Women across the United States ran in historic numbers for this year’s midterm elections in what’s been deemed as “The Year of the Woman.” The result was groundbreaking – for the first time in history, the House of Representatives will have over 100 women in office.
In the US territory of Puerto Rico, the wave is just getting started.
“If the same people keep running, we’ll have the same results.”
At the forefront of this movement for women in politics is Proyecto 85, a non-partisan organization created in 2018 by a group of women with experience in public policy, entrepreneurship, and communications. Its mission is simple: Get more women to run for office in Puerto Rico.
“There’s an excessive lack of diversity in our government,” Michelle Perez-Kenderish, co-founder of Proyecto 85, tells me. “If the same people keep running, we’ll have the same results.”
To help women reach public office, Proyecto 85 has planned a workshop series set to begin on November 17. The collective plans to educate women in four major areas: candidacy, campaign financing, development of political platforms and discourse, and volunteer and social media management. The workshops will also focus on the structural and social obstacles women face running for office in a male-dominated political system, that’s known to dismiss female candidates with ads saying, “I don’t allow a woman to rule me, do you?”
Still, its main goal is to get women the representation they’ve been denied for nearly 70 years. Currently, women occupy only 12 percent of political roles in Puerto Rico, including at the mayoral, legislature, and executive level. Only eight women serve as mayors in Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, and women only occupy 14 of 81 positions in the legislature. Some prominent women serving in Puerto Rican politics include San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who gained worldwide notoriety after Hurricane Maria, and resident commissioner Jennifer González, who is the first woman in that role.
Yet, Puerto Rico’s millennial population knew what it was like having a woman hold the highest seat in the land. In 2000, Puerto Rico elected its first female governor, Sila María Calderón. However, since her departure almost 15 years ago, no woman has ascended to the executive branch of Puerto Rico’s government after the Calderón administration.
Many in the island see Calderón’s term as governor as a step back for women in politics, which has enabled male-dominated parties to use her as a scapegoat for their lack of support for female politicians.During her term, Puerto Rico created its first Oficina de la Procuradora de la Mujer, which Calderón fought for against her own party members. Unfortunately, the initiative was overshadowed by public scrutiny over her personal life (she was divorced and marrying a member of her cabinet during her tenure). The stakes were high for Calderón, because her administration served as an experiment for the Popular Democratic Party and its future with more female representation. Alas, it didn’t work.
“I don’t think any political party ever forgave Sila for her term.”
“I don’t think any political party ever forgave Sila for her term,” says Luz del Alba Acevedo, a professor of gender studies and political science at the University of Puerto Rico. “It certainly had a negative effect long-term for women in politics.”
Over the years, other women have attempted to change that, including Alexandra Lúgaro, who became the first woman to run for governor as an independent candidate in the 2016 election, and María de Lourdes Santiago, who became the first female candidate of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño.
But it’s the Lúgaro phenomenon that really stands out for professor Acevedo. As a single mom, confessed atheist, pro-choice supporter, and advocate for legal marijuana, Lúgaro broke the molds of a politician in a mostly Catholic, male-dominated society. Lúgaro also ran with no corporate funding, similar to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District. She understood the power of the youth and by streaming her day-to-day struggles on Facebook Live, she smartly used social media as a tool to get her base invested in her campaign. In an unprecedented election, she reached third place with 11 percent of the vote, which showed that the youth, tired of their circumstances, were willing to bet on a candidate like Lúgaro to end the island’s social and economic problems. In many ways, Lúgaro was the result of chronic dissatisfaction of a generation plagued by a $73 billion debt, corrupt bipartisanship, and colonialism.
Similarly, Proyecto 85 has also resulted from this anger. And the proven success of US-based organizations like Emily’s List and Emerge America shows how female candidates can flip the status quo. “We know this work is being done in the states, and we think it can have the same positive impact for Puerto Rico in 2020,” says Margarita Varela, co-founder of Proyecto 85. As a non-partisan organization, its mission is to increase female representation, regardless of their ideologies or political parties. While this mission is a common thread in this year’s historic run of women in Congress, its praxis is a bit more complicated, as professor Acevedo states. “One has to think, ‘Is it the same to elect a Michelle Bachelet than a Margaret Thatcher just because they are women?’”
This is an important question for Proyecto 85, which is looking to break the political landscape in the middle of an economic and social crisis perpetrated by neoliberal policies. It’s also an issue in the current political climate in Puerto Rico, as most of the women serving in legislature – such as senators María Milagros Charbonier and Nayda Venegas, and resident commissioner Jennifer González – are conservative and have defended policies of the Trump administration, including the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. “The key for women in politics in Puerto Rico is to not continue to be a pawn or a political tool in a male-dominated game,” Professor Acevedo says.
But the women of Proyecto 85 are confident that its mission is essential to leveling the political landscape in Puerto Rico to accurately represent its demographics. “I think this goes beyond female or male,” Perez-Kenderish says. “We need solutions, good leaders. This is really a project to build a better Puerto Rico.”