Death threats. Scars. A male colleague at the statehouse who, after hearing her speak on abortion, told her menacingly, “Jim Jones didn’t finish the job.”
The California Democrat, now a congresswoman and #MeToo torchbearer, has shared many of these stories before. Yet this time something feels different. Timed to coincide with an election that has seen a historic influx of female candidates, Speier’s new memoir starts to read less like a memoir and more like a survival guide for women who dare to run for office.
“In many ways it’s a chapter closer for me; 40 years after one defining moment in my life followed by many more unexpected turning points,” Speier said of “Undaunted,” which comes out on Election Day. “Now seemed like a good time to impart everything I’ve experienced in my life that has brought me to where I am today.”
Speier started her political career as a “Ryan Girl,” which meant she wore a cute outfit to campaign for the late California Rep. Leo Ryan, who was eventually murdered in Jonestown. Her feminism took root as she thought about the “hardy women” in her life and endured sexual assault as a Capitol Hill staffer.
She writes candidly about dating with scars on her body, a fiancé’s infidelity, an aborted pregnancy, a miscarriage, and a failed attempt at adoption. Those events helped shape her policy positions on abortion and women’s health.
As for her position on child care, that was shaped by her first husband’s fatal car accident and the financial instability that followed as a single mother while working on her political career.
Getting to Congress was no easy task either. When she first ran to replace Ryan right after his death, voters — even women — told her that her gender was a dealbreaker. She lost that race.
None of this is meant to dissuade women from entering the political sphere; instead, Speier sees speaking out and resilience as the key ingredients to success.
“I want young women and not-so-young women to know the power of sharing their stories; to feel encouraged to make their voices heard. Ultimately, I want ‘Undaunted’ to deliver a message of hope,” the congresswoman said. “Hard knocks are inevitable but they can open doors that help us to develop valuable qualities — resolve, commitment, purpose.”
The 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings and the testimony of accuser Anita Hill were a “clarion call” for her to keep fighting for women, she said.
After years in California’s state legislature, she had considered leaving politics. But in 2008 she ran for the open congressional seat of the late Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos, the same one once held by her murdered boss. This time she won.
When she got to Congress, there were fewer than 80 women in the House. Now there are a handful more. Even if that changes on Tuesday, it probably won’t be by much; men are still favored to take around three-quarters of the House seats, according to Rutgers’ Center for Women and Politics.
“Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back” comes out Nov. 6 from Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing.