Women, Start Your Campaigns

Our political parties need to encourage women to run, donors need to open their wallets, and the media needs to stop with the random critiques of female candidates' clothes or hair.
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This post originally appeared in the January 28, 2010 edition of The Boston Globe and can be found online here.

In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.''

A century later, Roosevelt's words still ring true. But for women looking at the results of last week's US Senate race, it's easy to be discouraged about stepping into the political arena - especially in Massachusetts, where only five women have held statewide office and four have been elected to the US House.

However, despite a few high-profile national and state-level losses, women are great competitors. According to researchers Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, women candidates raise money as well as men and are just as likely to win in any given race. Problem is, it's difficult to get enough women to run.

The two of us have been involved in political life for several decades and seen up close what it takes for women to be in the arena. And although we have different views on many political matters, we share the conviction that a "critical mass'' of women will lead to better public policies.

What's a critical mass? Research shows that when about 30 percent of a group is made up women, the discourse, values, and working style of the entire organization changes.

Women collectively bring a broader perspective to the political debate, based on their different social roles and life experiences. That breadth is crucial in order to solve the many challenges society faces, including the current economic crisis, national security issues, and health care reform.

While no stereotype is true for all men or all women, social science research says women tend to be more inclusive, more easily build bridges across ideological divides, and are more in touch with their local communities - all necessary traits for the kind of leadership needed in this deeply divided country.

But it will take a big effort to get women to imagine themselves in the political ring. Unfortunately, women candidates are often held to a different standard by power brokers and opinion-makers, including party leaders, donors, and the media. Sometimes other women are a female candidate's harshest critics - so the obstacles to women participating in electoral office are not placed there by men alone. When a mother runs, voters of both genders often wonder, "Who will care for the children while she campaigns?'' - a question for Pauline but not Paul. And typically, those controlling the party's purse strings demand proof that the candidate has raised a substantial portion of her projected budget before even discussing how they can help her win her race.

Women candidates are also often less confident of their own qualifications to serve, and do not want to run until they have achieved higher credentials than a typical male candidate.

But we can't wait. We'll have a much stronger country when we're drawing from 100 percent of our talent pool. Happily, for all the past resistance to women's leadership, times, they are (if slowly) a-changin'. According to the White House Project Benchmark Study, 94 percent of the public say they're comfortable with a woman as university president, 96 percent with a woman as head of a large financial institution, and 70 percent with a woman as a military general.

Women in the arena don't need a brief, polite round of applause for their efforts; it's not enough when they often have had to work twice as hard just to get into the fight. They need to be recruited, supported, and coached. Our political parties need to encourage women to run, donors need to open their wallets, and the media needs to stop with the random critiques of female candidates' clothes or hair or belabored debates about whether a tear is from empathy, grief, or exhaustion.

So, to women who dream of changing the world through service in elected office, don't give up. Get yourselves into the arena.

Swanee Hunt is president of Hunt Alternatives Fund and former US ambassador to Austria. Kerry Healey is former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

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