“In Government, Women Continue To Be a Minority”: The Path for Women in Politics is Paved With Different Stones

Republished from Ms. Magazine

In spite of the gains women have made in the past several years, we are still subject to increased scrutiny from the media, can face sexist silencing by colleagues, and often must fight to break into established political networks in order to have an impact on the political agenda.

This struggle for women in politics is outlined in detail in the new ReflectUS (a coalition of which my organization Ignite is a member) issue brief, Ensuring Success: What Happens After Women Win. This brief affirms that for women in elected leadership, the path we travel is paved with different, often more difficult stones than for our male counterparts. As the only woman serving on the elected Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, I know that my journey is different from that of my male colleagues.

Women know we have to be experts to accomplish our goals. We also know that we are going to face sexism wherever we are—in a study published in 2020, it was found that 90 percent of people globally hold some sort of bias against women. The same study found that 39 percent of people in the U.S. believe men to be better leaders than women. Yet the research also demonstrates that women are becoming more educated, have gained a larger share of the workforce, and are increasingly becoming the breadwinner in families.

With the increased educational and economic advancement of women—while certainly not equal to men—there also comes the desire for increased political leadership. Yet, in the political world, women are often newcomers to their seats. In fact, men account for more than two-thirds of elected officials at the federal, state and larger locality levels, making the presence of more women a newer phenomenon that is often seen as an exception rather than the rule. Women are more than half the U.S. population and have never held more than one-third of elected offices at any given time at any level.

To date, only one woman has ever led the U.S. House of Representatives—Speaker Nancy Pelosi—and only one woman has served as the president of the U.S. Senate—Vice President Kamala Harris. Subsequently, 2021 was the first year in which the U.S. president has ever been flanked by two women on the dais in a joint address to Congress. It took 232 years since Congress was founded, 105 years after the first woman was elected to Congress, and 101 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified to get to this point.

Enough is enough.

Let’s hope that this issue brief sparks an important conversation around both how we attract more women to run for office, and just as importantly, how we ensure their equal treatment once serving in political leadership.

Shay Franco-Clausen is ReflectUS Coalition member IGNITE’s West Coast region program director and serves the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. She is also the director of gender and equity for the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee and an adult advisor for California High School Democrats. She is a mother of five children with her wife, loves to hike, surf and is a Bay Area DJ. 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.


The Change Women Need: Systemic Reforms Power the Path to Equality, RepresentWomen

Republished from The Fulcrum

The United States has a crisis of representation in government. Women are 51% of the population; yet only hold 27% of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Over the last decades, a myriad of training programs, including leadership development programs, have been created specifically toward getting more women elected. Even with these increased resources to support women running for office, at our current rate we won’t reach gender parity in political leadership in our lifetimes. In the year 2000, the United States ranked 46th globally for women’s representation in government at the national level, now the U.S. ranks 67th, alongside Mali, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. And the U.S. ranks well behind most well-established democracies in the OECD.

In other words, 66 countries have outpaced the United States in women’s representation – not because their women are more qualified or ambitious, but because they have implemented electoral systems and policies to ensure more level playing fields and greater opportunity in the electoral process. Consider New Zealand, a country often lauded for increasing women in leadership since adapting their electoral system from the “first past the post” model to the more modern mixed member proportional system. Similarly, in the nation of Georgia, political parties are incentivized to recruit more women and receive state funding for doing so, while in Ireland, political parties lose funding for failing to recruit enough women to represent their party. The evidence is clear – if our nation wants to accelerate greater gender representation and demonstrate that we truly value women’s political leadership, we need both leadership development programs and changes to our political and electoral systems. The history of women’s representation best demonstrates this need. 

In 1992, for the first time in the history of the U.S., women ran for and were elected to Congress at the highest rate of any decade. The year became known as the “Year of the Woman” and set in motion women’s most recent political gains. During this same period, our government failed to change policies and voting systems to make it more equitable for women to run. For instance, it was only in 2018 that women running for federal office were allowed to use campaign funds to cover childcare expenses. This important policy still isn’t in place in most states. In the year 2021, 29 years after the “Year of the Woman,” it is hard to imagine that women are still fighting these same battles.

Many have touched on the history made with Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. One hundred years after the 19th Amendment granted many women the right to vote, Harris is the first woman of color and the fourth woman overall to be on a major party ticket for a presidential election. While no woman has served as the U.S. President, 13 countries around the world have women heads of state. Along with becoming one of a small handful of women to be featured on the ballot during a presidential election, Harris’ nomination illustrates the unique power executive leaders have to accelerate gender equality and parity by appointing women as running mates and to key leadership positions. Local, state, and national appointmented positions often perform a great deal of government work – writing policies, making decisions, presenting ideas, and so forth. More women in these roles increases women’s influence in the policymaking process.

While other countries have adopted innovative strategies to improve women’s representation, lawmakers in the U.S. have done little to address the constraints of our system. Additionally, more than 100 countries have implemented targeted recruitment practices for women to increase the number of women who run in the first place. In the U.S., women’s moderate successes in spite of these institutional barriers remain uneven across ideology, age, geography class, and race. 

The ReflectUS Coalition’s work on systemic change runs the gamut: we believe that every person and institution plays an important role in this work. Political parties must commit to recruiting women to run for office and commit to gender equality standards. Political donors can put their resources behind women early on in primaries and later in general elections to ensure women have the funding they need – funding that attracts other donors to contribute. Individuals can donate, volunteer, and vote for women who are running for office. Those in charge of appointments to Boards and Commissions must commit to gender-balanced appointments. There are also policy approaches that would greatly accelerate women’s political leadership such as modernizing legislative workplace norms with onsite childcare, paid leave, and proxy voting so women can serve effectively and rise to leadership positions. 

Without women, we are missing a vital opportunity to address real concerns for more than half the population in the United States. Gender equality should not be reliant on the success of one party over another; for equality to be achieved and sustained it must happen across the ideological, racial, economical, and geographical spectrum. As we move beyond the Suffrage Centennial and celebrate the women leaders who made the 19th Amendment possible, we must harness the energy for change and hunger for women’s representation on the ticket and in the cabinet and commit to systems changes which will last longer than a presidency. 

Tiffany Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS, a national coalition of nine leading women’s representation movement organizations working to accelerate gender parity. 

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the Executive Director and Founder of RepresentWomen, a member of ReflectUS.

Biden’s Cabinet: Incremental Growth Is Not Equal Representation, APAICS and Higher Heights

Republished from Ms. Magazine

There are many reasons for women of color to celebrate after last November’s election cycle. We have certainly made some gains in positions of political leadership. Our nation elected the first Black, Asian and woman vice president. We also had a record number of women run and win U.S. congressional seats.

However, our national ReflectUS Coalition and its members know, one of the threats to achieving the success we’re all working toward is when politicians and other decision-makers believe the problem is solved. In the midst of our celebration, we cannot ignore some glaring gaps in representation that have intentionally excluded Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women to the detriment of representation for us all.

For the first time in 20 years, since the first AAPI (Norman Y. Mineta) was appointed, no AAPI will serve as a Cabinet secretary. The distinction of a Cabinet secretary position means a greater voice at the table, and the ability to steer major policy decisions through leadership channels. America showed us that our country is ready for women of color to serve at the highest levels of government—yet this exclusion of AAPI appointments on the highest levels is a halt in the progress for the fastest growing community. AAPIs, despite challenges from increased hate incidents, disproportionate impact from the pandemic, and other barriers, managed to substantially increase their voices at the polls, yet are left unheard by the president.

There hasn’t been a Black woman serving in the U.S. House of Representatives leadership since Representative Shirley Chisholm in 1981. Moreover, only two Black women—Carol Moseley Braun and Kamala Harris—have ever served in the U.S. Senate. When Vice President Kamala Harris resigned to take her place in the executive branch, that celebratory moment resulted in no Black woman replacing her in the Senate.

Women of color, and Black women, in particular, have been consistently praised for our organizing ability and civic leadership in turning out voters. Yet, when the time comes to acknowledge these crucial contributions to our democracy with positions of real leadership and authority, we are left empty-handed.

These blatant exclusions must be addressed. Our national ReflectUS Coalition and each member organization demand better from our political leaders. When those in power have the ability to increase women’s representation, and choose not to, we must address these underlying injustices and hold one another accountable.

We are certainly commemorating the significant accomplishment of electing Vice President Kamala Harris. We are recognizing the significant achievement of having more women in Congress than ever before. We are thrilled that there are more women of color in office and that the presidential Cabinet has broken barriers for many constituencies. We are proudly watching with our children as our nation loudly proclaims that yes, we all have a rightful seat at the table.

We also appreciate that while some women recently celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment and their right to vote, for many of our foremothers this right was afforded long after ratification. Hence, we view current accomplishments with the keen understanding that we must be ever vigilant and not accept incremental representation as meeting the mark for which we’ve fought long and hard.

When our leaders believe that there is no longer a gender representation problem because we’ve elected “more women than ever before” or “we have a woman vice president,” they fail to contemplate the nuanced failures that lack representation of Black women in the U.S. Senate and AAPI women in the core 15 executive agencies represent.

The reality is that our political system must inherently acknowledge the contributions and impact of women of color and be ever vigilant to ensure they are not forgotten or excluded in spaces of political leadership.

As the ReflectUS Coalition, our charge is simple: Women’s representation across the racial, ethnic, geographical and ideological spectrum is better for democracy and better for our country. It is past time for women to be equally represented and for leadership to prioritize the intersectionality of women’s experiences—for a diverse representation that is reflective of us all.

Glynda Carr is the President and CEO of Higher Heights and a member of the ReflectUS Board of Directors.
Madalene Mielke is the President and CEO of Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS) and the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for ReflectUS.
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.

A New Congress is Sworn in, Proving That When Women Run, It Matters

Republished from Shondaland

When I was a college sophomore at the University of Texas at Arlington, I decided to run for student senate. It wasn’t an easy decision. My financial situation was far less than stable — just a year earlier, I was homeless and on food stamps, moving from motel room to motel room, because I couldn’t afford rent near campus in addition to my tuition. I finally was able to afford an apartment after I found a job, started working 40 hours a week, and started giving plasma. I knew that campaigning for an elected leadership role in Student Government would take up time away from work and school. Could I add the obligation and duties of being a student senator to my already over-full plate? Would I even end up liking it?

But in the end, I really felt like I could make a difference on campus. So, I ran. I poured my heart and time into my campaign — and I lost. I was devastated and embarrassed.

After I lost, my mentor — who I’d met through a local women’s’ political network — had some invaluable advice. “Women lose lots of races,” she told me, “but that doesn’t keep them from running again.”

I realized that she was right. Why couldn’t I just try again? So, I tried again. And I lost again, and by a pretty big margin, even after back-to-back-to-back 12-hour days campaigning.

But still, I didn’t give up. The third time was the charm — I ran for Speaker of the Senate later that year and won by a landslide, becoming the first Latina at my university to serve in the position.

Now, two years after my term as Speaker, I work in Texas for a national coalition called ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition of the nine leading women’s political organizations working together to increase the number of women elected to office. The Coalition focuses on building capacity and eliminating systemic barriers for women — many in college, like I was — who are considering a career in politics. After being sworn in over the next few weeks, 26.4 percent of Congressional seats and 30.3 percent of elected statewide executive offices will be filled by women.

Women prove when they run, they win — a record number of women will serve in Congress next year, and our nation just elected its first-ever woman to be Vice President. I know firsthand that when women run it matters, and even with our historical wins this year, we’re not where we need to be yet.

My family likes to say “la mujer inventa,” which basically means that women are creative. We come up with new ways to do things, even with limited resources. I used to see this saying as a way to justify the many ways I could serve creative meals to my sisters on our limited budget, but as I’ve connected with countless women interested in getting involved in politics the meaning of this saying has changed. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about why women don’t often run for office, and how we can help. Like my family says, women are creative — and it’s time we apply that creativity to get more of us in power.

First, we must expand the political pipeline: we need to try and reach every community and every woman who is thinking about making change.

Through my work in Texas, I’ve noticed that a lot of programs for women in politics are geared toward women who already have strong networks and are already plugged into politics. This is not true for under-resourced and rural communities. I grew up in a single-parent household with my two sisters and my mom. While I was a kid, we moved 12 times. Often, my mom or I would miss a meal so my younger sisters could eat. The types of resources that help women get involved in politics never reached me as a teen — nor did they reach my classmates, or their mothers. Many women in rural or under-resourced areas who are working hard to make ends meet are overlooked. We need to do more to build up a political pipeline for women of all backgrounds.

Second, we need to look locally. In Dallas County, ReflectUS has built a heat map that illustrates women’s involvement in positions of power in our community — we are working to build similar heat maps for other Texas counties. One of those areas is city councils, commissions, and boards — positions that have a huge local impact and serve as an entry point to elected office. That’s why we need to encourage more women to get involved in city government.

After my term as Speaker, I wanted to find ways to make real changes, like the ones I made while in student government, in the real world. After I learned about the local impact of city boards and commissions, I even decided to apply to join one myself. Serving on a board or commission may seem unglamorous, but it’s a crucial way to weigh in on the future of our towns and cities. The issues boards and commissions present a unique opportunity to create a legacy and make your city a better place to live.

I recently submitted applications for a seat on the Parks and Recreation Board, Planning and Zoning Commission, and the Library Advising Boards in Dallas County, and ReflectUS is working to make joining boards and commissions simple for every woman. I used the ReflectUS’s guide to apply for city commissions in Dallas, which made what was an intimidating idea into a completely understandable process. For women also interested in getting involved at any level, ReflectUS Coalition Members like IGNITE National offer online events and training for young women interested in a path to political leadership, and Vote Run Lead offers workshops and resources on how to run. The ReflectUS Coalition has even launched the “It Begins Here” Fellowship program which addresses many of the systemic barriers that prevent working class women from going into politics and government.

When women do get the chance to serve, we make big changes. As the first Latina and only second woman in the Speaker role at my college, I know I made a concrete difference by noticing issues that escaped others’ attention — especially men. My proudest moment was a bill I authored, called “I Am Woman, Give Me Options,” which asked my university to provide free feminine hygiene products in every restroom. I noticed some of the restrooms had broken or missing dispensers, despite the fact that my university was 52 percent women and a lot of the student body is dependent on financial aid.

So, I went to every restroom on campus and made a tally of broken and missing dispensers — not exactly a college experience I’d anticipated. But my bill was an example of how women’s unique experiences motivate us to address problems that not every individual will face. It’s clear that our perspectives could solve a lot of problems in politics.

For other women who want to get involved, joining networks in your community like ReflectUS is the best way to start. The journey into politics can be scary, especially when you are already balancing other responsibilities, and although I love the idea of superwoman it’s important for you to know that you don’t have to do everything alone. ReflectUS is investing in every woman who comes our way; we’re becoming a one-stop-shop for women who want to get involved in politics. We’re hoping that with our help, women who want to make a difference can get creative.

Cecilia Silva is the Texas Program Manager for ReflectUS, a nonpartisan coalition of the leading women’s representation organizations working to increase the number of women elected and appointed to public office at the local, state and national levels.