BACKTALK | summer 2005
1992 was a historic year in American politics. A record number of women decided to take the plunge and pursue careers in public service, and guess what? Many of them won! Twenty-four women were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and six women were elected to the last bastion of the “old boys’ network,” the U.S. Senate.
Today, women hold a record 80 seats in the House and Senate, but we shouldn’t be satisfied: That’s only 15 per cent of all congressional seats. Women do marginally better in state legislatures (22.5 percent of the seats), yet fewer women are running for state legislative office than did 13 years ago, and the percentage of women holding statewide elected office—such as governors, attorneys general and state treasurers—has dropped since 1999. The United States has the dubious distinction of being just 59th in the world in terms of women’s representation in government.
With election seasons on the horizon for 2006 and 2008, and recent polls indicating that more Americans are willing to elect women to higher office, it’s time to get busy recruiting more women to run. And that means getting more women engaged in politics—as voters, candidates and campaign operatives.
Politics has always been one of my passions. I’ll never forget the joy of my first political campaign, at the age of 9. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the grownups wanted to do something to continue his legacy of civil and voting rights. So, they started voter education and registration in my hometown of Kenner, La. I wanted to be a civil rights worker and this was an opportunity to sign up voters by going door to door.
We did not have computerized voter files or the “techno gizmo” gadgets, but we had a strong desire to improve conditions in our community. From sunrise to sunset, my recruits and I went from house to house to see if the grownups were registered to vote. By the time our mayoral and city council candidates (including a black woman) were elected, I was well on my way to a career in public service.
In 2006, it’s time to go knocking on doors to elect women. It’s time we release the women’s elevator of success that has been firmly stuck in the political lobby, time to permanently change the face of American politics.
My friend Paula Xanthopoulou, a savvy, courageous political consultant who was a leading strategist for Carol Moseley Braun (former presidential candidate and the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate) believes that “Every open seat is a woman’s seat.” I have a minor amendment: Every open seat should provide an opportunity for both major political parties to back strong women candidates.
If you want to be a candidate yourself, here’s a simple suggestion from Emerge (www.emerge.org), a political leadership training program for women in California: Start a club or join an existing network. Women are not like men; they do not self-nominate or feel comfortable being labeled as “ambitious.” It helps to be surrounded by a group of women who are interested in running themselves. Together, you can provide yourselves with the necessary skills, information and tools to allow you to become more confident to seek public office.
As voters, women must begin to realize the connection between politics and their lives—between politics and schools, politics and health care, politics and job creation. As an ancient Greek philosopher once said: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” It’s time we take an avid interest in politics to strengthen our democracy, protect the gains we have made and go the extra mile so our children will not have to continue fighting old, bitter, divisive battles.
2006 is our wake-up call. Are you ready to answer it?
For more information on running for office or supporting women candidates, visit the following websites:
National Women’s Political Caucus, www.nwpc.org; The Future PAC, www.thefuturepac.com; Center for Women and Politics, www.cawp.rutgers.edu; EMILY’s List, http://emilyslist.org; Women’s Campaign Fund, www.wcfonline.org; Business and Professional Women/USA, www.bpwusa.org; The WISH List, www.thewishlist.org.
Donna Brazile is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is also the author of Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).