Women, run for office! Please!
It’s a call I issue probably every day, but never has the need struck me as badly as it did yesterday, when I listened to a panel on women in politics at Netroots Nation in Las Vegas. Moderated by Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the panel was a wonderful mix of candidate, pundit, blogger, policy maker and fundraiser, all discussing the advantages that women bring to the political sphere, and to creating a progressive country.
Feldt began by throwing out some startling statistics. Women account for 51% of the population, and a full 60% of the Democratic vote. Yet even with those massive numbers, they hold only 17% of the seats in congress, and account for only 7% of the mayors of major cities. However, the women who do get elected are predominately progressive: 77% of the the women in congress are Democrat, as well as 69% of the women in state legislatures.
In other words, when women get elected, progressive power grows.
Barbara Lee, the founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which helps women run for office, especially for governorships, pointed out that although women have grown in the political realm, there is still a great deal that needs to be done. “When I first started in 1998, there had only been 16 female governors,” said Lee. “Now there have been 31. But compared to 2317 total governors, that’s still not enough. The governor is the pipeline to the presidency, and we need to get more women in it.”
“The irony is, people find women governors more likable and fair,” Lee said. “They are perceived as better at standing up to special interests. But voters are much harder on women candidates. I call it the ‘hair, hemline, and husbands’ questions.”
Roxanne Conlin can speak to that personally. Running against sitting U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley in Iowa, the Democratic woman remembered her time running for the party endorsement for governor of the state. “I was in an extremely tough three-way campaign,” she said. “The next day, after I won, an Iowa newspaper ran a story on the 10 hairstyles I had worn throughout my life.”
Sadly, things haven’t progressed too far in the 37 years since that campaign, according to Conlin. “Just last week, a prominent Republican blogger in Iowa wrote an entire piece about my breasts. With pictures.”
“We have made progress,” said Conlin. “There’s not a question. But are we there yet? No.”
Currently, Iowa is one of the two states that has yet to elect a woman to higher office, either governor nor congress (the other is Mississippi). When women in a focus group were told that fact, they became practically unwavering in their support for her. “There was nothing that could be said about me that could sway their support for me,” Conlin said, saying they tested phrases like “Roxanne Conlin has a huge house,” and other potential biasing factors. “We could have said ‘Roxanne Conlin committed murder,’ and they would have responded, ‘Well, she must have had a good reason for it!’” Conlin laughed.
“I have not actually committed murder,” she then added, deadpan. “Just so we’re clear.”
Conlin may not have seen a lot of recent change for women running for office, but blogger Pam Spaulding has. Pam, the prolific author of Pam’s House Blend, a staple for politics and GLBT issues, remembered a candidate she became close to during the 2006 election. Patricia Todd was the first open lesbian to run for office in the state of Alabama. She was told how to dress, how to wear her hair so she wouldn’t “look too butch.” Todd won by focusing her campaign on the key issue of poverty. When she entered the legislature, she had other officials who refused to even sit next to her due to her sexual orientation.
This year, Todd was named legislator of the year, nominated and supported by the other state legislators. She ran again for reelection. This time, she was unopposed.
So how do we motivate more women into running, and help women candidates win? Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino explained to the audience that we need to reach out to people beyond the usual demographics and find issues that cross just gender lines, using the Latino vote as an example. “Latinos are younger on average than the general population, and increasingly progressive.” Family issues resonate with the community, because immigration and racial issues are also economic justice issues. “You are talking about providing for and potentially splitting up families,” said Kumar.
Another powerful block of voters are the mothers, according to Joanne Bamberger, aka Pundit Mom. Women, especially mothers, represent a huge untapped network for campaigns and advocacy. “Women are the majority of the country. 80% of women will become mothers by the time they are 40, either via birth or adoption. 70% of facebook users are women. Over half of the twitter users are women, and the bulk of women online are over the age of 35. Put those numbers together.”
That is why it is especially important to reach out to women, and especially moms for support for candidates and social causes. “Marketers reach out to moms online,” noted Bamberger. “Why are politicians not making that connection?”
In continuing to bring more women into leadership, the panel recommended working to increase the pool of women politicians, especially reaching out to younger women and people of color. The online media also needs to be better engaged, especially when it comes to defending the women who are running against attacks from opponents and their surrogates, especially when it comes to gender-based assaults. “Male candidates are increasingly using female surrogates and voiceovers to attack women candidates,” said Lee.
We also as a gender need to try harder to support other female candidates. “Women aren’t any less likely to support another woman candidate,” said Feldt. “It’s the media who has invented the idea of the ‘cat fight.’”
Eventually, as support for female candidates grow, it will be easier to convince more women to run for office as well, changing the body of the legislature.
“It will be better for everyone in the country when they realize that leadership can come with breasts,” quipped Feldt.
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