I interviewed Abrams this spring as part of another story on a new EMILY's List training program taking place in Atlanta. (When she first ran for office, a friend of hers handed her a big EMILY's List binder of tips; it became her bible for her first campaign.) We discussed women and race and power, as well as how obstacles, some external, some internal, can be overcome. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
What do you think stops women from running?
We fear losing, and that that somehow signals that we weren't capable to begin with. It is easier to lose in private than it is to lose in public, and so there's this fear that if you're not going to win, then why try? There's also a tendency for women to think that they need to be an expert to win, that you have to know everything about everything — that if I don't have a Ph.D. in every topic, then I'm certainly not qualified to speak for people. I will tell you that my male colleagues do not suffer from the same delusion. You don't need to know everything. You need to know you don't know everything, and be willing to learn about it.
Is running harder for women of color?
Women in general need to be asked to run, and women of color absolutely have to be asked, because too often what you see around you in terms of leadership looks nothing like you. It's hard to imagine yourself in a place where you don't have a lodestar.
If you could give advice to a woman who's running for office for the first time, what would it be?
First and foremost, know what you believe and know why you believe it. Part of it is just sitting down with yourself and understanding how deep your convictions run. Then, if you have the fortune (or misfortune) of getting elected, and compromise is required, if you have to confront the realities of the bill sitting next to you, you'll have a metric against which to measure your movement. The second thing is to know what others believe. Too often we enter the political space thinking it's about us, and it's not. It's about the people who elected you and the people you're working with or against. If you don't understand what they've got and what they're doing, they will beat you. But if you can understand what motivates them, that gives you a tool to use to get what you want done.
How did EMILY's List help you in your campaign, and how do you think the group can help women more generally?
It's about having someone else validate your capacity to lead, and that's what EMILY's List did for me. They helped me at the very beginning without knowing it; they came in when I'd started running and helped me. But, more recently, when I became leader [of the Georgia House Democrats], EMILY's List was there to help me think about my leadership. What do I need to be doing as leader to solidify that role, but also, how do I build my capacity to do even more? Having women who look like you and sound like you, who think something of you and will tell you — that has a validating effect that cannot be underestimated.