As a result of last week’s election, the US Congress will now include exactly 100 women. Kelly Dittmar, in the Center for American Women and Politics’ (CAWP) “Footnotes” blog, puts this milestone into perspective: “We can all take a minute to celebrate this marker of women’s progress, and more importantly the women who’ve marked it, but let’s also note where 100 falls short and what we can do to move well beyond it in elections to come.”
In true CAWP fashion, Dittmar gives it to us by the numbers. Although there are a record-breaking 100 women in Congress, we only gained one woman. We still sit in just 18.7% of the seats. 100 is not a passing grade, she says.
But hey, 100 still feels great. It’s a nice round number. And women across the country are deservedly celebrating the moment. Here at VoteRunLead, we saw a real, tangible spike in our social media engagement when we posted a celebratory e-card “GIRLPOWER: First time 100 women in Congress.” It’s rejuvenating to celebrate electoral gains – no matter how slight the gain. However, if we want to celebrate larger gains for female political leadership in the next few years, and not just at the top of the ticket, we’ve got to get moving.
What’s holding us back?
The latest big-picture analysis of women’s political participation says the assumed barriers for women don’t stack up against the facts. Sexism, biased media coverage, parenthood, and a double standard for women still exist, but they aren’t holding back our win-rates or our impact. So, what is keeping women from running for office in larger numbers? Our ambition and our democratic system.
When it comes to ambition, it’s partially a problem of optics. Men see other men in government – from the time they are boys reading about the Founding Fathers to every vote they cast as adults – and have a much easier time self-identifying with politics as somewhere they belong.
We can do the same for women. The good news is ambition can be nurtured. We’ve all seen the power of encouragement in our lives. And we all have ambition. Girls especially have it. The recently released “Girls and Politics Pulse Poll” by the Girl Scout Research Institute found 67% of American Girls are interested in politics!
The other good news is that our democratic systems can change. The democratic process isn’t set in stone. Last Tuesday, women did well in cities where ranked choice voting was used (where you can vote for your 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice and not just one person only). There are a variety of reforms that can make our democracy more open to women and healthier for everyone – from campaign finance to party bylaws to ridding ourselves of gerrymandered districts (where district lines are drawn so that a majority of voters are of one party, thus making the seat “safe” for one party to win year after year).
How to grow numbers, faster.
As a practitioner, my mind goes immediately to “how?” – how do we build off of the research and facts to elect more women to office and double the number of women not just in Congress but in local offices all over the country? Here are five ways I believe we can help accelerate progress and see more women in power:
- Nurture ambition.
Let’s start by nurturing one another’s ambitions. This is something we as women are – broadly speaking – usually pretty good at. Encourage girls to think big and think about public leadership in their future; ask your friends to join you at a community event; send a training opportunity to a mom who you know would make a great school board leader; and invite lots and lots of women to consider themselves a part of the democracy. VoteRunLead offers many resources for nurturing women’s political leadership.
Don’t forget to nurture your own ambitions. Find out what’s happening in your community and where you can make an impact. We all have at least one issue that we care about deeply. Align your passion with a public office and make a plan to get there, because…
- Just run already.
Jump in. Stop waiting for the “right time” to present itself and get yourself on the ballot. More women are going to have to actualize their ambitions sooner rather than later if we want to stock the pipeline to federal office with more women leaders. (Luckily, between now and 2016 is a heck of a year to take that leap. More attention is being paid to women in political leadership than ever before.) Name your top issue and there is an elected – or at least appointed – government body that impacts it. Figure out which office that is for your issue and go for it. VoteRunLead has webinars, trainings and resources to help you plan your campaign.
And then the rest of us are just going to have to jump in — without ever having the personal drive for it (and sometimes in spite of our reluctance) — instead opting to lead motivated by the greater good, and because our passion won’t let us have it any other way. There are 500,000 elected local seats across this country. One of them is right for you.
- Use new tools.
Everyone now has a megaphone in our democracy: social media. It’s your new political best friend. Find your political issue tribe online and get into the conversation. A recent PEW study named young women 18-29 the power users of social media. It’s time we use it to build power. Share images of all-male meetings, councils or government bodies. Tweet at your political party when they don’t have women on the ballot or in their leadership. Spread the facts that come from CAWP and other think tanks. Share tools for gender parity from groups like Representation2020 and FairVote. Use your networks to tap new women to run. Head over to VoteRunLead and use our e-cards and meme generator to invite women to run for office.
- Spend political money.
Think of your recent political giving. Did you really give all that you could? How many of us gave $0 in political contributions this election cycle? Too many. Money fuels campaigns. And there is power in political giving. If we want more women elected to office, we must contribute more money to more of their campaigns. You can pave the path for female candidates in other ways, too. Become a monthly donor to your local political party. Get your name on those important fundraiser lists. Find your favorite nonprofit that works on women’s leadership and give another monthly gift. Whether it is $5 or $50, your money can change elections. Research from a Women’s Campaign Forum 2010 study found that “If women voters across parties give as little as $5 to one female candidate, it would be enough to run a female candidate in every House race with a budget of over $1 million each.” Whoa.
- Allow ourselves to disagree.
Ladies, it is possible – and actually quite healthy – to agree with one another on increasing women’s representation and still disagree over ideology and issues. After all, this is politics! Representative leadership (those who look like us) and policy-making leadership (those who think like us) both matter. We can all be for one woman’s ascendance – because it continues to normalize women as leaders (yes, something we are still battling) – while whole-heartedly opposing most of what she stands for. What we must not do is undercut each other’s right to be on the ballot or in office. Call out biased coverage of female leaders, even when you don’t like her politics. Fight sexist labels and jokes. Focus civic discourse on political agendas, not a politician’s gender. Only when we move beyond superficial attacks on any female political leader, will we each be able to elect more women who represent our own policy priorities.
VoteRunLead exists to unleash the power of women as leaders in our democracy. With your help – and your own candidacy – we will soon double 100 women. And that’s a milestone I can’t wait to celebrate! View this post on VoteRunLead’s website here.