Coalition-Building Is Key to Moving Women’s Political Leadership Forward

History has taught us: If we want equal representation for women in civic and political leadership, we must come together as a collective.

The Women’s Strike of August 1970 used bipartisan collective activism and shared goals to prompt the passage of Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. (Warren K. Leffler / Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Meaningful change happens when we can come together around a shared goal in order to move the needle on an important issue collectively. While individuals and individual organizations can work towards progress on their own, when we all unify as a coalition with a common purpose, we can have a much larger impact and effectuate real change.

In a report published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on the importance of collective impact, researchers found “that large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.” The case becomes even stronger when we are a cross-partisan coalition, bringing together groups from both sides of the aisle and the political spectrum towards a common goal. As we look at the path to reaching women’s equal representation in civic and political leadership, we need to focus on coming together as a collective to achieve real change.

Looking back at the history of major movements in the United States, we can see this in action.

Abolition and the ratification of the 15th Amendment took the coming together of civil rights and women’s rights activists to make change possible.

The fight for the 19th Amendment started in the 1840s, but didn’t gain momentum until the 1910s when a large national coalition garnered the traction it needed to push the amendment forward. The needle moved in 1919 because the disparate groups working on the issue ultimately convened around a larger goal. Political parties, such as the People’s Party, got involved, individual states worked to allow suffrage for women on varying levels, and finally, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party protested outside of the White House forcing President Woodrow Wilson’s hand and public support.

After the measure passed in Congress, the coalition turned to the states making sure that one by one they were able to get it ratified and added to the Constitution. It was the combination of a national movement coupled with strong on-the-ground support and activism in the individual states that finally got the 19th Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead
A 1963 procession for equal rights, integrated schools, fair housing, and an end to discrimination. (Warren K. Leffler / Picryl)

Looking at other major social movements in American history, we see this trend continue. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, including the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which finally gave all women, not just white women the ability to vote, was only possible because of the large coalition of diverse groups working to move it forward. The March on Selma is seen as a critical shift in securing the VRA, because of the coming together of over 25,000 individuals, from different groups and organizations, which brought it to the center of national news. Organizations combining their resources, coupled with grassroots groups of individuals in each state is what allowed the civil rights movement to achieve its collective goals.

The same can be said for the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. A turning point in that movement was the collective action of the Women’s Strike of August 1970, when the different organizations came together uniting under three main goals and over 50,000 women showed up and marched in New York City. New-wave feminists joined forces with those of older generations fighting for great equality for women in access to education and the economy. Their activism and shared goals led to the passage of Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions.

However, when we look at the progress that has been made over the last 100 years for women’s political representation since the ratification of the 19th Amendment—and even in the last 50 years since the women’s movement of the 1970s—we can see that while more women vote, they still do not have anywhere close to parity when it comes representation in elected and appointed office. Today women represent only 28 percent of congressional representatives, 24 percent of senators and only 18 percent of governors. We are the closest to equality we’ve ever been in presidential level appointments, with women filling 12 of President Biden’s 25 cabinet positions. Unfortunately with the trajectory we are on, it will be another 100 years before we get close to equal representation in our elected and appointed officials.

We are at a pivotal moment where we need to move towards greater equality more rapidly, so the path to gender parity in civic and political leadership is not 200 years long.

So how do we move forward? We look towards history and recognize the need to do so as a collective—a coalition—of diverse and sometimes seemingly competing interests, to work towards the shared goal of more women in elected and appointed office. This isn’t a goal we can achieve in silos or one that can be only looked at through a Democrat or Republican women-only lens. We need to come together to look at increasing the pipeline of women interested and ready to serve, then work together to break down structural and cultural barriers that stand in their way.

The Brookings Institute recently published an article where they pointed to “a new push toward gender equality requires changes in both institutional policies (by employers or government) and culture (values, beliefs and preferences).” Right now there are many groups working in this space and making amazing progress; whether it’s training thousands of women how to run for office or working to break down barriers like getting campaign funds to cover childcare, but the power to effectuate faster, larger scale change comes when we work together as a collective. In working together, we can multiply our impact, share resources and play to our relative strengths so that all of our individual organizations are working together in unison towards our shared goal instead of competing for resources or duplicating efforts.

At this critical juncture, I hope you’ll join me in moving beyond partisan politics and individual missions to achieve our collective goal of increasing the number of women in elected and appointed positions across the country, and bringing our country closer to a representative democracy. We can only do this if we work together.

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Tiffany Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS. ReflectUS is a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.