Article Written By: Morgan Brock-Smith, Gender Equity Taskforce
As we celebrate Women’s History Month this year, it is hard to ignore the challenges we have faced throughout the past 12 months. After coming the closest we ever have to seeing a woman elected to the presidency of the United States only to lose out to Donald Trump, 2017 further confirmed many of our worst fears about what Trump would do once in power.
But despite all the bad news coming out of the Trump administration, we still have a lot to celebrate for Women’s History Month, particularly here in New York. Since the inception of the women’s suffrage movement at Seneca Falls in 1848, our State has had a rich history of women’s involvement in politics and the fight for women’s rights, and it is important to honor the ones who stood up and fought before us, especially as we look forward towards the challenges to come. We would like to give a shout out to a few women in particular who are inspiring, uniquely New York political figures, including:
- Shirley Chisholm – born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, she was the first African-American woman elected to Congress in New York in 1968. She also ran for president in 1972, becoming the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination (Democrat) for President, as well as the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
- Bella Abzug – a daughter to Russian Jewish immigrants, she started her career as a lawyer specializing in labor and civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s, and was a prominent social activist. She served in Congress for 6 years, and helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. She was well known for saying “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”
- Geraldine Ferraro – a Queens congresswoman from 1979-1985, she was the first woman to chair the Democratic platform committee and became the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major party when Walter Mondale picked her as his running mate in 1984. Although they did not win, Ferraro continued to pursue a career in politics, running for Senate two more times, and serving as the United States Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 1993 until 1996.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – All three current female Supreme Court Justices are born and raised New Yorkers! While not technically politicians, these ladies nonetheless wield a great deal of power in shaping our current political landscape with their rulings, and can each boast impressive careers in their own right.
- Hillary Clinton – long before she was the first female candidate to be nominated for president by a major U.S. political party in 2016, Hillary was shattering the glass ceiling by becoming the first female Senator from New York in 2000, and winning more delegates than any female candidate before her in the 2008 presidential bid.
These New York women all paved the way to holding the highest positions of power in the nation. With all these strong women who came before us, why does it still feel like political representation hasn’t changed much since the founding of the United States?
United States 1776
United States 2017
One possible explanation for our predominantly white, male political landscape is that the United States lacks sufficient openings for political newcomers. Other reasons, such as a dearth of female candidates and the lasting effects of gendered socialization contribute to the problem, but they don’t fully explain the large gender disparity that still persists in all levels of public office.1
Studies of campaigns for female candidates show they are about as likely as men to be elected and can effectively raise money just as well, if not better, than men2. A major problem lies not in women winning their campaigns, but rather in them deciding to run in the first place.
The issue of deciding to run can be an “ambition gap.” Many women do not view themselves as experienced enough, or as viable political candidates, and will not push themselves into seeking office the same way men will. As New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand previously said, “It took 10 years volunteering to have the actual self-confidence to say, ‘I can run for office.’ Women are the biggest self-doubters.”3 There is a significant confidence gap when it comes to women running for office, which can develop as early as childhood, but widens notably during the college years and into adulthood as men tend to become more involved in political groups on their college campuses and are more likely to be encouraged by family and friends to run for office. Even college-age men who didn’t think they were qualified to run for office were still 50% more likely than women with the same doubts to consider running anyway.4
“It took 10 years volunteering to have the actual self-confidence to say, ‘I can run for office.’ Women are the biggest self-doubters.” – Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator (D-NY)
How do we combat this confidence gap, and boost the numbers of women running for, and serving in, political offices? The good news is that 2018 is already seeing a change in the tides, with 526 female challengers and incumbents, the majority of them Democrats, running for office in the November midterm elections.5 This is a record number of women seeking office, with more than twice as many women running for congress this year than in 2016.6
According to accounts from organizations such as Emily’s List and Emerge America, many women say they are now running because they are furious about Trump’s election, and feel energized by movements like the Women’s March on Washington after his inauguration.7 Women are realizing that they are well-positioned to protect and defend fundamental rights that have come under attack over the past year , and female candidates have a key opportunity in the upcoming election to galvanize votes at a time when it has become increasingly clear that a political system dominated by conservative male leadership has an extremely detrimental impact on gender equality and women’s rights.
Outrage is a powerful tool, and women are increasingly outraged. Women are agents of change, and as Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, has said, “Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of motivation to stay engaged and stay involved and not lose your enthusiasm.”8
The question now is what can we do to take advantage of this surge of female candidates and truly make 2018 the “year of the woman”? Studies show that female candidates, more than their male counterparts, rely upon the support and encouragement of parties, organizations and family members to run successful campaigns.9 So with that in mind, here are some actions we can all take as we head towards the midterms:
- Support your party. Yes, presidential elections are exciting, but don’t overlook the importance of local politics, whether that be on a state, county, or city level, and supporting your party supports, in turn, the female candidates they support. A good place to find ways to get involved in New York State is online at https://nydems.org/.
- Support organizations that help women run for office. This is not an extensive list, but some of the major ones are Emily’s List, She Should Run, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Campaign Fund, Ignite, and the Victory Institute.
- Get involved in the campaigns for women you support. It could be through donations, volunteering your time, or sharing your expertise, but if there is a candidate you are passionate about don’t discount the importance of your support.
- Run for office yourself! You don’t need to have a career in law or business to be qualified for a political office, and there is no such thing as having too many women in politics.
1More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures. By Susan J. Carroll and Kira Sanbonmatsu. (Cambridge University Press, 2013.)