From Full-Time Mom to Member of Congress: Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s Career Advice For Women

Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) walked away from a prestigious legal career in the Supreme Court to raise her three children full-time. Like so many women before her, the career off-ramp was a bumpy ride.

As her children grew older, Esty felt called to do more – until one day, she was called out. Her then 15-year-old daughter challenged her mom to put up or shut up: run for office, or quit complaining about those who were already there.

Here’s how Esty transitioned from stay-at-home parent to politician – with a little help from her persuasive daughter, to boot.

Emilie Aries: You started off your career as an attorney. Did you see yourself heading into public life even back then?

Representative Elizabeth Esty: I’d always aspired to be the first woman on the Supreme Court — that was my big ambition. Fortunately Sandra Day O’Connor beat me to it, just as I was questioning whether it’s what I truly wanted.

At the time, I was clerking for a judge in DC and started to realize just how isolating that work can be. I wanted to feel more connected to people, and recognized I was more interested in justice than the law.

Aries: What made you realize that?

Esty: Intellectually challenging as law is — and my work as a Supreme Court attorney for Sidley Austin was as intense as it gets — I realized I was passionate about broader issues that were not confined to the law.

I was most interested in what was politically possible. I was speaking with the Dean of the UCONN Law School, talking through some proposed health reform policies, and found myself saying, “Yes, but that’s not politically feasible.” He replied, “Why should that concern you, as a law professor?”

That’s when I knew I wanted to work on implementing real-world solutions. It’s what’s feasible in the real world that interests me most. I like to get things done.

Aries: You then left your law career in DC and moved to Connecticut to focus on your family full-time, correct?

Esty: Yes, I spent the better part of 10 years as a full-time parent, with the occasional bit of part-time work focused on healthcare reform at Yale on the side . I remained very active in my church and the public school system, where my three kids were students.

Around 2004, as my kids were getting older, I felt called to do more. I thought, “I’ve had all this training, all this education, I should be doing something to help change the world and address the problems we’re facing.”

I briefly considered divinity school, but the thought of public service also attracted me, and at that point, people were asking me to run for office locally.  

Aries: What gave you the final kick to run?

Esty: I have my eldest daughter to thank for that. She was 15 at the time, sitting with my then 12-year-old and 9-year-old around the dining room table doing homework, when she overheard me talking about how I didn’t like what was happening on our town council.

She said, “Mom, you always told us if you saw a problem and you can do something about it, to step up and do it yourself. If you want to run for town council, I’ll run your campaign. But if you don’t want to run, you don’t get to complain about it anymore.”

I thought to myself, well, if I had the support of my family (which I knew I did), and I thought I really could do a better job (which I knew I could), then I had better be willing to put myself out there and do something about it. It was one of those moments where I either had to live my words or eat them, and I wasn’t prepared to eat them in front of all three of my kids right then and there.

Aries: A victory for persuasive daughters everywhere! I love it.

Esty: You better believe I took her up on that offer to run my campaign, too. She and I applied to attend Women’s Campaign School at Yale together, making her the first minor in the history of the program to be accepted. There we met Gabby Giffords, who was just starting her bid for Congress at the time. We left completely inspired and equipped to run.

The experience totally transformed my daughter. She went on to run my first couple campaigns, other state representative races, gubernatorial races, and last year served as one of three directors of voter protection nationally for Hillary Clinton. Campaigns and elections are a real passion of hers.

For me, my interest was always more in governance than politics. I’m proud to have achieved an awful lot since coming back to Washington, too, especially given the kind of gridlock we’ve seen in Congress. In my first term, I authored six pieces of legislation passed into law by President Obama. Already this year, I’m the first Democrat to introduce a bill signed into law by President Trump: two pieces of legislation I co-authored with my Republican colleague, Barbara Comstock, which will help women pursuing STEM careers and women entrepreneurs.

Aries: Impressive. So you went from full-time parent to politician. I find that fascinating – what an on-ramp back to work! How did you handle that transition?

Esty: It’s not an easy thing – in either direction. It wasn’t easy going from a Supreme Court attorney, when people would approach me at cocktail parties to ask what was happening in the Court, to being a stay-at-home mom six months later, when people would literally turn and walk away from me when I’d say that I was home with my daughter. It was as though I’d had a lobotomy!

I remembered that experience when I was elected to Congress. I’ve seen far too many politicians do that to people — especially women — by looking over their shoulder instead of listening to what they have to say. I deeply believe everyone is entitled to respect and dignity, whether you’re the CEO in the boardroom or a parent kissing a boo-boo at the soccer game. So many women know what it’s like to be discounted, overlooked, and under-estimated, and I’m here to show you can turn that experience into something good.

Aries: There’s been a surge of women stepping up to learn how to run for office after the election of President Trump. What advice would you share with them?

Esty: Do not to be afraid and take the plunge. Politics can feel like a contact sport at times, but you’ve got to stay focused on your purpose and don’t take things personally.

Above all else, this is what I’ve learned: when they hate you, don’t let it go to your heart because it’s more about them than you. People project their fears and anger onto public figures.  They might not know you, but you become a symbol for something that upsets them.

Equally important: when they love you, it’s not about you either, so don’t let it go to your head. It’s about them. It’s about the lives you’re impacting and the difference you’re making.

And that is what makes women very good at politics, I think. We’re collaborative, we’re focused on getting things done and not fighting over who’s going to take the credit for it.  

One thing I’d say to all women who want to make change: if you believe in democracy, don’t be afraid to be the one out there. America needs you.

This was originally published in my Forbes Leadership column and reposted here with permission.


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