bSMART Guide

At age 28 Krystal Ball was the Democratic Nominee for U.S. Congress in the 1st district of Virginia. If elected she would have been the first woman under 30 to serve in Congress in our nation’s history. Forbes named Krystal as one of ‘The Top 25 Most Powerful Women Of The Midterm Elections’ in 2010. Krystal is now a democratic strategist and co-host of MSNBC’s ensemble show The Cycle, which airs weekdays at 3:00 PM EST. 


Getting to the place where we can see ourselves as candidates is critical to take the next step and run.


Women In Politics

What motivated you to run for Congress at age 28 and as a new mother?
Deciding to run for Congress at that age is statistically improbable. Few women serve in Congress; even fewer young women serve.  It was an unusual decision for me to become a woman in politics because I had never even worked on a campaign.
My daughter was born the day before the presidential primary in 2008.  Her being born at that moment, combined with the shift that you naturally feel when you become a mother, led me to think about the country I’m going to pass forward to my child.  I started noticing little things, like I went to the store to buy my daughter a baby bottle and had to be educated not to buy the one that contained toxic BPA.  I thought, 'How could our government have failed us that they would allow this toxic substance to remain in bottles for babies?'
My husband got fed up with me complaining about these things, and said, 'Why don’t you do something?  Why don’t you run for Congress? You’ll regret it if you don’t give it a shot.'  And that was the moment when I said, 'All right. I’ll try.  What’s the worse that can happen?'
What were the challenges you faced being a wife, mother, and woman in her 20s running for Congress?
Before running, most of my social interactions had been gender neutral.  I didn’t feel like I had been held back in any way because I was a woman or because I was pregnant.  But, politics is still a man’s world.  Women leaders represent 19% of the 113th United States Congress, and at the time I ran, it was only 17%.
There was a man in our area who was knowledgeable and was supposed to be able to help me with my own campaign strategy.  The only advice he ultimately gave me was, 'Cut your hair and stop talking about your kid.'  That was his sage wisdom for me, a woman, running for office.
There were other moments like that. I had people tell me flat out they wouldn’t vote for me because they thought I should be at home with my kids.  Plenty of other people were well meaning, but would ask the question that no male politician ever gets asked, ‘How are you going to take care of your child when you’re in Washington?’  Those are the things that impact public perception of your candidacy.

Grey.Line.7 Women represent 19% of the 113th United States Congress, and at the time I ran, it was only 17%.


Why do you think there are so few women (and young women) in Congress? 

When women are asked the reason why they don’t run for office, the most common answer is because they’re concerned about the way the media will portray them. I think this assumption is because we set unrealistic standards for ourselves and think we have to be Hillary Clinton before we can run for public office. The men aren’t like that. They don’t show up day one perfectly prepared.

I also think women aren’t mentored and encouraged to run for office the way men are. If a woman is asked to run, like I was asked to run by my husband, they’re much more likely to see themselves as a candidate and believe they can do it. Getting to the place where we can see ourselves as candidates, as women leaders, is critical in order to take the next step and actually run. 

What role can women have in politics? 

We’re lacking young women in Congress and Congress is a place where seniority counts. The number of years you serve helps you rise up the ladder to be the committee chairwomen. Young men start their political careers early, accumulating years in leadership. Women need to start their political careers early too.

A lot of women wait until their kids are out of high school, or out of college before they step into the political fray. It’s really important we have some women start their political careers early, who are serving with young kids, because they bring that fresh perspective to policy making. It’s also valuable for single women and women without children to run for Congress so their unique perspective, that is almost wholly lacking in Washington right now, gains attention. 

What are the policies you believe young women in Congress could impact the most?
We’re currently having a national dialogue about women in the workplace. We have to make sure we’re fully utilizing over half of our population, but our policies aren’t in place to do that.  More affordable childcare and increased tax credits for childcare would help in retaining talented mothers in the workplace.


Young men start their political careers early accumulating years in leadership. Women need to start their political careers early too.


What are three things every young woman needs to know about politics today?
1) Know the numbers.  It’s important to know how little representation young women in politics have in Washington.
2) Recognize your power.  It’s easy to feel like the only ones with the power are the ones with the money and connections. That’s not true. There’s a lot you can do via social media.
For example, when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a prostitute for testifying she thought birth control should be covered under health care reform, I was, as many people were, outraged.  I immediately went on twitter and started talking about it and started a petition that in 24 hours had over a hundred thousand signatures. Because of raised awareness, Rush had hundreds of sponsors who dropped his program and he was forced to apologize.  It sparked a national debate about what was appropriate in our public discourse and about the policy itself. 

3) See yourself as an active part of this country.  You are as important to the country as anyone else here. Don’t limit yourself to the sidelines.

How were you able to personally and politically comeback from this attempted smear campaign? Did you feel like giving up with all of the negative press?
I never felt like giving up, but it was a hard time for me. I’d spent so much time building up this credible campaign, and as a young woman in politics, it was harder to be taken seriously as a candidate. It felt like everything I’d worked for was crumbling around me.

I talked to Siobhan Bennett of the Woman’s Campaign Fund, who’d also run for Congress. I was crying and I asked her what I should do. Her organization had just conducted research about how women should respond to sexist attacks. The conventional wisdom in politics is to ignore it, but she said I couldn’t do that. I had to call this out and use the S-word; say it was 'sexist' and not apologize but say, ‘This is not what people want to focus on. These are not the issues that people care about.’ Then pivot to talk about the important issues people should be thinking about.

That night, I went on camera and called out the actions as sexist. I was thinking less about what impact it would have on election day and more about what other women leaders, young people in general, would see in this moment. I didn’t want them to see someone who was cowed by this. I wanted them to know if they had some stupid party photos, (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) that they could still run for office, and not be ashamed or afraid. Because there was such a media buzz, it increased my name recognition. It wasn’t enough to overcome a tough district in a tough year, but they didn't force me to quit.    

Embracing fear of failure and not letting it stop you or hold you back is one of the most important keys for success.


In what ways does female sexuality help or hinder women as they pursue leadership roles in the private and public sectors? What can women do (or not do) to be equally attractive and effective as leaders?
As long as women have tried to achieve anything, people have tried to undermine them by calling them sluts and whores. Before I had a single campaign ad or made a stump speech, there were assumptions made about me.  I was called an airhead.  The release of the photos was an attempt to paint me as a slut, someone who couldn’t possibly be taken seriously for public office.  I think this is still a big issue for women in politics and in other industries. 

Television Career

How has co-hosting The Cycle allowed you to continue to have a political platform and share your voice to create change in government?
I feel it’s a tremendous blessing to be able to talk about issues I think are important for the growth of our country. I’ve had people say to me, ‘You are actually in a better position now then you would’ve been as a freshman member of Congress.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I feel awfully lucky to have the chance that I do.
What legacy do you hope to create through your interviews and features on The Cycle?
I hope we shift the conversation a little bit: bring up issues that people aren’t talking about and angles people haven’t thought through. It’s a modest goal, but it’s important. That's what I hope I do - maybe inspire a few people to take action.

Marriage & Motherhood 

How did becoming a mother change you?
Becoming a mother made me feel like I cannot afford to sit back and let the world happen to me. I need to be active. One of the hardest parts of my campaign was the time that I spent away from my daughter.  I had all kinds of feelings of guilt, even though I was doing something I believed in and was ultimately for her. Ella is five-years-old now and she's a totally well-adjusted, great kid. Some of the guilt that we put on ourselves comes from trying to live up to expectations that have been set by someone else.  I’ve been trying to let go of some of that guilt even though it’s a hard thing to do.
How did your husband support your campaign and move to co-host on TV?
I am so lucky to have the husband I do!  I was terrified to run for Congress and become a woman in politics. He’s the one who kept encouraging me and had to make real trade offs. He loves being an entrepreneur, but while I was running for Congress and while I was getting set up here in New York, gaining my footing in the media world, he went back to legal work, which is not his passion. He’s made a lot of sacrifices and I’m delighted that now we’re in a place where he can go back to the things that he loves.
What do you want bSmart members to know about your story that would help them bSmart too?
When we see women in politics or otherwise, incredible women leaders, like Hillary Clinton, and think they came out of the womb ready to run for president and are fully prepared at all times, and have never failed; It’s not true.  There’s actually more growth in set-backs and failing. Embracing fear of failure and not letting it stop you or hold you back is one of the most important keys for success.

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