#ILookLikeAPolitician: Strengthening Women’s Voices in Politics

Despite increases in female representation in politics in recent years, women remain underrepresented. They make up only 19% of all members of Congress, less than 25% of state legislators, and 12% of the country’s governors.

While this lack of gender diversity has long been accepted as the norm, young leaders refuse to accept that half of the American population should be represented by politicians who do not understand their unique needs. Vote Everywhere Ambassadors are working to raise awareness of the issues women face in the political sphere and to encourage young women to see themselves as potential candidates.

According to Ava Mazzye, Vote Everywhere Team Leader at Bard College, “If you ask a woman who is very much interested in politics if they’d be interested in running for office one day, the answer is more often that they would be interested in organizing a campaign or helping from behind the scenes. They rarely see themselves as the main actor, and it’s really important to change that culture and allow for women who want to someday run for office to become the visible person. It’s important that we open up that space for them.”

Bard students build confidence by sharing ideas

As a solution to this problem, Ava’s Vote Everywhere team organized an Elect Her Workshop just before this year’s state and local elections. They partnered with Running Start, an organization devoted to bringing young women into politics. Running Start facilitates this workshop across the country, but the event is unique at each location. The hosting organization assembles a panel of local female elected officials to share their experiences with the group.

At Bard’s event, Ava and her team brought in two members of the local School Board and one member of the Town Board. The panelists discussed their experiences running for office and serving in positions that tend to be male-dominated. They spoke about how they each gained the confidence to run. In most cases, another female politician encouraged them to get involved. In fact, one woman on the panel at Bard reported that another woman sitting on the panel initially asked her to run for office, and she would not have been there without her.

In addition to local elected officials, the workshop featured Sophie Logan, the Chair of the Student Life Committee (effectively Bard’s Vice President of the student body). According to Ava, this helped the participants because “when you hear from public elected officials, you don’t necessarily see yourself in their shoes. Hearing it from a fellow student can really help push someone to act.”

Bard students practice elevator speeches about themselves and political issues

Attendees also participated in activities designed to boost their confidence and other skills necessary to run for office. They discussed issues about which they are passionate and practiced giving an elevator speech about themselves. Ava felt the elevator speech was one of the group’s favorite activities, because “it gave people a chance to speak in front of a roomful of people, which some people have never had the chance to do before. It really was a great way to build confidence.”

University of Utah’s Vote Everywhere team also hosted an Elect Her event, in conjunction with the Hinckley Institute. According to Team Leader Kaestle Muir, the event provided “a space where young women on campus felt safe and confident to open up and express their desire to serve in a public office one day.” Kaestle believes events like this have the power to make a difference because “most people need a nudge, or several pushes, to get involved in the political system. It is important for women to feel surrounded by a ‘support team,’ and mentors and events like this can connect like-minded young women to each other.”

Women at University of Utah’s Elect Her Event say #ILookLikeAPoltician

Even once women gain the confidence to run and successfully achieve election, their struggle for equal representation continues. Vote Everywhere Ambassador Zoey Shipley serves as the Speaker of Senate for Student Government at Iowa State University, and has seen the disparity between men and women in office firsthand. Recently, the campus newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, undertook a study that showed that despite a nearly equal ratio of men to women in the student Senate, males spoke much more frequently than females. At one meeting, male Senators spoke 82% of the time, leaving a mere 18% of the speaking time to women. The pattern remained consistent in other Senate meetings.

This article validated what Zoey knew to be true and motivated her to take action to make sure women in student government feel comfortable making their voices heard. As a first step, she organized a meeting where all females in student government came together to discuss the difficulties they face and provide support for one another. Through the meeting, she found that many females feel ignored, shut down, or dominated in conversations with male counterparts. By sharing their thoughts, Zoey hopes to create a support system where women in student government can rely on each other and agree to speak out for one another when they face challenges. On a personal level, Zoey has taken to talking to females on campus about why more women should get involved in student government and encouraging them to run.

For Zoey, her work on campus is the first step in addressing a national issue. She believes involvement in student government provides women with the experience, skills, and confidence to move further into politics through local, state, and even national political involvement. Increasing female participation in politics is important, Zoey believes, because “if there aren’t any women at the table when a policy is being discussed, it’s a lot more difficult to recognize if it will have negative effects for women.”

Vote Everywhere Ambassador Abree Dominguez at University of San Francisco agrees. “While having male allies is important, it’s most important to give women the space to share their stories, become their own advocates, and fight for what is fair,” she says. Inspired by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s career as an effective female politician, and the first female Speaker of the House, Abree successfully applied for an internship with Congresswoman Pelosi. In this role, Abree has become attuned to the difficulties women face in politics. “It’s upsetting that a woman in power is still threatening to some. As a young woman myself, who happens to be of color, I often feel that I have to hold myself to a higher standard because of my marginalized identities,” Abree says. She hopes to bring awareness to the issues women face in politics as a step towards shattering the stigma.

Through outreach and encouragement, Vote Everywhere Ambassadors aim to build young women’s confidence to run for office, with the goal of securing more diverse representation across the country in the future. “We have strong female leaders throughout the nation,” says Zoey. “I’m excited to see how much women’s roles are growing and will continue to grow in the next 20 to 30 years.”

About the Author

Emily Curran is the Communications and Development Manager of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Emily holds a Ph.D. in History and Culture from Drew University, where she focused on twentieth-century American cultural history, culminating in a dissertation entitled, “Natural and Technological Wonders: Embracing Modernity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” She received her Bachelor’s degree in History and American Studies from Ramapo College, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor. Prior to joining AGF, she worked as the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and she remains an active volunteer with the museum.