Women are running for office in unprecedented numbers, but 2018 is shaping up to be far more than just another Year of the Woman. We can transform this wave of enthusiasm into lasting change—not only in the number of women in office but in the kind of political leaders that we elect—by ensuring that strong, connected and resourceful political networks for women remain in place far after the midterms are over.
I’m an international gender expert who has researched women’s political participation extensively, including reviewing over 90 academic articles and interviewing over 50 women actively engaged in the political field in 22 countries across five continents. My research has shown that when women from civil society, political parties and caucuses organize through formal or informal networks, they achieve three important goals: encouraging more women to run for office and supporting them get elected (parity); enhancing women’s ability to be effective policy-makers (good governance); and ensuring that the political agenda of female legislators takes gender equality into account.
We’ve seen this in real-time. Women’s networks like Emerge, Running Start, Emily’s List, the Women’s Democracy Network and IGNITE have an incredibly important role to play in providing the encouragement, validation and role models that women and girls need to consider pursuing political careers. These networks also provide female political aspirants with the training, coaching, mentoring and networking opportunities that they need to advance those careers.
But this phenomena isn’t just local. It’s a global movement—and it’s one with global impact. “Being part of a network focusing on women’s leadership,” Kah Walla, the first woman to run for president in Cameroon, explained, “contributed tremendously to my confidence in running for president. Networks that I am part of have then invited me to speak about my experience to other women, which in turn gave courage to many more women to become politically engaged.”
Women’s networks are not only important in getting more women into office, but also in building effective leadership in public service. Networks train female political aspirants so that once in office they are able to navigate more effectively the hurdles and demands of the job and effectively pass legislation that benefits their constituencies, despite being a minority and often new to formal political life.
Groups like Bancada Femenina in the Uruguayan Parliament, Women Can Do It of the Norwegian Labour Party and the Forum of Women Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union provide a unique space for female legislators to exchange experiences, ideas and strategies and learn to reach across party lines to other women to multiply their impact and navigate the double-binds inherent with being a woman in power.
Anita Perez Ferguson, former President of the National Women’s Political Caucus and White House Liaison to the U.S. Department of Transportation, observed that “women who had been in networks were much more able to accomplish [and] understand policy changes,” “had deeper levels of conversation, were more open to different approaches, had a greater comfort level and a strengthened ability to function further in their political careers.”
In short: “They were better equipped.”
Even more importantly, women’s networks are propellers of policy change and lasting good governance. In their 2001 book Fast Forward, Melanne Verveer and Kim Azzarelli found “connecting with others” to be absolutely essential in unlocking women’s potential. It is through connections that women discover their power and purpose, as well as find the strength and validation to define and pursue their vision.
Often, women who rise to higher offices after being active in women’s networks report that experience working within a network was instrumental in ensuring that women’s rights and gender equality were front and central in policymaking. “Having been a part of a women’s network and having gotten that support from your fellow women,” Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi and longtime women’s rights activist, explained, “when you get into office you will have greater political will to advance the position of women.”
Women’s networks don’t just help female legislators make better policies for gender equality—they help them get re-elected. Such networks support individual women as they rise to power and connect them with new constituencies and collectively shape and inform their identities and agendas as political leaders.
“All the women from the progressive parties that stayed long in politics, surviving the pressure of the political life and working on issues of violence, sexual rights and care in Southern and Eastern Europe,” Sonja Lokar, member parliament in Slovenia from 1986 to 1992 and Executive Director of the CEE Network for Gender Issues since 1998, told me in a personal interview, “were brought up through the women’s network. The others came, stayed for a mandate and disappeared.”
It is because of their catalyst effect and transformational power that women’s networks play pivotal roles not only in achieving parity globally, but in promoting good governance and more gender equal societies. The United States is no exception.
“I believe women’s networks are invaluable in providing female political aspirants with the tools they need to get elected, despite the many hurdles in their paths,” said Melanne Verveer—Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Board member of the Women In Public Service Project and first ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the Department of State. “Women’s networks also make an enormous difference in enabling female legislators to meet across party lines, share experiences and tools on how to successfully advance gender equality policies. In order to make significant progress on women’s political empowerment, we need a lot more of such networks.”