Women are making gains in elections: How do we further empower women in politics?

Women are making gains in elections: How do we further empower women in politics?
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What a year for women. Or to specify, for Democratic women.

As I watched nearly 500,000 people attend the Women’s March on Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C., I questioned what would happen next. Was it a march, or a movement? 

I was meeting with a former graduate student who lamented that Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter never achieved real power or change, especially at the ballot box. I reflected, “Passion without a plan is simply noise.” And there was a lot of noise. Could those who attended the Women’s March in D.C. and cities across the country actually turn that passion into a plan with achievable steps to create change?  

Yes, they did. I’ve seen it materialize all year, starting in January in Pittsburgh. Dr. Dana Brown runs the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, where she has hosted Ready to Run, a one-day nonpartisan campaign training event for women candidates, since 2012. Pennsylvania is notorious for its lack of women in public office, ranking number 39 out of 50 states.  


Ready to Run typically hovers around 70 women (and a few enlightened men). Yet, something amazing happened: 167 women registered for the Jan. 28 workshop. This wasn’t a one-off day of protest and noise. These women had decided to take action. They wanted to learn how to run a winning campaign, raise money, advocate for their causes and give speeches that resonate with voters.

At Rutgers University, the Center for American Women & Politics Ready to Run program had 276 women attend its March workshop (nearly double the usual number).  

Across the country, I’ve spoken to more than 900 potential women candidates this year. Yet as a Republican, I noted few (usually less than five) of those in attendance were Republicans. My observation fell on deaf ears back in Washington. The response: “We don’t do identity politics” or “There’s no gender gap. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump.”  

How ingrained is this perception by party? The Pew Research Center released a study titled “Gender, generation and partisanship come into play about raising boys and girls” on Dec. 5. The differences in attitudes between Republicans and Democrats about encouraging leadership traits for boys and girls are stark.

Based on the “Poised to Run” study prepared by Rutgers, I tell audiences, “Men wake up and say, ‘I want to be president.’ Women wake up and say, ‘Am I smart enough, good enough and will people like me?’ — and have to be actively recruited to run for office.” The study showed, “Almost twice as many women as men state representatives were pure recruits. In contract, women were far less likely than men to be ‘self-starters’ who said that the initial decision to run for elective office for the first time was entirely their idea.”  

The confidence gap is real. Girls start to feel less confident than boys by age 6, according to a survey conducted by the Science journal in 2017. It’s why training girls (and women) to have confidence, courage and the gravitas to run for office is imperative.  

On Election Day, people were shocked at results in New Jersey and Virginia and elsewhere across the country, where Democratic women won even in Republican districts. Voters punished arrogance and sexism. A New Jersey politician who shared a meme on Facebook asking if the Women’s March would be “over in time for them to cook dinner” had to eat his words — a woman defeated him at the polls.

We need more women at the table, Republican and Democratic. That means the Republican Party has to do more to recruit and train women. As a professional fundraiser for many years to Republican members of Congress, I’ve lived by the famous Jesse Unruh motto that “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But women, especially Republican women, need more than money. There’s always another Republican group that launches yet another program purporting to help more women get elected after every losing election.

What if you spent money on teaching women to be more prepared candidates? Invest in speech coaching, message development, asking for money, and other skills to launch women on a path to public service. Provide leadership training to teach them to be the best candidates and even better elected officials.

Four times as many women are registered to challenge incumbents in 2018 than in 2015; of the 354 women registrants, 89 percent are Democrats. Democratic women have turned passion into a plan. And a plan without action is simply a speech. Will Republicans step up and do more than speak as we enter the 2018 elections?

Nancy Bocskor has trained candidates and activists in the United States and 27 other countries, with a focus on helping women achieve success in public service. She is an adjunct professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Follow her on Twitter @nancybocskor