Growing up as part of a big Italian family in New Jersey, Patricia Russo, executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, first wanted to become a nun. “That was my calling,” she said. “But then, of course, puberty hit, and that was the end of that.”
The 2018 midterm elections saw historic numbers of women elected in state and national races. Part of that can be attributed to Russo, who—while not a nun—still credits her family as a source of career inspiration. Her mother was loving and nurturing, the type to whip up a lasagna after school for the neighborhood kids. Her intellectual father was a politically active Democrat.
“I think the combination is really what got me involved,” she said. “I remember him marching against the Vietnam War every weekend, and I remember saying to him one weekend, ‘I want to go with you.’”
As a teen surrounded by a political activism (in the 1960s? 70?s), caring for others amid the burgeoning women’s movement, something clicked. Russo began working for a local politician and majored in political science at George Washington University. As part of her studies, she interned for feminist leader and congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), who wore big hats and stood aside for no one.
“[Bella] was this bombastic, brilliant lawyer,” Russo said. “So many of the rights that women enjoy today were thanks to the leadership of Bella.”
Russo briefly left school to work on Abzug’s Senate campaign against Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Abzug lost and Russo returned to school, but the experience cemented her fervor for feminist politics.
After graduating in 19xx, she continued working with female politicians, eventually leading the Connecticut Commission on the Status of Women. She recalled 1992—the year of the woman—as an exciting time expected to level the playing field, only to be disappointed.
“It was like a blip,” she said. “It was like a moment in time and there were no coattails.”
When enthusiasm for female candidates stagnated, Russo, along with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT), wrote a memo on a campaign school for women and delivered it to the dean of Yale Law School. He gave the school one year. It’s been around for 24.
The non-partisan, five-day, intensive training program has educated hundreds of women interested in elected office, campaign management and political appointment. Notable alumni include Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL), who recently unseated a four-term incumbent.
While the school has its high points, Russo sometimes becomes discouraged by the state of female leadership. She received an onslaught of phone calls about the school following the 2016 Women’s March. When she started calling the women back, she found one-third weren’t registered to vote and one-third were registered, but hadn’t voted. “The Italian veins were popping out of my head,” she said.
Still the school received double the applications for its 80 slots in 2018. And, since the 2018 midterm elections, she’s already received 100 emails or calls from prospective students. This time, she said, it doesn’t feel like just another blip. The school recently added a one-day basics program to accommodate the influx of interest. More than 2,000 women have attended the dozen sessions, with five more planned.
Through the program, Russo wants to change the trajectory of politics, as well. The participants’ median age is 29 to early 30s and the majority are women of color. The program centers on activities that create bonds and teach women to work across the aisle. At night, participants break into small teams for a case study project. Democrats, Republicans, Independents and everyone in between work on teams together.
“It becomes less about partisanship and it becomes more about, “Gee, when we make our presentation Friday in front of a Democrat and Republican judge, I want our group to win,” Russo said. “It shifts it completely.”
Russo lives near the school in New Haven, Connecticut with her husband of 38 years. [name, profession?] She practices what she calls “extreme self care,” meditating twice a day, attending water aerobics and making time for enough sleep, water and friends. She acknowledges it’s not easy to fit everything into a busy day, but that being fully present in her work begins with taking care of herself.
Russo also practices care of other women, talking to any woman interested in running for office and keeping tabs on those who have gone through her program. When she’s traveling, she’ll shoot a note to any alumni in the area—focusing, as usual, on offering support. “[I’ll say] ‘If you’ve got good news, I’d love to see you. If you’re floundering, if you’re in trouble, I need to see you,’” she said.
Reflecting on her full schedule, Russo recalled a conversation she once had with her mother who told her that, although Russo didn’t become a nun, her work is still of service. Russo had to agree. “I just love my life,” she said. “I know I sound so corny, but honey, I love my life.”
Other stories by Miriam Finder Annenberg