Show Me Commitment to Women in Political Leadership

Republished from The Missouri Times

Missouri women have recently gained traction in political representation, but these advances have still left Missouri women far from equal representation. In fact, over the past 20 years, Missouri women have accounted for only 20 percent of elected positions even though they represent 51 percent of the population. Missouri women deserve a far greater voice in the policymaking that impacts their lives, particularly at the local level. 

Research demonstrates that Missouri women are poorly represented in larger municipal governments, and data show that when accounting for smaller local governments, women’s representation is even more bleak. When considering Black, Indigenous, and Latina women, there are even fewer. There is a significant opportunity to improve these numbers — especially at local government level — through local board and commission appointments. It is more important than ever to include women in political leadership for true representation. 

Women account for only 17 percent of elected local and municipal government seats across Missouri. For local appointed boards and commissions, where information is available, women only account for 22 percent of available seats while representing 51 percent of the population. With respect to particular bodies, women account for 15 percent of board of adjustment seats and 19 percent of planning and zoning boards. These appointed boards address fundamental issues within communities, including infrastructure, land use, and public safety. Local boards make recommendations to elected officials based on their research and can draft regulations for the municipality to consider. The exact powers of the boards and commissions depend on your locality, but these are meaningful bodies that have a significant role in our communities. The lack of women serving means that key voices are missing from important decisions that affect all of us. 

Thankfully, several organizations across Missouri are working with women seeking political leadership opportunities. For example, Missouri M.A.D.E. and WEPOWER collaborate with women’s interest groups to promote opportunities and provide development for those seeking political leadership. Through the national organization ReflectUS, these organizations are able to coalesce their resources to connect with a significant number of women from all parts of Missouri. To date, they have trained hundreds of Missouri women who are ready and willing to take on political leadership roles. Now, local governments need to take action to increase the number of women serving on local boards and commissions.

Many boards and commissions have standards regarding the qualifications of who can serve. Appointees may have to be licensed professionals in a particular field or work in a certain industry to be appointed. Some have political party requirements, like the Missouri Conservation Commission, which allows no more than two members from the same political party to serve. In some cases, there are geographic requirements for serving on boards and commissions, such as requiring at least one person from each congressional district to be appointed. These requirements are striving for the same kinds of outcomes that we propose. Diversity — whether professional, ideological, racial, geographical, or otherwise — has long been recognized as valuable to including the voices of those who may not often be considered in decision-making. In this case, women are no different. Every local board and commission affect women’s daily lives, from public works and parks to infrastructure and zoning. Women deserve a say in how these decisions are made. 

Women who are seeking elected leadership and appointments are qualified for these positions. Localities need to intentionally recruit women because it benefits the entire board or commission, and therefore, the community. When women are present in diverse, mixed-gender professional settings, there is higher creativity, more innovative solutions, and better outcomes which is better for democracy and all of us. 

Now is the time to make sure all Missourians are included, and we can start with local governments intentionally increasing the number of women serving on local boards and commissions. This will ensure that more women are recruited into the applicant pool and allow local governments to reach diverse women in the community who want to give back through public service. One of the first and easiest steps is for local governments to recruit diverse women in the community who want to give back through some form of public service. 

Representative democracy is important because laws are being made that affect every person, not just those in the most populous places. It is past time to recognize that women belong at all decision-making tables and that there are qualified women waiting to serve on local boards and commissions. Missouri can be a leader in democracy, but we have to take women’s representation seriously and prioritize women’s political leadership. 

Allison Gibbs is the director of Leadership Development and Special Projects at WEPOWER St. Louis and leads the Chisholm’s Chair fellowship program for Black and Latinx women interested in political leadership. Amanda Morrison is the founder and executive director of Missouri M.A.D.E., a non-partisan organization committed to identifying, recruiting, and training Missouri women to run for political office. Amanda Pohl is the programs director of ReflectUS, which accelerates and maximizes the collective impact of coalition members, people, and organizations working to expand political leadership of, by, and for all women.

Representative Democracy Requires Inclusion of All Abilities

Republished from Ms. Magazine

Last month we celebrated Disability Pride—a time to honor difference, raise awareness and promote visibility for disabled Americans. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was passed in July 1990, providing legal avenues for access to spaces and opportunities for those with disabilities. Yet 31 years after this historic law was passed, American women with disabilities continue to fight for an equal voice and opportunities for representation. 

According to recent research, in 26 states, there is no known disabled person elected at the local, state or national level. More concerning, women with disabilities are elected in only 15 states. In fact, disabled women represent only 2.9 percent of all elected officials, while 16.1 percent of U.S. women are disabled. As organizations and leaders advocate to increase women’s political leadership, it is imperative that we include women from diverse backgrounds and experiences in this work. Our government and society need women with different lived experiences to be active members of decision-making bodies.

The ReflectUS Coalition and its members have been working towards this goal for various communities of women, including disabled women. Recently, ReflectUS Coalition members RepresentWomen and She Should Run have worked directly on this important issue through research and training opportunities.

ReflectUS Coalition member RepresentWomen recently released a report, “Intersectional Disempowerment: Exploring Barriers for Disabled Female Political Candidates in the United States.” In this report, they found that disabled women continue to be underrepresented in political leadership. Among disabled elected officials, 8.3 percent are women, while 11.4 percent are men. This means that when people from the disabled community are elected, they are more often men. Consequently, the intersectional barriers of being a disabled woman are often underrepresented. 

In order to increase disabled women’s political leadership, RepresentWomen found that there are three areas where work needs to be focused:

  1. addressing accessibility barriers, 
  2. addressing attitude barriers, and 
  3. addressing institutional barriers.

With regard to accessibility, RepresentWomen found that by addressing accessibility barriers, the resulting public policy that develops not only becomes more accessible for those with disabilities, but also increases accessibility for others who may not experience the disability. For instance, the RepresentWomen report discusses curb cutouts for wheelchairs. When curb cutouts were installed for those with physical disabilities, it increased access to sidewalks for everyone like parents pushing strollers, bicyclists and people who have difficulty with steps. Previously, people would adapt to the limitations of public sidewalk design, but curb cutouts provided enduring accessibility  for the entire community. The success of the curb cutout policy also assisted in changing the public’s attitude around issues impacting disabled community members.

Regarding attitude barriers, the report highlights the importance of continuing to confront the social stigmas associated with being a disabled woman candidate. When women face questions about their qualifications due to their disability status, these questions cause harm and must be addressed. Political party leaders need to directly challenge these stereotypes and make it clear that ableism will not be tolerated in campaigns. Working to dismantle ableism will take time and intentional focus.

With respect to institutional barriers, the ReflectUS Coalition recognizes the power appointments have in addressing gender imbalances in political leadership. For instance, intentional appointments of women with disabilities will increase their political leadership. As the RepresentWomen report highlights, executive administrations and local governments responsible for appointments must make a commitment to inclusive representation. Political parties can reduce gatekeeping by openly recruiting more disabled women to run for office, working with disabled peoples’ organizations, and securing funds for disabled women candidates.

In addition to research and reporting, ReflectUS Coalition member She Should Run has been advocating for disabled women in a number of ways. In particular, they have been working to ensure campaigns are accessible to disabled community members. They have partnered with National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) to further this work. 

In a published blog, She Should Run and NCIL discussed the importance of candidates connecting with local disability communities. They stressed the expertise of disabled people and the need to involve more disabled people in all campaigns. She Should Run recently provided training with NCIL to discuss how ableism is keeping the U.S. from equal representation. 

Additionally, She Should Run is working around:

  1. advocacy for centering disabled women as experts in the field, 
  2. leadership development opportunities for candidates from a wide range of disability statuses, and 
  3. partnerships with organizations that provide specific resources for disabled candidates—all towards the goal of empowering disabled women in political leadership.

When disabled women are at decision-making tables, they give voice to the importance of access for all people. As the work of RepresentWomen and She Should Run illustrate, there are solutions to the challenges facing disabled women and their political leadership. 

In a society based on the principle of representative democracy, our institutions must be accommodating of all communities in order to truly be reflective of the citizenry. Hence, when disabled women are present to confront the barriers they face, change is not only possible, but inevitable.