In 1866, the first woman to run for Congress was not even eligible to vote.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the first leaders of the women's rights movement, ran as an independent from New York State and received 24 of the 12,000 cast votes.
In 2018, the New York Times just reported that a record number of female candidates are running in the upcoming fall House elections. So far, that number is 200 women, but the number is likely to climb even higher, as six states have yet to hold their primaries. In those six states, there are 66 female candidates.
The new record reflects a surge of female candidates that have run for Congress in this midterm election cycle, roughly three-fourths of whom are running as Democrats. Currently, 84 women hold spots in the House, which has 435 seats. If every woman who has won a primary so far also wins the general election, the number of women sitting in the House could go up to 177.
Jahana Hayes wants one of those seats.
Hayes is the Democratic House nominee for Connecticut's 5th District, a seat currently occupied by Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn, who is stepping down after a a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal in her office. Hayes’s path to becoming the nominee has been anything but easy.
Though Hayes rose to national prominence as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, she is a far cry from the usual pedigree of a traditional political candidate for office.
A Waterbury native, Hayes grew up in poverty. Her childhood home was in the city’s toughest housing project. She was raised by her grandmother while her mother struggled with drug addiction. She said she always loved learning, and saw education as a path to success.
However, at one point in her life the 2016 teacher-of-the-year was a school dropout. She had bills, and a baby on the way.
“It seemed like everything was caving in around me,” she says. “I almost lost my apartment, there was never enough money, and it was difficult to get a job.”
At 17, Hayes became a mother. She kept working, and eventually, quietly re-enrolled in school. She never told anyone, not even family. So, Hayes worked, raised her daughter, and went to school in secret.
“I didn’t tell anyone because I had a lot of false starts and setbacks,” she says. “I really never expected that I’d finish.”
But Hayes did graduate and went on to earn a Master’s and other advanced degrees. Also unexpected? Her candidacy.
“I never imagined I’d be doing any of this,” she says.
Hayes was inspired to run by her students and her community. She said she wanted to make sure that people who have traditionally been excluded from politics could have a representative at the table.
“I was a single, teenage mom. I went to community college. I recognize that’s not what people expect,” she says. “I tell people, this campaign is going to look different.”
One small way that Hayes looks different from other candidates is that she never wears a blazer. A much bigger way she represents diversity is that if elected, Hayes would be the second black person (but first black woman) in Congress to represent Connecticut.
“The fact that Connecticut democrats have never sent a person of color to Congress says to me that there are perspectives and voices that aren’t being included,” she says. “I want to change this idea of who is invited and what Congress looks like.”
Hayes said she has not currently felt welcome by the system that she is currently working to challenge. Heading into the Connecticut convention on May 14, Hayes faced off against a well-known, better-financed candidate with an extensive political career. She said she ran into some delegates who said they had already decided to vote in a block for opponent Mary Glassman before Hayes had announced her candidacy 12 days earlier.
Despite the long odds, Hayes lost to Glassman by only a few votes: 173-167.
“If someone can come in as an outsider and be two votes behind someone with 30 years of political experience, that must tell us something,” she says. “People are looking for something different. There’s an appetite for change.”
Part of making this change possible, Hayes says, is getting a greater diversity of people involved with politics. In this, her experience as a teacher shines through. Every Saturday, Hayes holds a “civics chat” with Connecticut residents in which she says she educates people on the process of voting.
“It’s not campaigning, it’s teaching.” She laughed. “I can’t turn it off.”
Hayes says her mentor was another female teacher, Cassandra E. Fann-Pierce, who has taught at Waterbury's John F. Kennedy High School for over thirty years. Over the past decade or so when Hayes has been at the school, Fann-Pierce helped her start a service club for students to volunteer.
But Fann-Pierce says that Hayes is the one often doing students a service. One example of this came three or four years ago, on a freezing, below-zero winter school day. Fann-Pierce was walking out of school with Hayes, and noticed that Hayes did not have her coat on. She had given it to a student who needed one.
“She did a lot of things like that, but she didn’t seek attention for it,” Fann-Pierce says.
Fann Pierce is confident that Hayes would similarly dedicate herself to helping others if elected to Congress.
“She can teach them a thing or two."
Amanda is a journalist currently working at CNN, but previously worked at the Hartford Courant, MSNBC, the Republican-American, WNYU 89.1 FM, Prague.tv, The PragueCast, and Scholastic News. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and a B.S. in Media, Culture & Communications from NYU. When she is not chasing down a story, Amanda is an avid traveler, a dancer, and a lover of all things outdoors. Visit her website for more.