When Angenie McCleary was appointed as a Blaine County Commissioner at 31, making her the youngest-ever commissioner in the county, she was well aware that her age—and her gender—made her an unusual pick for the position.
At the time, McCleary saw being a young woman seeking office as “a real asset” that would set her apart in a field largely occupied by older men.
“Going in at 31, I think I was a little more naïve about some things in the world,” McCleary recalled in a recent interview with the Idaho Mountain Express.
Twelve years later, McCleary says, she still sees being a younger woman as “more a positive than a negative.” But she’s also experienced some unanticipated challenges tied to her age and gender in the years since she first took public office.
The road to commissioner
McCleary first stepped into her current role as commissioner in 2008, when she was appointed by the governor to fill the seat vacated by retiring commissioner Sarah Michael. She had thought for years that she might run for the board of county commissioners someday, but had always assumed that “someday” would be farther off—the second act, perhaps, of a career in nonprofits and social work. She threw her hat in the ring, not fully expecting to win the appointment over other more experienced candidates in the running. She won.
“It was much different from getting elected, but it was very political,” McCleary recalled. “I felt like, at the time, that being female helped me, because people want diversity.”
A native of Baltimore who lived in Portland for many years, McCleary first moved to the Wood River Valley in 1999 after earning a pre-med degree from Middlebury College. Her move to the valley was meant to be temporary: a chance to consider medical school applications while training as a runner at high altitude.
After a year of working in service jobs—including a waitressing position at Ketchum’s Pioneer Saloon—she decided to stay in the valley. She took an AmeriCorps position working with teens and young people to address risk-taking behaviors and, after five years, enrolled in a graduate program in social work and policy at the University of Washington, with an eye toward someday joining the Blaine County commissioners.
While in grad school, McCleary worked for Washington state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, where she received hands-on experience in applying her knowledge of social work to broader policy issues. She returned to the Wood River Valley after earning her degree and took a position in social work before entering politics. She considers her work on the board a continuation, not a disruption, of her career in social work.
“I certainly consider, as a county commissioner, that I am a social worker,” McCleary said. “But I think, for the general population, they don’t really think of social workers in politics.”
When she first took public office in her early thirties, McCleary said, she found herself on the receiving end of “a lot of pressure and a lot of really inappropriate questions” from acquaintances regarding her career and her potential future family. At events, she was often asked by the wives of older male politicians why she didn’t yet have children and how she planned to keep working if she did eventually have them.
“There was no one saying to any of the men who were county commissioners, ‘How do you do this?’” she recalled.
Eventually, when she entered her mid-thirties, the questions stopped. Today, she’s the mother of a baby boy, and everyone has been “super encouraging.”
“I feel like people sort of got over that issue,” she said.
But other gender-based challenges, in no way unique to McCleary, have followed her over the course of her career. In larger meetings with officials from across the state, she said, there’s sometimes a sense that she’s not being closely listened to or taken seriously; it’s not uncommon for a man to repeat an idea she’s stated earlier on in a meeting claiming it as his own.
“Usually I don’t care, and I just sort of laugh, but when it happens over and over again it gets frustrating,” McCleary said.
As a matter of strategy, she said, the Blaine commissioners will sometimes agree to send one of the two male commissioners rather than McCleary to speak with state legislators or commissioners from other parts of the state.
“Frankly, as a female, I’m not going to be taken as seriously [by other public officials outside of Blaine County],” McCleary said. “I think it’s important that we recognize that if you have a male voice, you might be better received in Idaho.”
A double standard
Serving in office as a woman has also meant being doubly conscious of keeping her emotions in check in public settings, McCleary said.
“When I get angry, I seem like I’m more emotional,” McCleary said. “That’s perceived as a real weakness, and I have received the most criticism over that.”
On the few occasions McCleary can remember when she’s grown visibly angry while discussing issues she’s passionate about, she’s received calls from people after the meeting chastising her for becoming emotional, she said. When she can, McCleary now excuses herself from the room if she feels herself getting noticeably upset in a professional setting.
She views her experience as part of a larger double standard in how the reactions of female and male politicians are perceived.
“It’s really frustrating, because I’ve observed other men who are politicians who have thrown fits,” McCleary said. “They’ve thrown things, they’ve yelled, they’ve sworn, they’ve had temper tantrums like a two-year-old. And afterward people might be like, ‘Did you see what they did?’ But then they drop it ten seconds later.
“Obviously, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get upset in a public meeting,” she continued. “I think if we could all be really calm all the time, that would be best. But I don’t think there’s as much tolerance for women exhibiting bad behavior or showing emotion.”
Making a difference
Before taking the job with Dickerson in Washington, McCleary remembers, she was warned that her “extremely demanding” boss—whom she now considers one of her most influential role models—would be “really hard to work for.”
That reputation, McCleary believes, is why Dickerson was “so effective” at her job: “People took her seriously.”
Looking up to Dickerson hasn’t meant doing things exactly her way, though.
“I don’t have that kind of personality,” McCleary said. “I think I can be very strong, but I wouldn’t think of myself as an aggressive person.
“It’s been interesting for me in politics to kind of do things my own way,” she continued. “It’s looking to those role models and figuring out how I can have that same sort of effect and actually accomplish things, but maybe I don’t have to be so aggressive.”
Staying true to her own personality—and perhaps, in some ways, being a woman—has benefited her over the years, McCleary believes. For instance, she said, she’s “had an easier time bringing people together and not being as divisive [as some male politicians],” a strategy that’s proven productive throughout her tenure as commissioner.
“At the end of the day, I think that overrides being in a room where people don’t always listen all the time,” McCleary said. “I’d rather feel like I was doing a good job and fostering positive change than getting recognized at a meeting.”
McCleary isn’t sure how long she’ll remain in her current role as commissioner, but in the meantime, she hopes she can help encourage and promote other young people, and especially young women, who want to run for public office in the Wood River Valley.
“It’s hard to be taken seriously sometimes as a young person, or to feel like you’re being taken seriously,” McCleary said. “[I want to do] anything I can do to help change that paradigm, so young people are getting involved in their community and feel like they can make a difference.”