EASTON, Md., February 16, 2011 — Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm about women running for office: “We [women] can either be at the table or on the menu.”
If nothing else, the events of the past few weeks have underscored the need for more women in both Houses of Congress. Even though women comprise nearly 51% of the population and 66% of women voted in 2008 as compared to only 62% of men, they had very few women to actually vote for.
America may toot its own horn of exceptionalism, but when it comes to women in elected office it is decidedly unexceptional. Dismal, in fact. Ninety countries have more women in their legislatures than does the U.S. Nations as diverse as Rwanda, Sweden, Nepal, and Iceland all have more women elected to represent them than we do. You would have to go into the Middle East to find numbers worse than ours.
Is it any wonder we have the kind of candidates we now see vying for the Republican nomination? Is it any surprise that our Congress, now dominated by a Right Wing agenda, constantly seeks ways to curb women rights from the definition of rape to contraception?
So if women could control the outcome of elections by their very numbers (and 73% of women are registered to vote), then why isn’t there a superabundance of women candidates? That was the very question that was asked in an American University study. This is what the researchers found:
“1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.
3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.
4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.
5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.
7. Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.”
So what’s to be done?
Start grooming and training women from the ground up to run for office: school board, town council, county commissions, and the state legislatures. Give them the support needed to campaign, win and sometimes lose, and then run again until they are ready for the challenge of a campaign for the Senate or the House.
Now there is a group that is doing just that, Emerge America. Their goal is to change the dynamics of women and politics, so that women start winning electoral contests at the grassroots level.
Begun in 2002 by women, Emerge America (http://www.emergeamerica.org/) has quickly become the premier training ground for Democratic women ready to join the fray. It is not easy and requires commitment, but then running for office is no picnic either. An often ignored or glossed over fact of political life is being a politician strains finances and family relationships. However, done right, getting elected as a woman also has the power to transform the political equation in this country.
The Emerge America program is like boot camp for candidates, accepting only applicants committed to run and thus graduating women ready to run. There is a big difference between talking over coffee about running and actually doing it. Many women dream of running and some dip their toes in the political waters only to find themselves thrashing about because they are literally over their heads.
What women need before becoming candidates is the nuts and bolts of running for office. Emerge America hones political skills in a program that “guides a diverse group of women through intensive candidate training.” That training runs for seven weekends for seven months straight, giving them the basics of fundraising, message development and delivery, ethics (yes, ethics), and a primer on how-to-be-a-candidate .
So how successful has Emerge been? Seven hundred women have gone through the program and 43% have run for office or been appointed to local boards or commissions. Of those running for elected office, 60% have won. What really helps is that once a woman graduates, there is a support system in place ready to help her along the way, including mentoring from Emerge Allies. Expanding across the country, Emerge America now has active programs in Arizona, California, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Now add Maryland to that list.
Early in February, answering a call from Maryland women, Emerge America hosted a grassroots fundraiser in neighboring Washington, D.C. and found it had obviously tapped into a real need by women. Very quickly the fundraiser was bursting at the seams with successful politicians like Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) running for Senate, and Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) who came to help and women who wanted to support other women start the climb up the political ladder.
Martha McKenna, a consultant with a Democratic media firm McKenna Pihlaja, based in Baltimore, says, “The time is right. Women are now headed to a different place. They know that women have to elect women.” The late Anne Richards, governor of Texas, once criticized women for not backing women candidates, noting that they “will spend $125 on a pair of shoes but won’t send a $125 check to a woman candidate.” That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.
McKenna should know. After a decade of work with EMILY’s List, McKenna next turned her talents to managing Senate campaigns for Democratic candidates as the Political Director at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee under Senators Chuck Schumer and then Bob Menendez before setting up her own consulting business. She knows what it takes to run and win, which is why she’s optimistic that Emerge Maryland will replicate the successes in other states.
She also pointed out that Emerge America is working closely with EMILY’s List which focuses on women running for the House, Senate, or governor’s mansion. But a candidate shouldn’t think of running for Congress if she hasn’t won races locally. That’s how a woman candidate builds her confidence and her credentials.
Obviously the transformation of the political landscape won’t happen overnight, but by building from the grassroots up, it ensures the change in the political climate will be broad, deep, and lasting. It took women nearly a century to win the right to vote. And it may now take a generation to move women into leadership. It’s about time.
To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in HYPERLINK “http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/ad-lib/”Ad Lib in the Communities at the Washington Times. She can also be heard on the HYPERLINK “http://www.americasdemocrats.org/”Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.
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