How will we know when women reach critical mass? The obvious answer: when they hold 50 percent of political offices. But big change can happen short of that. The more women there are in office, the more mentors there are available to coach and inspire newcomers, and the more voters can get comfortable with the image of a woman in charge. It’s no coincidence that states like Maine and Kansas have women in prominent positions now — they were among the first to elect women.
When she was 18, Maine’s Collins, on a youth trip to Washington, D.C., met Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Like many pioneering women in Congress, Smith succeeded her late husband, filling his seat in 1940. But the former schoolteacher went on to serve four terms in the House and become the first woman elected to the Senate in her own right.
The day young Collins visited, Smith invited the student into her private office for a two-hour chat. Collins remembers that Smith talked about standing tall for your beliefs and gave her a copy of her famous "Declaration of Conscience" speech against McCarthyism. When Collins emerged, she remembered thinking, women can do anything.
One on one, women in politics inspire other women every day. The activist and support groups just want to accelerate and build on that natural process. Primavera, one of the White House Project’s success stories, recently brought to work with her a dozen Colorado women who were curious to see her in action. They sat in on a policy meeting and watched Primavera present a bill on the floor.
In her first year in office, she sponsored 13 measures, not the usual three bills recommended for freshmen. Eleven passed, including one that requires health insurance companies to pay for the vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer.
"When I’m in my house with the kids, walking around in my fuzzy slippers," Primavera says, "I just feel like me, Joe-Ann Citizen." But these women saw Primavera in her new element: striding through the marble halls of the gold-domed statehouse. That’s the kind of image that should inspire dreams, ambitions — and candidacies.
Resources for Women in Politics
Ready to run or know someone who should? Start here.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University
Nonpartisan. Sponsors Ready to Run workshops and sessions tailored for Latina, African-American, and Asian women. (732-932-9384)
Democratic, pro-choice. Runs Political Opportunity Program for aspiring women candidates or campaign operatives. Offers financial and tactical support for endorsed candidates. (202-326-1400)
The White House Project
Nonpartisan. Promotes women in politics and other fields. Trains candidates; offers national security workshops. (212-261-4400)
The WISH List
Republican, pro-choice. Offers financial support to endorsed candidates. Recruits and trains women at all levels of government. (800-756-9474)
Women’s Campaign Forum
Nonpartisan, pro-choice. Sponsors sheshouldrun.org recruiting drive. Offers conference-call and one-on-one briefings with experienced politicians. Funds endorsed candidates early in their careers. (202-393-8164)
Susan B. Anthony List
Nonpartisan, anti-abortion. Supports female anti-abortion candidates for Congress. (703-875-3370)
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2007.