Promoting Gender Equity in American Politics

with Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics

As of February 2019, 127 women hold seats in the United States Congress — under a quarter of the entire national legislative body.

Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute, discusses efforts to promote women’s participation in politics and government.

Posted on:

Mar 03, 2019

Hosted by: Sheila Hyland
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hyland: Women across the country saw historic wins in the 2018 elections. There are now 127 women in Congress. While that´s more than ever before, women still comprise less than 25% of congressional seats. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Sheila Hyland. While the numbers do show improvement, advocates say women have a long way to go to reach parity with their male counterparts at both the state and federal levels. Joining me to talk about this is Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University. Debbie, thank you so much for being with us today.
Walsh: Thanks for having me.

Hyland: So, 1984 some declared as the "Year of the Woman" when we saw Geraldine Ferraro named the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Then again in ´92, the Year of the Woman. We had more women in Congress than in previous decades. Now, 27 years later, is this the Year of the Woman at less than 25% representation in Congress? Why haven´t we moved the needle further?

Walsh: Yeah, so, I always am cautious about this name, the "Year of the Woman," right? Because it implies that somehow we´ve -- mission accomplished, right, we´ve achieved political parity for women, when in fact, as you said, we are less than a quarter of the members of Congress. It also keeps the idea that women are somehow a novelty in politics, that they´re not the norm, and that we get sort of this one year and then we´re done, right? One year, we´re done, mission accomplished, and it´s all over. So I cringe sometimes at the ease with which we use the concept of the Year of the Woman. We need more. We need more women in, and it still is a challenge to get more women elected.

Hyland: And why is that?

Walsh: Well, in the past, the real challenge has been that we haven´t seen more women running. One of the things that we do know from research is that when women run, they win at about the same rate as men do in comparable races. But women don´t get recruited as often for public office by the political parties. The political leaders don´t necessarily look to them as potential candidates. And so, we also know that women are more likely to run when they are recruited, and so you have a real problem there. They run when they´re recruited, but they don´t get recruited. But what we saw in this last election cycle in 2018 was a real shift there, where we saw record numbers of women stepping up and running, which really reinforced for us that notion that if we don´t see more women running, we won´t see more women winning. And this year was a year where those record numbers of women who ran turned into record numbers of women who are now serving.

Hyland: Yeah, there are some positive signs statewide.

Walsh: Absolutely. In state legislatures, we´ve finally broken the 25% barrier. We´re, you know, 28.7%. We´re still, again, though, not at parity, and I think that´s one of the things that we really focus on at the Center for American Women and Politics is, yes, these are important gains and we want to celebrate those, but there is work to be done. And to see the kind of change we want to see, it takes some intentionality.

Hyland: And you are doing that at the Center for American Women and Politics, right?

Walsh: We are doing work to get women kind of at every part of their life span, whether it´s as kindergartners all the way through women who are running for office. So, we have nonpartisan campaign-training programs for women called Ready to Run. We run those programs with partners in about 20 states now across the country. We have a program called NEW Leadership -- National Education for Women´s Leadership -- which is for college women, to demystify the political process for college women. We know young women are very engaged in their communities, but they don´t always see the ways in which politics affects those issues that they care about or the ways in which they can enter into the political system. And, again, we do that with partners across the country, and more then 5,000 young women have participated in those programs.

Hyland: And so you want to reach these girls when they are young. So, you have kind of a pet project. -

Walsh: Yes. -

Hyland: A reading project. Tell us about those. -

Walsh: We have an initiative that is called Teach a Girl to Leave -- "lead," not "leave." Teach a Girl to Lead. And we want those young girls to think about themselves as public leaders, but we also want young boys to understand that public leaders can look like their mothers, not just their fathers. So we´ve started a project where we select a book every year about a girl in politics, and we send that book to every woman state legislator, Democrats and Republicans, across the country, every woman member of Congress, every woman in statewide elected office, and we ask them to take that book into a classroom in their community and read the book to kids, talk to them about what they do as a public leader, and then leave the book in the library so that other kids can read the book later on. And it´s so important for kids to grow up seeing what a woman public leader looks like. And Marian Wright Edelman always said, "You can´t be what you can´t see." And we need little girls to see that leaders look like them and that they can aspire to that when they grow up.

Hyland: And we look forward to seeing what happens in another 10, 20 years down the road.

Walsh: Absolutely.

Hyland: Debbie Walsh, thank you so much for joining us from the Center for American Women and Politics. And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Sheila Hyland. ♫♫ ♫♫

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