On Your Marks, Get Set, RUN!

ID: photo of Siobhan Bennett of the Women's Campaign fund, which is trying to encourage more women to run for public office
Siobhan “Sam” Bennett of the Women’s Campaign Fund (niq77174 / Flickr)

Throughout the world, women hold–and have held–the titles of president and prime Minister; currently there are 19 women in the top seat of power, from Liberia to Germany to Trinidad to Iceland. Yet in the United States, we’ve still to see a woman at the very top.

And it’s not much better on the rungs below the U.S. presidency.  Making up more than half of the U.S. population, women represent only 17 percent of seats in Congress, 12 percent of the state governors and 23 percent of state legislators. We don’t match up very well with the rest of the world: The United States is 87th among nations in terms of the number of women in our national legislative body.

A large part of the problem of women’s underrepresentation in high political office is the lack of women entering the political pipeline. Allison Dunatchik, program director of the Washington D.C. non profit Running Start, explains:

Women run for office in far smaller numbers than men do in the U.S., and a large part of the reason [is] that women tend to see themselves as less qualified to run for office than similarly qualified men. Given these obstacles, it’s vital that this country turn its attention to young women, encouraging them to pursue public office.

Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president of the nonpartisan Women’s Campaign Fund, agrees that women need an extra boost:

It is difficult work getting women to run. Women need much higher levels of encouragement and support early on. We need to do things radically different to help more women run for office.

That’s why nonprofits such as Running Start and the Women’s Campaign Fund have created nonpartisan “ready to run” programs that prepare women for political involvement. Their activities include panel sessions, as well as speaking and writing opportunities. Two hundred thousand women have been reached so far through WCFs “She Should Run” initiative–and the numbers count. Says Bennett:

The goal for the Women’s Campaign Fund is to have 30 percent of congressional seats occupied by women in 2020. This means asking 10,000 women in the hopes that 1 will run for office. Women have to be asked by someone they trust in order to feel qualified to run.

When Running Start developed its first low-cost ready-to-run program, the number of applicants shocked the staff, Dunatchik recalls:

In the height of the political excitement that resulted from [Hillary Clinton’s run in] the 2008 presidential election, we received 30,000 applications for this program from girls from every imaginable background and from every corner of the country.

Running Start emerged in 2007 out of the nonpartisan Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. One of its political education programs, the Young Women’s Political Leadership (YWPL) program, based in Washington, D.C., teaches 50 high school girls at a time the basics of political involvement and how to become effective leaders. And the results are encouraging. Says Dunatchik:

In our recent alumnae survey, 65 percent of our respondents reported having run or planning to run for local, state or federal office. Seventy-two percent reported having run or planning to run for positions in their student government. Ninety-five percent reported having run for or planning to run for other leadership positions in their school, community or church. … Although some of these young women aren’t old enough to drive, let alone vote, they are already keenly aware of the issues plaguing their communities and they are hungry for a platform to make their voices heard.

Each year, hundreds of applicants vie for the 50 slots in the YWPL program, so it is now expanding beyond the east coast, with weekend regional programs in New York, Michigan and California. There’s also been some attention to diversity among attendees: In 2010, 45 percent of participants identified as Caucasian, 22 percent as African-American, 13 percent as Asian and 11 percent as Hispanic.

Running Start and the Women’s Campaign Fund aren’t the only efforts to boost women candidates for office. Others include:

  • Political Parity — whose goal is to double the number of women in high political office by 2022, exchanges strategies for doing so, engages donors and cultivates funders (though it doesn’t fund, endorse or train candidates itself).
  • Ready to Run: New Jersey — established by the Center for American Women and Politics, trains women how to become public figures, organize a campaign and meet the challenges of running for office.
  • Yale Women’s Campaign School — offers a weeklong immersion program referred to on their website as, “No spa, no shopping, no sightseeing–just politics,” that provides women with the intensive training necessary for political leadership.
  • Elect Women Magazine — an online, nonpartisan media site, offers networking opportunities, advice from current representatives and other campaigning tips.
  • Women, Politics and Media — teaches potential candidates how to create a “personalized media package” to enhance their public speaking, writing and campaigning skills.
  • Off the Sidelines — an awareness-raising program organized by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), motivates women to get “off the sidelines” and into policy decision-making positions. Gilibrand provides women with information and encourages them to take action through campaigning, volunteer work, mentorship and the like.
  • She Should Run — Led by Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, it provides information to inspire women to take the first steps in running for office.
  • Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics — Located within Chatham University, this nonpartisan center provides trainings and advocacy programs to give women the confidence to run.

Bennett is realistic about women’s political chances in the coming election cycle. She says:

This election year will not be the ‘Year of the Woman’. There isn’t a national spark to get women to run this year. But we do have organizations [ours and other ready-to-run organizations] to help motivate women in the future.

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Jessica Clem is a freelance writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. She holds a B.A. in English, and an M.S. in urban studies, and enjoys traveling, marathon running and the smell of a real book. When she is not eating, enjoying craft beer or running, she works as a producer and account executive for Omaha Video Solutions.She received a Bachelor's of Arts in English and Journalism from Nebraska Wesleyan University, as well as a Master's of Science in Urban Studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her interests include marathon running, international travel and reading. A long enthusiast of the magazine, she is thrilled to write for Ms. online.