The following blog is a guest post from Felise Ortiz, a senior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, double majoring in Political Science and Women's and Gender Studies with a minor in Spanish. She is an alumna of the NEW Leadership NJ Class of 2011. Felise is the Founder and President of Douglass D.I.V.A.S., a female empowerment student organization at Rutgers University. She is also an Institute for Women's Leadership Scholar as well as an Eagleton Institute of Politics Undergraduate Associate.
The underrepresentation of women in politics in the United States is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately and with urgency. With the help of the Institute of Women’s Leadership, my partner Jennifer Osolinski and I were able to facilitate a conversation addressing this issue. Our social action project was not only an opportunity to hone our feminist leadership skills but it also served as testament to the fact that the personal is indeed political. As former Eagleton and CAWP interns, Jennifer and I wanted our event to make at least one young woman consider a first step in the direction of politics. We were inspired by programs such as NEW LeadershipTM and Ready to RunTM because they inform women about the current political climate and encourage them to become involved in public service. While strategizing on how to reach a youthful audience, we were approached with the possibility of doing a film “Raising Ms. President” a new documentary about getting girls politically active. Once we watched the trailer, we agreed that it would be a great foundation for our project and our overall message. I learned a lesson in patience and professionalism from this portion of the experience. I also learned that is apart of the feminist model of leadership to use your network. Our networks ultimately resulted in three amazing panelists and the film arriving on time. We had an audience of about twenty-five people who were enthusiastic about the film and project as a whole. I had a list of prepared remarks and questions for the panelist. However, I learned the most from the audience’s engagement with the panelists. There were many though-provoking questions asked and answered. The key moment of the event for me occurred after most of the attendees departed and two panelists were left talking passionately about campaigns. One woman was a Caucasian Republican representative from a suburban town and the other was a Black Democrat from an urban city, and they were networking. I watched politics (how it should work) happen organically with two women who shared a love for public service. This project has taught me three key lessons: 1. The message is worth the madness. We were able to spread our message that women’s political involvement is important and can be transformational when it is made a priority. Any of the difficultly that we may have faced along the way was well worth it. 2. Not only is the personal, political but also the political is often better executed when it is personal. The research and our panelists attested to the fact that there is a dire need for more women in office in order for issues that affect women to be adequately advocated for. Another example would be my personal connection to this project, made me invested enough to see it through to the end. 3. Social justice based women’s leadership has been and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with. During this process I have been inspired by the social action projects of my classmates and how we have rallied together to support one another. The bond we created through this experience has strengthened me and I am truly grateful to have had this opportunity.
Crystal DesVignes is a graduate student in political science at Rutgers University – Newark. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree and recently worked as a graduate intern at the Center for American Women and Politics. The views presented in this entry are her own.
On March 22, 2013, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) hosted approximately fifty African American women for its annual Run Sister Run program in conjunction with its Ready to Run™ program. As part of the diversity initiative along with Elección Latina, and Rising Stars, Run Sister Run offers campaign and political leadership training for those of the African Diaspora. The program is an opportunity to receive encouragement and valuable insight, and to interact first-hand with other African American women who have either run for elected office, are currently running for a position, plan to run in the future, or are contemplating running for an elected office.
The program is geared toward making sure that African American women who are politically-minded have a space to network and be directed to resources and people who will help them to meet their political aspirations. As a third time attendee of the program, I was already a believer in its importance. But, as the saying goes, the third time was the charm for me in solidifying my understanding of why we need to continue programs like this and expand them around the country.
As I write this piece, I am painfully aware of the issues that women face in our country, even in 2013. We are underpaid for our work in the market place (hence the need for equal pay legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) and undervalued for our work in the home. We were reminded last year of the fragility of our right to reproductive healthcare, and there was even discussion around whether our bodies could “shut down” a pregnancy that resulted from a “legitimate rape.” We were reduced to being included in “binders full of women” in the last presidential election as one candidate sought to prove that he supported gender equality in his gubernatorial cabinet. Despite all of this, and in some cases because of this, we press on and continue to fight for our place in the decision-making process in our country and government.
The road to political inclusion is hard for women, to say the least. But for women of color, and African American women it particular, it can mean being doubly excluded from the political arena due to racialization and gendering. Of 98 women serving in Congress (18.3 % of the 535 seats in the 113th Congress), 30 or 30.6% are women of color. Only 14 are African American women. African American women hold only 241 seats in state legislatures across 44 states, and although New Jersey has an African American woman currently serving as speaker of the State Assembly (the Honorable Shelia Y. Oliver), she is only the second African American woman to hold this office in a state legislature nationwide.
The numbers don’t lie. The people who come to the table to make decisions in our cities, states, and capitals should not all look alike. They should represent the country as we know it. To have a more inclusive racial/ethnic and gendered make-up among our elected officials isn’t just good politics, it makes for better government. We need more representation from African American women. The Center for American Women and Politics provides just a forum for this endeavor in Run Sister Run.
Last night, I joined an expert group of women on HuffPost Live to talk about Warren Buffett’s Fortune article on the importance of women’s full inclusion into American business, politics, and leadership. Put simply, Buffett argues that women are essential to American growth and success, representing half of the population that has been underutilized (“relegated to the sidelines”) for too long. Stifling half of the country’s talent is not only unethical, he writes, but is also bad business. And, as we know at the Center for American Women and Politics, under-representation of women in political offices is bad for democracy and governance. Our research shows that women bring unique voices to government, as voters, advocates, and elected officials. When in office, women prioritize different issues, build upon unique experiences, and often take a more inclusive and collaborative approach to governing. In the current political environment, it’s women who have provided at least some hope of breaking the paralysis that has characterized our nation’s capital. And, with women still representing less than 20% of Congress and under a quarter of state legislative posts, we have significant “human capacity,” in Buffett’s terms, left to be tapped. How do we capitalize on women’s capacity to lead? Buffett calls on his male colleagues to “get on board” with gender parity, but also urges women not to doubt their abilities nor give in to structural or self-imposed barriers to advancement. There is a symbiotic relationship between structural barriers and self-doubt, however, where women’s experiences with (or within) male-dominated institutions make it hard for them to view themselves as equal players in what remains a man’s world. The change that fuels Buffett’s optimism for the future is reliant on disrupting masculine dominance in public life, and that means altering long-held images of and expectations for public leadership. Buffett describes how, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, his floor for professional success was the ceiling for his sisters. In other words, society’s expectations for boys were not only greater than those expectations for girls, but women faced structural barriers that halted their path to leadership before they could even dare to see themselves as heads of communities, companies, or countries. Buffett is right to note that those structural barriers are eroding, but societal expectations of how leaders look and act still fall heavily into a male mold. CAWP has recently launched Teach a Girl to Lead, a campaign meant to change those expectations among boys and girls so that the idea of women’s leadership is not extraordinary, but ordinary – and essential. If we are to be as optimistic as Warren Buffett is about America’s future, we know that it’s imperative that future generations of girls and women not only see themselves as public leaders, but help to shatter the glass ceilings that remain in politics and government. That’s not only good for democracy, but it's also best for our country’s bottom line.