Operation Pipeline: Women in Politics

Women in politics: why more women should run for office, and how they can get political support.

By Beth Hawkins
Photograph: Photo by: iStock

Politics School for Women
It’s hard to tell whether Mala Thao really eats potato chips with such gusto or if it’s just part of her act. The women gathered around her want to run for office, and Thao leads a role-playing exercise, teaching the group to coax campaign contributions from busy, distracted voters. A professional fundraiser, poker player, and actress, Thao is a natural to lead the toughest drill of this three-day training camp for women entering politics. In a small conference room at a suburban Minneapolis hotel, she opens an imaginary door to one would-be politician after another. Each woman makes eye contact, extends a hand, and launches into an earnest exposition of her views. As they drone on about education, health insurance, or criminal justice, Thao barely nods, just crunches more energetically on her chips.
After the first six women strike out, another prospect knocks. This one starts casually, with a question about Thao’s family. Thao pushes aside the chips and looks up. A few chatty moments later, the candidate strikes pay dirt: She once taught at the same high school from which Thao graduated. A connection is made! Thao writes out a pretend check.
This is just the victory scene envisioned by the organizers behind the session, a national nonpartisan group called the White House Project, which devotes much of its energy to getting more women into the political pipeline. There are dozens of similar groups, some nonpartisan, some Democratic or Republican, some working with candidates who come from the business world, or candidates of a particular ethnicity or those running in a single state. One lesson: how to convert a wish to "change things" or "get involved’‘ into campaign skills — and money. The Minneapolis hotel scene is the kind that will play out across the country between now and November 4, 2008, when, organizers hope, the best and the brightest women will sweep to victory.
Aren’t We There Yet?
You’d think that such concerted efforts would be obsolete by now. With Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi flexing political muscle in Washington and governors such as Alaska Republican Sarah Palin and Kansas Democrat Kathleen Sebelius making national headlines, women seem to have arrived at their political moment. Many more, most notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are in top policy and appointed positions.
Still, some 40 years after a new wave of feminism spurred women to stake their claim to office, only nine of the nation’s 50 governors are women, and women occupy little more than 16 percent of Congressional seats: 16 of 100 in the Senate and 73 of 433 seats in the House (with two seats temporarily vacant). Clinton and Pelosi are making history, but their high profile throws into relief the small number of women who’ve actually made it. In 2001, the number of women elected to state and local offices (the best national launching pad) actually dropped.
Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode has dubbed it the no-problem problem: If everyone believes that women have power equal to men, no one will try to change the fact that they don’t. "The minute you say we’ve arrived, you start going backward,’‘ says Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, 49, a Democrat. "We’re still traveling.’‘
Certainly, some women find their way into office without intervention. Pelosi, 67, and Sebelius, 59, grew up in political households. "I always thought that was what families did in the fall — they went door-to-door and put up yard signs," Sebelius says. Some governors and senators entered politics as prosecutors, running for county or state attorney. Republican Martha Rainville, 49, who ran for Congress in Vermont in 2006, is a retired air force major general. She lost her race and took a high-level post at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Supporters hope she’ll run again in 2008.

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