Women on the Ballot: Coloring Outside the Lines

Women politicians campaign to shape their community, pave a path for future generations

Photos by Jess Lynk

This story is part of a series. See the rest of them here.


It all started in a living room in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Anne Stava-Murray set up 15 chairs with no intention of filling them all. Stava-Murray was hosting a Women’s March huddle, meant to bring together women in various communities and encourage conversation about government.

Valerie Montgomery sat in her car a few miles away, nervous about driving to a stranger’s house. Montgomery felt energized after attending a Women’s March in Chicago.

“I felt a desire to come together after the march and after the election,” Montgomery says. “We all had so much insight to talk about. And who do you say that to? You can’t start these arguments at work. You are tired of arguing at home around the dinner table, or you are preaching to the choir. Everyone else doesn’t want to hear it.”

Montgomery drove her car to Stava-Murray’s house and walked in that day. All fifteen chairs were filled.

“There was my flock that I was welcomed into,” Montgomery says.

After the huddle that day, Montgomery and Stava-Murray formed the Naperville Women’s March Action group and a friendship.

We started out as community activists,” Montgomery says. “In our community, we met, came together, started meeting continuously and noticing all the different policy and the things that weren’t working in our community and decided to step up.”

In April 2017, Montgomery and Stava-Murray organized the Naperville Tax Day March to demand President Trump release his tax returns. They were expecting 50 people to show up in their town, but 500 did. This was one of the biggest marches in the town’s history.

“[Attending an activist event] is so worth it, even if it is just you and one other person at something,” Stava-Murray says. “But when so many people show up, you know that you have struck a chord with something that resonates with what so many people are experiencing, which is a feeling of voicelessness. Making ourselves a voice is really important.”

Both Stava-Murray and Montgomery decided to take their activism one step further.

Running for Office

On Nov. 8, 2017, Stava-Murray launched her campaign for the 81st District state representative in Illinois. Montgomery did the same soon after in the 41st District.

I love that women like us are running for office because we represent a community that went unrepresented for years,” Montgomery says. “Moms, business owners, workers, your local community activists, we are everything, but no one represented us.”

Both feel that running for office helps them have a seat at the table. Stava-Murray works from home and Montgomery is an accountant.

If you put all of our life experiences together, we probably represent some sort of superwomen,” Montgomery says. If you put us together, we represent what should be a legislator for me. I want the person down in Springfield, Illinois, to look like us. To say, ‘I have a home, I raise my kids, I go to PTA meetings, host playgroups and also vote for legislation.’”

Both women were inspired to run after the election of Trump, but both of them say it isn’t about party lines.

“After Trump was elected, I realized things are not being taken care of,” Stava-Murray says. “You start to attend the office hours of your state representative and you realize if Hillary [Clinton] were president, this would still be happening, but I wouldn’t necessarily have been paying attention because I would have had that false sense of security. That is a huge critical piece of the change, is realizing that you need democracy as a verb. You can’t just trust that someone is going to care about what you do.”

Since they filed for office, Stava-Murray and Montgomery have been helping each other with their campaigns.

For some male politicians, it’s about being the sole name on the headline, but I know that doesn’t make me stronger,” Stava-Murray says. “It makes me stronger when Val [Montgomery] is involved. When women in general are lifted up, we all lift up each other. It is a strength to not be out for just yourself.”

‘To say, ‘I have a home, I raise my kids, I go to PTA meetings, host playgroups and also vote for legislation.’’- Valerie Montgomery 

The Challenges of Campaigning

A few weeks after Stava-Murray announced her campaign, she also found out she was pregnant. She never questioned if the pregnancy would impede her campaign.

It made me feel stronger that I had to run,” Stava-Murray says. “Because, if I said that I wasn’t going to run, what would that mean to myself about what I believed about the capabilities of someone who is pregnant? Then I am just giving up in the face of the challenges, and I don’t want to be someone who gives up.”

Although Stava-Murray took on this attitude, others still questioned if she was fit to run for office.

I have to have a setup that is different than a normal campaign, which I don’t think should be a challenge,” Stava-Murray says.

Stava-Murray hopes that she and others who are running while pregnant can shed light on the challenges of running for office. She wishes she was not a trailblazer in this area, but she hopes this will help women down the road.

Montgomery faces similar challenges. As a mother of an autistic son, people questioned how she can run and care for her son. But it isn’t a barrier for her.

Montgomery also sees challenges in fundraising, especially running against an incumbent.

People seem to be more likely to give more money to men,” Montgomery says. “As if we are doing a craft project. No we are not. We are running for office. This is a real job. If a man goes and asks for donations, he is treated different. Women are so used to having to raise the bar. Instead of ‘Hey, I have proven [myself] … I have collected the signatures. I have done the work. I know the policy.’ But we still are proving our worth every single day.”

“This is something so incredibly important to model that it is worth the angst of whether you win or lose.”- Anne Stava-Murray

Why Running Matters

To Stava-Murray and Montgomery, their campaign is not all about winning.

“… There are other goals that are also very important: changing the conversation, making our representatives more accountable to voters,” Stava-Murray says. “We are going to be out there talking about issues that are relevant to voters that we have talked and listened to voters about. That forces the current representation, no matter where they get their money, to start thinking ‘Am I actually reflecting voters?’ Voters are paying attention at a much higher rate than they ever have before.”

Beyond shaping the conversation to topics that matter to voters, both women find representation extremely valuable.

“Paving a path to make it seem possible to other people who might be on the fence is important,” Stava-Murray says. “It is not just about this one race or this one seat, it’s about the broader impact [of] having much more representation and underrepresented groups have their voice be heard. This is something so incredibly important to model that it is worth the angst of whether you win or lose.”

Montgomery hopes that future generations will be inspired by what both these women are doing today.

“It hit me the other day that years from now, in our local community, our kids will be talking about us in school,” Montgomery says. “For us to step up and run for office, gave people behind us to come, a voice to do it. We may not know it now, but we are encouraging a girl to say, ‘Wait a second, I know it may sound small, but I don’t like coloring inside the lines. And I am not going to do it. I want to paint.’ When you think about things, you look to who did this before me. You look for mentors. That will be us saying, I grew up in Naperville, Illinois, and I can also run a business, run for office, and run the world. I can do it, so can you.”

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