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Ready to Run

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University is educating and encouraging women to participate in the political process. 

In the United States, women comprise less than 20 percent of the U.S. Congress and less than a quarter of all state legislative offices. This year, for the first time in U.S. history, there were women candidates for president on both sides of the Congressional aisles, and Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic Party nominee.

However, in 1971, only two of the 100 U.S. Senate seats and 13 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives were held by women. So, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) was founded at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics to promote greater knowledge and understanding about women’s participation in politics. Today, the center is one of the leading sources of scholarly research and current data about women’s participation in politics in the United States.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, says, “Our goal is to promote greater knowledge through research and then take action to enhance women’s leadership.” Its nonpartisan education and outreach programs aim to demystify the political process for U.S. women from elementary school through college and into their working and retirement years. 

One of the ways the Center for American Women and Politics highlights the dearth of women in office is through Ready to Run. This nonpartisan training program provides women interested in running for elective office with the skills they need to run successful campaigns. “CAWP is working to increase the number of women serving in political offices across the country by bringing Ready to Run to almost 20 states [around the United States] through partnerships with like-minded organizations,” says Walsh.

Another program designed by the Center for American Women and Politics to inspire more women to participate in politics is NEW Leadership. This six-day residential program for college women educates and encourages the next generation to become more involved in the political process. With partnerships in 24 states, more than 5,000 women have participated in the experiential program, which Walsh notes, “Helps participants understand the connection between the government and the issues they care about, such as climate change, violence against women, homelessness and hunger.”

Walsh says that during the NEW Leadership program, “For six days, the participants learn from elected and appointed women officials, lobbyists and advocates about how government works. They come to understand how they can identify the decision-makers who have an impact on policy issues and how they can have a voice in the political process. For example, college-age women in the 2016 New Jersey program participated in a mock policy debate on the issue of reducing mass incarceration, serving as advocates on either side of the issue or as members of the U.S. Senate.” Walsh says the participants complete the program with a commitment to be more engaged in the political process, whether as political staff, advocates with nonprofit organizations, or ultimately, as officeholders themselves. The Center for American Women and Politics counts NEW Leadership alumnae among the elected officials now serving in Oklahoma, New Jersey, Ohio and Minnesota. 

Starting early to foster a young girl’s belief that she could become the U.S. President, the center’s Teach a Girl to Lead program borrows the adage “you can’t be what you can’t see.” It provides information about books, films and resources portraying women in public leadership to teachers, parents and adult leaders of youth-serving organizations. Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics, says, “We encourage caretakers and educators to look through a ‘gender lens’ as they visit their state capital or their state’s women’s history landmarks, such as Denver’s Molly Brown House or the birthplace of the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls, New York.”

In 2016, the center provided every woman governor, member of Congress and state legislator with a copy of the picture storybook, “Grace for President.” They were asked to take the book to a local school, read to the students, answer questions about their job and then donate the book to the school library. Among the many women officeholders who read the book was former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Writman. She visited a school in Tewksbury, New Jersey, and read the story of a young girl Grace who asks her teacher about the presidential poster of all men in her classroom and learns that there has never been a female president. So, Grace becomes a candidate in her school’s mock election and learns the value of hard work and independent thinking. The book is written for 5- to 8-year-old children and teaches the reader about the U.S. electoral system.

Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.