‘Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win’: A Novel About Women and Ambition on the Campaign Trail


In no other sphere is Americans’ ambivalence about ambitious women more fraught—or so clearly on display—than on the campaign trail. And so Jo Piazza’s novel about a woman running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania has particular relevance as it debuts in the midst of an election cycle in which there are an unprecedented number of female candidates vying for political office around the country.

Voters want women to run for office for altruistic reasons—to remedy injustice in their communities, to give a voice to the powerless, to bring civility and a collaborative spirit to government. But the title of Piazza’s novel dispenses with the niceties and polished messaging that we expect female politicians to espouse. She just puts it out there: Charlotte Walsh likes to win.

Charlotte Walsh seemingly has it all—she’s a successful Silicon Valley executive, happily married, a mother to three daughters, and has a book on the bestseller list (aptly titled “Let’s Fix It”). Still, her ambition drives her to tackle the next challenge —a Senate seat in her home state of Pennsylvania, a state that in this fictional account and in real life has yet to elect a woman to either the governor’s office or the Senate.

Charlotte moves her family from a California mansion to her childhood home in rural Pennsylvania, where the campaign begins. Almost immediately, it becomes clear how greatly the political rules of the road differ from those governing her life and business in Silicon Valley. The #MeToo movement may be at the forefront of a national conversation about gender, but in reality, its influence in politics and among voters has yet to materialize. Her opponent—an overt misogynist, philanderer and all-around egomaniac—plays dirty, and eventually so does she. However, when one particular secret surfaces, one that Charlotte worked hard to bury, she is forced to ask herself how far she is willing to go to win.

Jo Piazza delivers a thought-provoking and important piece on how difficult it is to be an ambitious woman in 2018. While some progress has been made in the entertainment and business worlds, politics remains relatively untouched—as evidenced by recent political elections. Over the course of the story, a reader may just as often find herself rooting for Charlotte to win as she will for her to lose. Is the campaign really worth the pain and strain it puts on Charlotte and her loved ones?  In particular, there’s something unsettling about the stress it puts on Charlotte’s already fragile marriage. Which leaves us to wonder, what is driving the discomfort we feel around Charlotte’s candidacy? Men have done this for centuries. And in this way, the novel painfully highlights how difficult it is for women in politics and the double standard that still exists.

One of the book’s strengths is that it isn’t pushy—it doesn’t force an opinion on the reader, but instead encourages us to make up our own minds about Charlotte, her campaign and her desire to win. That in turn means that we have to reckon with the extent to which we ourselves are complicit in perpetuating a double standard that requires something different of a female candidate than a male one.

And so we return to the novel’s title, which, with the upcoming midterm elections front of mind, gives us a preview of how we can expect the story to diverge from reality. The view of Charlotte Walsh’s interior life and sentiments that the reader is privy to would never be permissible for an actual candidate to share publicly. Piazza’s interviews with nearly 100 women politicians and campaign staffers informed her writing of Charlotte’s story. That a work of fiction may provide the most honest account we’re likely to see of what it’s like to be a female candidate says something about the outsize burden and unrealistic expectations that women running for office encounter—and have to overcome—just to get elected.

 

Jennifer Cestaro is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office. In their free time, Jen and her husband write book reviews for their blog, Between Two Covers.

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