A Government By The People: The Need For Working-Class Women's Political Leadership, IGNITE

In the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln famously extolled a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Yet, the history of U.S. political leadership has often fallen short of being by the people, especially as it relates to political leadership from working class communities.

Many of our nation’s elected officials, for instance, come from privileged backgrounds, enabling them to run for office with a vast network of donors and political connections. In particular, more than half of sitting Congressional members in 2020 were millionaires and in 2014, The Atlantic sounded the alarm of out-of-touch politicians making policy decisions based on beliefs, rather than lived experiences, about the realities facing their working class constituents. Too many of our political leaders are far removed from the everyday hardships facing Americans living near and in poverty. Given this disconnect, they often propose policies that don’t meet the needs of working class communities. Such policy making can have the greatest adverse impacts when it comes to working class women and their families.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the current poverty rate is 10.5 percent; yet, the poverty rate for women is 11.5 percent. Additionally, women face wage inequality, job mobility stagnation, and the unpaid labor of childrearing and homekeeping. Consequently, research shows that women and female-headed households comprise 50 percent of the individuals on government assistance programs, while married couples are only 14.7 percent, and male-led households are 29.5 percent of those utilizing these programs. One study even noted that economic gender parity was 257 years away. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these economic disparities even worse. 

The global pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequities already in our system. Across the nation, there are photos of bread lines and story after story of hospital overcrowding. Rural communities, in particular, are being hit hardest by the pandemic and public health experts are predicting a bleak winter. The economic fall-out from the health crisis and its particularly devastating impact on women’s financial forecasts are just beginning to be appreciated. For instance, we are living in the middle of the first-ever women’s economic recession where women are exiting the workforce at alarming rates, felt most by women working in low-wage jobs. 

In 2020, women were forced to leave jobs to care for children when schools closed; became unemployed after seeing service industry jobs disappear; and made difficult decisions between being the primary caregivers at home while simultaneously working on the frontlines of healthcare during the global pandemic. These women were already facing staggering wage and wealth gaps prior to this crisis, even more so for Black, Indigenous, and Latina women. These glaring disparities require that the women facing these barriers possess the political leadership necessary to impact change. Yet, while women represent a disproportionate share of those in poverty, women also hold far fewer positions of government power and leadership to effect the change necessary to reverse these trends.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see more Congressional members from modest means – many of them women. For instance, one recently elected Republican Congresswoman described her experience of going from homelessness to Congress in a decade as an uniquely American success story. Additionally, a recently re-elected Democratic Congresswoman was the first in her family to go to college, where she had to work throughout her educational journey. Throughout her campaign, she discussed how her community college education inspired her to attend law school. While these are stories to commend, they are unfortunately few and far between. More needs to be done to ensure our political leadership is truly reflective of our economic diversity – especially as it relates to working class women.   

Thankfully, IGNITE National is seeing an incredible uptick in the number of young women and girls who are interested in political leadership and, in particular, those who want to harness their political power to address societal inequalities. Young women’s commitment and dedication to access political power has not ceased during COVID-19 but in fact has accelerated as they think about the connections between poverty and the pandemic. IGNITE women across the country remain eager to serve in a myriad of political positions with growing interest to serve on police commissions. Hence, IGNITE National is working with women from directly impacted communities to prepare them for various forms of political leadership.

ReflectUS, the national coalition of nine of the leading women’s representation organizations, of which IGNITE National is a member, is building a “From the Ground Up” State Network, aimed at building political leadership among working class women. Harnessing the expertise of the ReflectUS Coalition Members, we’re building this network with local, state-based and community-based organizations across the ideological spectrum to ensure that women with lower incomes can take hold of political leadership and begin addressing these disparities through elected office. As we continue to meet with communities across the country and, in particular, local women leaders, we see the vital need of ensuring political leadership for all women.

Working together, we can ensure that more working class women are running for office, getting elected and appointed, and have the tools needed to create the lasting change they want to see in their communities. Our nation was made to be governed by the people and that’s exactly what we intend to accomplish. 

Anne Moses is the Founder and President of IGNITE National and a Board member of the ReflectUS Coalition. 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.