The 2012 Project: Women Wanted

I found out that women account for only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress and 23 percent of the state legislature. That puts the United States 78th in the world (tied with Turkmenistan) for percentage of women holding office.
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Last week, I interviewed Laurie Syms, co-director of Rachel's Network, an advocacy group that promotes women's leadership, both in the environmental community and government. I learned that women, overall and regardless of party, consistently vote more in favor of environmental protections and policies than their male counterparts in Congress. I also found out that women account for only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress and 23 percent of the state legislature. That puts the United States 78th in the world (tied with Turkmenistan) for percentage of women holding office.

What's the deal-e-o? All of my girlfriends are assertive, opinionated, outspoken control freaks. Aren't yours? What's up with such dismal representation?

The good news is Rachel's Network has teamed up with The 2012 Project, a national, non-partisan campaign, spearheaded by Rutgers' University's Center for American Women and Politics, to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures by taking advantage of the unique electoral opportunities of 2012.

Redistricting, a result of the 2010 census, has created new and open seats in government nationally. This occurs once every 20 years and in 1992 helped bring female membership in the House from 28 to 47 and doubled the number of women in the U.S. Senate. Historically, women leaders are considered champions of issues such as health care, child care, family services, food and water safety, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Enough said.

Women make up over half the U.S. population but have yet to break the 25 percent barrier in legislative posts. 2012 is our time to change that. How? By doing what geese do. (I'm not kidding.) Naturalist Milton Olson studied the formation of geese and found that as each goose flaps its wings it creates an uplift for the one following behind. By flying together in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than if they flew alone.

Take Home Message: It's time to compost the critics, whether male or female, and unite together taking advantage of the lifting power of the group to create a more gender balanced government. It's critical we turn off the staged cat-fights, snarky and ranting frenemies, and other malicious, misogynous misrepresentations foisted upon us by an irresponsible and irreverent media. Rather, it's time we join forces, empower the sisterhood and become the change we so desperately need and seek. We've come a long way, baby, and there ain't no going back now! If you need a little motivation, just view the photo of the all male panel at Rep. Darrell Issa's February 16, 2012 committee hearing on contraception coverage. Birth control experts? Really? Old, pasty men running the show should have gone out of style with leg warmers.

According to Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics, 16 women are running for open seats in the Senate and 71 women are doing so in the House. I spoke with the valiant Mary Hughes, founder and director of The 2012 Project. Hughes has created a gateway to a vast network of private and public sector leadership groups to recruit and train women candidates to run for office in this historical year and in the years ahead. I asked her how every woman voter (yup, you girl!) could get involved in making this The Year of the Woman.

Why are the 2012 elections so pivotal in bringing more female representation to the political picture?

Once every 10 years, women have a greater opportunity to win election to Congress and state legislatures. There are more new, open and competitive seats due to post-census redistricting and reapportionment. And once every 20 years, redistricting coincides with a presidential election, which draws an electorate that is open to newcomers and not as attached to incumbent officeholders. 2012 is such a year.

The number of women leaders has flatlined in recent years and fell in Congress in 2010. This should be a wake up call to all mothers, daughters and grandmas.

2010 was the first election since 1978 in which the number of women sworn in to Congress was fewer than the Congress before. Women were down one member until the special elections that followed. In those, women were elected bringing the percentage of women in Congress back to 17 percent. Also in 2010, nearly 80 women lost their state legislative seats.

The remedy? More women must run in order for more women to win. Accomplished, smart women must step up and share the responsibility for leading on public policy. Women have an important contribution to make. Women's experience and perspective are different and that difference will add value to the entire enterprise of governing.

Why is having women in these seats especially important to women and families?

When women legislate, they change the agenda, procedures, content and outcome of public policy debates. Their work is informed by their experience as daughters, wives and mothers.

They bring subjects to light that they are particularly qualified to advance -- wage discrimination, day care, women's health, universal pre-school, violence against women -- and many more that will not be raised unless women are there to raise them.

Women are also more likely to open hearings and make proceedings transparent. They are the members to whom underrepresented communities go for access to public policy-making.

Which states are still open to have women leaders declare a run for office in November?

Most states have already had their filing deadlines, while 18 states have deadlines from mid-May through August. You can go to our 2012 Women's Election Tracker and find a state-by-state listing. You can also find links to the latest information on women candidates. You can click through to congressional candidates' web sites and soon those of state legislative primary winners.

As a national, non-partisan campaign, The 2012 Project doesn't endorse, support or recommend any individual candidate. Our mission is to educate, inspire and connect potential women candidates to the organizations, resources and mentors that can help them be successful. We work with more than 130 organizations and 75 faculty.

Who are some of the 75 formerly elected women legislators you've asked to train, support and nudge newcomers?

These former elected women are our 2012 Project Faculty Co-Chairs: Vermont Governor and state legislator Madeline Kunin, Ohio Speaker of the House Jo Ann Davidson, Colorado State Senator Polly Baca, California Congresswoman Yvonne Burke and Maryland Congresswoman Connie Morella.

How can women with limited time or financial resources help make 2012 The Year of The Woman?

There are many ways women can get involved. Volunteer in a campaign. Blog about the women candidates running in your area. Host a house party for neighbors and co-workers to meet a woman candidate you support. Join a fundraising event committee and raise money. Share your support on Facebook and the reasons for it. Walk your precinct. Consider running for office someday!

For more information about The 2012 Project, click here.
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