Hélène Vincent had managed to keep a straight face and a cool head while presenting her candidacy for Boston City Council to a man who answered the door in his underwear.
He wasn’t her first pantsless voter — not even that day — and she felt she’d made a good pitch. What deflated her was his response to her question: “Can I count on your vote?”
“Yes,” the 77-year-old told her, “if no one knocks on the door who’s more attractive.”
“After all of this conversation, he’s just going to make a comment on my appearance?” Vincent asked in an interview, recalling the exchange. “It makes you feel pathetic when you are trying so hard.”
This is what it can be like, campaigning while female: You can be minimized by a man who is not even wearing pants. You can realize you just detailed your political agenda for someone who only saw “a cute girl that showed up,” as Vincent put it.
Door-to-door campaigning for votes is never a glamorous job. Vincent, who describes it as “sweaty,” has worn out four pairs of shoes visiting 150 voters a day. But it’s what campaigns require, what voters expect, and she understands that she’s the one making the intrusion; she tries not to take awkward interactions personally.
Rarely discussed, though, is the disrespect, condescension, and even real risk women can confront when alone on the threshold to strangers’ homes.
“That was my second underwear conversation of that day,” Vincent said. “It literally happens all the time.”
This week, Vincent, 30, took the unusual step of airing her frustration, tweeting about the encounter and her difficulty mustering “the courage to go knock another door. Usually, I force myself to get right back on the horse and keep going. But today, for some reason, I literally just can’t.”
Her unusual candor brought online encouragement from the public, and even some of her rivals in the District 8 Council race. Fellow candidate Kenzie Bok responded on Twitter with the hashtag message #solidarity. Competitor Jennifer Nassour texted Vincent directly with encouragement, praising her hard work and smarts and urging her to keep going.
Nassour has been there. When she was chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, some of her own members nicknamed her “Party Chair Barbie.”
“I got it from all sides – from women and from men — the sexism,” Nassour said in an interview. Women like Nassour — who’s particularly fit and notes on her campaign website that she works out five times a week — often field “compliments” from people who make clear they can’t stop looking at her body.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Ooh, I love your legs, I wish I had legs like that,’ ” she said. “Both women and men. You’re just like, ‘Are you for real?’ ”
Nassour, who previously worked for ReflectUS, a coalition of political groups working to increase women’s elective representation, wants female candidates “to feel like there are other women who have their back, especially those of us who have been through it before,” she said. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be a bloodsport.”
Nassour, Vincent, and Bok are competing in a crowded field, along with Montez David Haywood, Landon Lemoine, and Kristen Mobilia, for the District Eight council seat of outgoing Councilor Josh Zakim. The top two vote-getters in the Sept. 24 preliminary election will appear on the general election ballot Nov. 5.
Vincent’s message echoed beyond Boston, as other women offered their stories on Twitter. Cambridge City Councilor Alanna Mallon tweeted about her own decision not to canvass after dark — after being lunged at by a “drunk and physically aggressive” voter — despite knowing it might put her at a disadvantage to competitors seeking face time with voters.
“[Y]our story is all of us: all of us female candidates who risk our personal safety in order to serve,” Mallon tweeted. She called it “critical for other women to know we are not alone” and urged her to keep fighting.
Though Vincent sounded some defeatist notes in her initial tweets, she never considered giving up, she said. A longtime activist for social and environmental justice and the LGBTQ+ community, she has worked as a mediator and negotiator, as well as director of academic partnerships at EF Education First. She worked her way back from a 2016 ATV accident that had left her fighting for her life. She kept fighting for this campaign because if women like her didn’t, she tweeted, “nothing will change. People won’t take women or young people seriously and it’ll be the same old story.”
So she was out canvassing again Friday, reminding herself some candidates face worse than objectification.
When her friend, Tanya Neslusan, campaigned for state representative in Sturbridge last year, one man demanded to know, “What are you?”
She didn’t understand at first, thinking he meant Democrat or Republican.
“He goes, ‘No, that’s not what I mean,’ ” Neslusan recalled. “ ‘But I can tell you right now, you’re not one of mine.’ He put his hand on his hip, had a gun holstered behind him, said, ‘I’m going to give you five seconds to get off my property.’ ”
“Realistically, I don’t think he was going to shoot me,” said Neslusan, who is part Indian, and who describes her look as “ambiguously brown.” “I think he just wanted to scare me, which he did.”
There was also the woman who used the N-word and made clear her family would not be voting for Neslusan.
Like Vincent, Neslusan tells herself that she is not alone.
“It’s like that for every candidate out there — every female candidate, every LGBT candidate, every candidate of color,” Neslusan said. “Any candidate who doesn’t look like the voter, really.”
“But I will say this,” she added. “I still knock on doors.”