important than the making sure every child has a meal before they go to bed at  night.

We have a Equal Rights Amendment. We  have childcare. For example, here in the United States with the Covid issue, Trump is pushing to opening up the schools. However, we cannot have schools on part-time. Women are working. How are they going to care for their children?

You can’t have a job and work two days a week because, then, you’re not going to have a job. Yet, there has been no talk about provision to provide financial assistance with childcare to get women through this healthcare crisis. It is a healthcare crisis.

Jacobsen: In the general demographic cut up, according to experts in the United States, the categories that tend to come forward are white Americans, black Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans, Arab Americans, and Native Americans.

Each has different issues, different privileges, etc. What are the issue particular to women of colour in the United States? How is this reflected in some of the demands made upon politicians by women of colour who are ordinary citizens who happen, in general and on average, tend to lead more precarious lives than women who are not?

Lent: What is important in that, it is to be able to hear from women in each of those communities, to include those women in the discussions, policy discussions. How do you do that? You have them fill positions.

Maybe, it is not the woman struggling and working three jobs. But maybe, there are other women who understand the plight they are going through. Maybe, they women have chosen a path that is political and policymaking.

It is important to have voice for women of colour. It is important that we do not have one person, whether white or brown, speak for such a rainbow of people. Everybody needs to have their authentic voice heard. That is why women need to be at the table.

You cannot assume because you have put a woman in the position or that she wanted the position; that she will understand, at her core, what a Native American woman is going through. So, that is why it is important.

We have a diversity committee. I have a Vice-President for Diversity and Outreach, where a lot of attention is paid to this topic. When I was elected as president of this organization in 2015, I set out to have one of the most diverse boards that the caucus has ever seen.

“Diversity” does not mean black or white. It leads to disabled people, younger people, economic diversity. There are some women that have done very well for themselves. They serve on our board. But you also have to have the voice of a woman who can’t write the big cheque.

Because if you close yourself off to that, then you are really not serving.

Jacobsen: What is the most tragic story that you have ever heard?

Lent: We hear about women who really do struggle with a lot of issues. We hear from women because of an economic situation have lost their children. We have been involved in cases where the father of the house has taken the child back to another country.

I had a case in Florida who tried to get her child back. There is so many. A lot of people will contact her. They are grabbing at straws and looking for help. But because we, for the most part, as a political organization; we try to help by referring them out to other services that may able to help them.

I had one case. I will not say, “This is tragic,” by any means, but I want to give an idea of what we do. It was someone ex-military. Her husband was still on active duty. She had two children. One was a newborn. He had chosen – the husband – to work in the Trump Administration.

So, it was an open seat. That is what we call it when it is an incumbent running. She wanted to run, but she was out of the service for 2 to 2.5 years going against another very wealthy male candidate and was having trouble putting us together to run a campaign.

We arranged to get her complete professional wardrobe. We shipped it down to South Carolina. So, she could have more confidence and present herself professionally to help with the campaign. It was the primary. She was still involved politically.

I remember her first campaign video. She did the video breastfeeding her baby. That was new, only three years ago, roughly. That is our mission: to get women, find them, train them, recruit them to run, and have them cross the finish line.

Jacobsen: I am told of a growing academic literature rather than even a sociological commentary on the phenomenon of Christian Nationalism. This ties to the same idea as Dominionism or Reconstructionism within a particular brand of theocratically oriented theology coming out of Christianity.

What is the cross-section there between some of the work you’re doing, and some of the organizations or personalities that are grounded in this notion of the providence of the Christian god, for having a Christian nation and having their particular idiosyncratic reading of Christian theology placed into political life, policy, and the wider culture of the United States?

Lent: I am not by any means think I am an authoritative voice on this. I ma here to tell you. Here in the United States, Christianity is used in a way that, in the end, I believe, ends up hurting women and families, e.g., Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education.

She is definitely education here. Her and her husband made their money with for-profit prisons and charter schools. She is responsible for making policies for schools in this country. For the caucus, that is something.

For example, our board members, I have Jewish women. I am sure; I have agnostic women. I have Christians within the membership. I have Muslim woman on the board from Tennessee. The organization is based in politics. Religion is not the forefront of that.

Jacobsen: My final question: Any recommended books, authors, organizations, or speakers for the readers today?

Lent: There are so many books written on this topic. We have a little known book by one of our founding members. She is not even a well-known founding member. But she was featured on the recent Hulu series called Mrs. America. Although, I appreciate bringing some attention, certainly, to our organization.

I was not appreciative of the way in which they portrayed some of our founding women. It is called, the book, Not One of the Boys: Living Life as a Feminist by Brenda Feigen. It is not philosophical thought.

It is more a personal accounting of living during the 60s and the 70s trying to live life as a feminist. Many times, people start with Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. There are a lot of works looking at the first wave, second wave, of feminism.

Personally, I am the person who does not want to sit around the table and talk about the philosophy of the feminist person. I am the type of person who wants to make it happen. That is why the caucus was good for me.

Because you work and then have a result. You find a woman who you think would make a good public official. You recruit her, train her, and then get her elected. Then you move on to the next. So, you can fill the table in every locality with a woman’s voice. That’s how change is made.

Because you need the perspective. The book I happen to be reading now is by Robyn DiAngelo called White Fragility: Why It is So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism if you want to talk about social impact.

Jacobsen: Donna, thank you for your time today.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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Image Credit: Donna Lent/National Women’s Political Caucus.

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