Women’s relationships to holding political office often differ from men’s. Women usually start with a passionate interest in a particular issue rather than a general interest in politics and political involvement. They feel more responsibility toward underrepresented populations, like people of color or with lower incomes; and they believe more strongly that government should be open and transparent.
Through survey research studies of men and women who serve in state legislatures, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, has characterized the many differences between male and female politicians.
“Women bring to the making of public policy a different set of life experiences than their male colleagues, and these are reflected in their policy priorities,” says Debbie Walsh, the center’s director, who notes that women’s priorities are more likely to concern women, families, and children.
CAWP, which combines research on women officeholders and voters with educational programs to empower women’s engagement in the political process, is co-hosting a networking reception along with U.S. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, and all the women in the New Jersey Legislature to support CAWP’s nonpartisan leadership programs for New Jersey women, on Monday, February 27, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Marsilio’s Kitchen in West Trenton; cost: $125. As of press time, the event was sold out.
The reception will raise money to build institutional capacity and to support two programs, Ready to Run, which encourages women to get involved in politics, and NEW Leadership, designed to “demystify the political process for college women.”
The center has also found that women, as opposed to men, are more likely to run if they are recruited. “Therefore,” Walsh says, “parties play a particularly important role for women; they are the most likely and persuasive recruiter.”
Women also run for different reasons than men. When asked why they ran for the first time, men are more likely to have had a deep interest in politics and even a career in politics. Women, Walsh says, “will tell us they ran because of a public policy issue — it could be something as local as a dangerous intersection in their town or as global as climate change.”
Women also are more likely than men to have participated in some kind of campaign training program. “They look at these institutions and don’t see a lot of people who look like them, and they may not have the confidence to just go ahead and run,” Walsh says.
CAWP, with the help of experts, also trains women in everything they need to know to run a campaign:
Organizing a campaign. The center helps women put together a campaign plan of the steps they need to take when they make the decision to run: what they need to know about the district, their opponents, and themselves; how to put together voter lists so they can identify who are the likely voters and figure out how to effectively target those voters; how to determine what a campaign will cost; and how to allocate their resources and time.
Fundraising. Although the center provides information about legalities like whoa candidate can and cannot take money from and how much, Walsh says that for many the critical issue is how to actually make the ask. Essential to effective fundraising is to learn “how to tell the story of who I am and how do I shape a message that is compelling so voters will not just give me their vote but help me raise money.” Women have a certain advantage, she adds, because “they are running because they care about something.”
“Ultimately it’s not about you; it’s about what you are going to be able to do for your community and the people you are trying to reach,” Walsh says.
Understanding and working within New Jersey’s party structure. Noting that the party structure is “complicated and not particularly transparent,” and is “largely led by men,” Walsh explains that nonetheless it is the county party chairs who make the decision about runs. Even before the primaries counties make their endorsements, and these are closely linked to campaign resources. So the center brings in Democratic and Republican women leaders to teach women about the political players in their municipality and how to connect successfully with them.
A politician’s online presence is also important — a good Facebook page, careful postings, not emailing too often. Social media is also a good avenue for fundraising, and, Walsh says, “a relatively low cost way for a candidate to have a presence.”
The center also has a track for women who are not yet ready to run, but are concerned about making sure they have a voice and know how to advocate for issues they care about.
Walsh grew up in New York City, where her father worked in sales and her mother for a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform. She grew up in the West Village during the 1960s and 1970s, a very political time, and her parents were very politically active. “Politics was something always discussed in our family,” she says.
She graduated from SUNY-Binghamton in 1979 with a degree in political science. Through the one-year Eagleton Fellowship program at Rutgers, she earned a master’s in political science and public policy.
Walsh’s first job was in Iowa, working for a woman who ran for Congress and lost. She then returned to Eagleton and CAWP to work on a conference that brought together women in state legislatures across party lines on issues of mutual concern. Her first conference was in 1981, and she continued to work on them for many years. She has been the center’s director since 2001.
CAWP has three empowerment programs.
Ready to Run is a non-partisan campaign training program to encourage women to run for elective office, position themselves for elective office, work on a campaign, or get involved in public life in other ways;it is conducted in New Jersey and has partner programs in 15 states.
NEW Leadership, Walsh says, is a one-week residential leadership training program designed to “demystify the political process for college women” and help them see ways in which they can engage in politics, or work in government or nonprofits. The program is also New Jersey-based, but the center trains other universities, which run 20 similar programs around the country that cover students in 25 or 26 states.
The “Teach a Girl to Lead” program was developed to make women’s public leadership visible to boys and girls in kindergarten through 12th grade. One part of it is having elected women officials go into classrooms up to fourth grade to read books to kids; this year they read “If I Were President,” and last year, “Grace for President.” Walsh says, “Last year we had hundreds across the country, and we are hoping to increase this year.” The program also provides resources to teachers.
Through its research CAWP has explored what women can bring to political office and has committed itself to helping women to address their unique perspectives to the political process in the United States. “At the end of the day,” Walsh says, “politics is always about the personal experience of the people who are there. This is one of the reasons we talk about the value of diversity in who serves in legislatures and all government positions.”