Kesha Ram Hinsdale: On likenesses and leadership

This commentary is by state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, a candidate for the U.S. Congress.

Last February, Tim Newcomb drew a picture of me wild-eyed, big-haired and snaggle-toothed at a table, holding cards. I affectionately refer to it as the “sea witch” picture. 

I woke up to a new cartoon this past week with similarly exaggerated features, only this time I was sitting in a car seat, celebrating that my gender plus “attitude” will get me elected. It is now called the “baby sea witch” picture in our household.

Once you enter into politics and begin letting go of your public image, a cartoon that is simply unflattering is like a bad photograph — you let it go and move on. This, however, was not simply unflattering. It erased my decade of service in the Legislature and the hardships I have faced to become the first woman of color in the state Senate, and replaced it with the idea that my qualifications boil down to being an angry, self-righteous Brown woman. 

It did no favors to the other high-profile women depicted, especially diminishing my colleague Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, pictured in an even smaller car seat brandishing her ego and gender as her basis for seeking higher office.

Perhaps because I’m so used to it, and I didn’t want to give it any oxygen, I was prepared to let it go. But then Seven Days deputy publisher Cathy Resmer wrote an editorial that demanded a response. In her piece, she referenced a tweet that Lt. Gov. Gray and I had both liked. This tweet was an artist’s attempt to flip Newcomb’s original cartoon on its head with a more empowering version. 

In the editorial, Resmer argues that our public affirmation of this piece of art was proof of being too thin-skinned for politics. In reading Resmer’s characterizations of me and my fellow elected officials, I was struck by how little her comments matched my reality and that of many of my fellow female politicians.

One of the political figures also called out for liking this tweet was Rep. Taylor Small, the first openly trans woman in the Legislature. I dare anyone to walk a mile in her shoes. When I’ve done honk-and-waves with Rep. Small, people have turned their car around to threaten her and shout slurs. She has her gender identity questioned and attacked regularly in national media. She is one of the bravest people I have the honor of serving with, and she knows the real threat of danger in a “harmless” cartoon or joke.

After questioning our ability to take a joke, Resmer questions whether or not we are tough enough to go to Washington. To underscore this point, Resmer reminds us that Peter Welch was forced to flee from an angry mob in the Capitol. She stands up the flimsy argument that we would lack this bravery and resilience in the face of danger. 

It is clear to me that Resmer and I share a very different understanding of the bravery, resilience and leadership required at this moment in history. In Resmer’s analysis, leadership is demonstrated by just “taking it” when you are publicly ridiculed or maligned. This is not leadership, and certainly not leadership that meets the moment. 

Leadership is demonstrated when we ensure that something like the Capitol insurrection never happens again. Leadership is taking back the narrative and the nation from actions that jeopardize women, people of color, and our democracy. Leadership is not being silent and taking it, but holding those who incite and commit violence accountable.

Resmer laments that “activists and politicians respond to every pointed critique with claims of sexism and racism.” I did not see a pointed critique in Newcomb’s cartoon. I saw a cartoon insinuating that our primary strategy to attain a congressional seat was to wield our identities to score political points. As though being a woman in politics provides some strategic advantage or privilege we can wield. 

This cartoon dangerously minimizes the challenges inherent in being a female politician and invites the hatred and violence of othering based on identity factors outside of our control.

Over the years, I’ve had my lawn signs used for target practice, experienced two attempts to run my car off the road, and had people write to me to say they knew where I lived and would “give me something to call the police about.” 

That’s not nearly as bad as the sheer terror faced by Rep. Kiah Morris, the second Black woman in history to serve in the Legislature, who was forced to resign from her seat and flee from her home with her family due to nothing short of domestic terrorism. The cycles of violence she faced started with a cartoon image of a Black person labeled “Kiah” with exaggerated features using coded slang. That image was slipped under the door of the Democratic Party office in Bennington.

While I am not personally pained to be depicted as a sea witch with attitude, I am aware that others are watching and reading. It hurts to get messages from mostly young, Black and trans women saying this malignance in the press is making them think twice about running for office. 

This is not because they can’t take a joke. I imagine they hesitate to run for office because they value their lives and worry that the current climate does not ensure their safety. That it may actually seek to do them harm. 

This may be why we have lost women of color, and particularly Black women, from local positions across the state. I am reminded of the Zora Neale Hurston quote from nearly a century ago: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

We certainly have thick enough skin for a cartoon. We are not speaking out to soothe our feelings or our egos. We must speak up now for those coming after us and for the soul of our nation before it’s too late. 

We are not simply interested in switching the gender of those who represent us, but changing the culture of politics and representation. The old tropes simply aren’t funny anymore; they’re dangerous.  

So thank you to the many people who have not been silent about the pain this cartoon has caused. And if you want to build another world with smarter, funnier cartoons and a Capitol free from insurrectionists, then get in and let’s drive there together.

Correction: Cathy Resmer's title has been corrected.


Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Kesha Ram Hinsdale: On likenesses and leadership"
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.