Opinion

Semler: Voter education campaign teaches a lesson about more than just voting

By October 7, 2020 No Comments

Jessica Semler’s #nonakedballots campaign photo. (Photo: Jackie Cameron)

By Jess Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Jessica@pittsburghcurrent.com

The #NoNakedBallots campaign, spearheaded by Allegheny County Councilwoman At-Large Bethany Hallam, has garnered national attention. Covered in The Guardian, People Magazine, and Fox News, some of our most badass local elected officials, including yours truly, posed “topless” with Official Election Ballots as censors covering their chests to raise awareness that mail-in ballots in PA missing their secrecy envelope will NOT be counted. 

I got on board with the campaign through this brief text exchange with Bethany: 

Bethany: I’m coordinating an ad campaign of naked elected officials. To remind people not to submit naked ballots. You in?

Me: Are you serious? Because I am IN.

Bethany: I am 100% serious. 

Me: *sends a gif from the movie Orange County of Jack Black saying “You want me to get naked and start the revolution?”

Two days later I was getting my photo taken in my strapless bra and gym shorts. This was not a Vogue photoshoot. There was no photoshopping, no over-the-top glamour expected of us. Our instruction from Bethany was to come as we were, whatever that looked like. For some folks that meant no makeup. For me, that meant makeup and a flower in my hair. Because what is that saying? “You’re never fully dressed (or undressed) without a fascinator!” Yes, that’s exactly how that goes. 

Some folks may wonder why I, an elected official, was so quick to strip and show my skin to so many people. I was eager to jump in for two reasons: 

  1. This “naked ballot” business is a big fucking deal! Votes without the secrecy ballot will NOT be counted. In the 2019 General Election in PA, 6% of the absentee ballots received were missing secrecy envelopes. Extrapolate that to the number of mail-in ballots received for the 2020 General Election, and up to 100,000 PA votes could be invalidated. Trump won PA in 2016 by less than 44,000 votes! 
  2. I knew immediately that this campaign would spark conversations about the automatic assumed sexualization of women’s bodies, and expectations for women as public figures, and I am ALL about that dialogue.

Part of the reason I ran for office in the first place was to challenge ideas about what a politician “looks like.” Like all of the women pictured in this campaign, I have a big ole brain that I use to make and change policy and impact people’s lives through my work. I also inhabit a woman’s body. Women’s bodies are forever political battlegrounds. In so many ways in our society, we are taught that our bodies are not our own. Our very personal healthcare decisions are debated and legislated. Our treatment as victims of sexual assault from perpetrators, the justice system, and onlookers often only recognizes a specific brand of victimhood. The expectation to stuff our bodies into Iron Maidens of unrealistic, unhealthy beauty ideals  lead to shame and disappointment. Women are reduced to just their bodies in so many ways as a means to an end for other forces. This campaign turns that notion on its head, and says, actually, our bodies are ours, and they are powerful. 

The responses I’ve seen from this campaign are overwhelmingly positive. Folks are definitely talking a lot about naked ballots now, and we were able to spark this important conversation in a cheeky way, all while showing no more than you’d see from someone at a family pool party (pre-COVID, of course).

What I’ve noticed about the negative reactions, is that they say more about the folks looking at our campaign than about us. Kind of like knowing that dudes that wore Ed Hardy shirts or popped collar polos didn’t know or care to find the clitoris, the reactions to our #NoNakedBallots campaign is like a Rorschach Test to see how sexist and puritanical one’s views on women are.

For example, former Congressman Keith Rothfus called our images “vulgar.” I’m thankful this man, scandalized by my bare shoulders, is no longer in a position to continue to vote down funding for access to breast and cervical cancer screenings, prenatal care, and access to contraceptives. People like Rothfus don’t believe that women’s bodies are really ours, so exerting this agency over ourselves was really uncomfortable for him.

Some people said that by showing skin, we were degrading the offices we hold. These folks feel uncomfortable when women are more than one thing. I can’t stand Kim Kardashian, but I was irate on her behalf when folks were mad at her post-childbirth nudes because “she’s a mother now.” LOL yeah guys, do you know how most folks reproduce to become mothers? Women are multifaceted beings. 

Folks still stuck in the Madonna-Whore Complex are going to have a hell of a time accepting that women can be more than romantic partners or sexual partners. We are in positions of political power too. These people are automatically equating bare skin with titillation. If you are someone who only sees women as sexual beings, of course this campaign makes you uncomfortable. Take Vice President Mike Pence, who says he won’t be alone with any woman except for his wife. This isn’t a sign of respect for women; it’s signaling that, to Pence, all women are first and foremost potential sexual partners. 

This experience reminded me of a moment I had in college that sparked my awareness that being proud of my body might impact the way my mind was perceived. I had approached one of my favorite professors about my interest in pinup modeling, and part of her advice was that “Life is long. What if you want to run for office someday?” I did the damn pinup modeling, and I had a great time. Years later, I’m now an elected official, I’m getting stuff done in my community, and I’m still inhabiting this body. 

I reject the idea that being proud of my body is inherently exploitative or sexist. My brain is part of me, so is my body, and the way I choose to present both to the world. I’m grateful that the #NoNakedBallots campaign is shedding light on an issue that could make or break the election results in PA while also subverting expectations around gender. I’m happy that I stripped down so other Pennsylvanians don’t get stripped of having their votes counted. Our democracy is in such a fragile state, and we all need to have skin in the game.  

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