Trailblazer & Changemakers

Jess McIntosh

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CNN & MSNBC Commentator and Political Strategist Jess McIntosh


Before Jess McIntosh was a hard-hitting CNN & MSNBC Contributor, host of an award-winning SiriusXM radio show, or a Senior Communications Advisor for Hillary Clinton’s political campaign, she worked in the trenches on political campaigns across the country, including in Minnesota. She returned to the Twin Cities this winter to lead a Women Winning panel about challenging sexism and combating false narratives around women’s executive leadership. Jess also hosted a roundtable conversation with the women leaders on the frontlines of Minnesota politics. She discussed the differences in leading Communications for men and women candidates, calling out sexism in the media, and the power of multiple pro-choice women running for President. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Women Winning

You served as a Senior Communications Advisor on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign. Prior to that, you worked in communications for several male candidates and elected officials. What differences did you experience on a woman candidate’s campaign versus on a man’s campaign?

Jess McIntosh

No campaign is easy. No matter what, from a communications perspective, you will have to navigate some choppy waters. However, when you’re working for a woman [candidate], you’re dealing with an atmosphere rather than an issue. And even when you have a specific issue to tackle, it’s so tinged with the atmosphere that it takes on bigger import than it should. The concern over Secretary Clinton’s emails is the perfect example — that would never have happened to a male candidate.

But you can’t prove it and it’s frustrating to constantly be fighting something that isn’t visible. In 2016, we suffered because people were hesitant to call it out when sexist things were happening. Now we have a number of women running for President and, while they still face a bigger uphill challenge than the men running, we can see what is happening and we are more prepared to talk about it. The sunlight helps us. These conversations are uncomfortable, but it’s how we clear the path.

Women Winning

We know that women win elections at the same rate as men. In fact, Women Winning’s win rate in 2018 was 70% and in 2019, it was 85%. Yet, we continue to hear voters say things like “I really like her, but I just don’t think she can beat him” or “I’m really excited about her, but we just need to win.” How do you respond to these sorts of comments?

Jess McIntosh

One of the trickiest things about these narratives is that they’re always changing. I worked at EMILY’s List from 2010 to 2015 and a lot changed during that time. When Hillary Clinton ran for President in 2008, we saw signs that said “Iron My Shirt” and “Get Back to the Kitchen”. We didn’t see that in 2016, but that doesn’t mean the issue was resolved. The narratives morph. It’s a moving target.

Every time a woman runs, it gets better. It is a little easier for Elizabeth Warren than it was for Hillary Clinton. It will be easier for the next round of women. The fact that there are multiple women running cannot be overstated in its impact. You can’t say, “there’s just something about Kamala and Elizabeth and Amy and…” without it being pretty obvious what’s going on.

“Likeability” is one issue. When Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy, she was called “unlikeable”. A few weeks later, Kirsten Gillibrand announced and she was “too likable” — that was a new one for me. Fortunately, there are now more women in positions of power in media and they called that out. By the time Kamala Harris announced, we didn’t hear as much about “likability”.

Now we’re hearing about “authenticity”. When women seek leadership positions, they are seen as less trustworthy and inauthentic. The data shows this to be true across sectors, from politics to business, particularly when women seek executive jobs. Authenticity is intangible and immeasurable. What I find most frustrating is that when a woman displays ambition — and running for President is a necessarily, objectively ambitious thing to do — she is seen as “calculating” and “untrustworthy”. Authenticity is the narrative we need to tackle now, and it’s very difficult to get your arms around it.

Women Winning

As a political strategist and communications expert with several media platforms, you are on the frontlines of challenging these narratives. What advice do you have for others to fight back against sexism?

Jess McIntosh

We have to fight back with numbers. We need to see a huge volume of women candidates — and it’s happening right now. Women candidates of all shapes, colors, sizes, races, ages, backgrounds are flooding the zone. For years, we only had one mode of women’s political leadership. From the 60s to the 90s, every woman candidate looked the same. They all wore the same matching skirt suits, they had the same hairstyle. This was how to be a politician. And when someone didn’t fit that mold, they were told they couldn’t win. We’re finally changing that.

When we recognize women as fully realized human beings, we can see all different kinds of women in leadership roles. After 2016, so many women looked around and said, “if that guy can get elected, I can get elected.” Then they ran, and won, and proved it. The wave of women who are running unapologetically as themselves… we are so far beyond that one model of leadership right now and it’s incredibly powerful.

For example, having Ayanna Pressley in a leadership role in Congress is going to be huge for girls who relate to her to see themselves as a candidate. She runs as herself, saying “the people closest to the pain need to be the people closest to the power.” No one has said that in Congress before. It takes someone who has been close to the pain to think that way, and you’d better believe that when [Congresswoman Pressley] is navigating legislative discussions, she’s thinking about people who don’t usually get thought about in those rooms. Electing her begets better policies, which makes it easier for other women to run… That’s why I’m glad you all are doing the work that you’re doing. We need to harness the energy. Just like any civil rights movement, it is being pushed from the grassroots, not being orchestrated from the top down.

Women Winning

What is the best way for us to make a grassroots impact in 2020?

Jess McIntosh

Minnesota is a swing state. You have swing districts in Minnesota. You’re bordered by swing states. What happens here matters a lot.

When women run, they tend to do really well. And when we are in office, we pass more bills, we co-sponsor more bills, we bring up new innovations… Women are the drivers for most of the progressive policies that we have in this country, even if they don’t get to put their name on it. So in 2020, work as hard as possible to elect women candidates.

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