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January 8, 2008

Why Aren't You Running for Office?

The view from the visitors’ gallery in the Capitol is still a sea of men’s suits.

woman with red purse at voting machine

Photo Credit: Plamen Petkov

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Women in American politics have never been more prominent — yet the view from the visitors’ gallery in the Capitol is still a sea of men’s suits. Only 16 percent of congressional seats are held by females. Why aren’t there more of us in those chairs? Or in statehouses across the country, where less than a quarter of those who serve are women? The short answer is that you have to be in it to win it, as Hillary Clinton says. Although men and women win at comparable rates, far fewer women actually run. So come on, buck the trend!

Women usually wait to run for office — until we’re more established professionally, until the kids are older. Some simply wait to be asked. “Women tend to put it off,” says Ilana Goldman, president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, a nonprofit group that aims to get pro-choice women into office. She laughs about how men tend to think they’ve been recruited to run if a bartender casually remarks, “Hey, buddy, you could do that — you oughta run,” whereas a woman can be all but begged by her party’s pooh-bahs to appear on the ballot and still come away thinking, “Oh, but they didn’t really mean it.” Politics is, in many ways, a seniority system, Goldman says, so women hurt themselves if they wait. “If he starts running when he’s 23 and she waits until she’s 40, he has already built a donor base and knows the media. The best advice I could give to a young woman: Don’t wait and don’t worry about what you don’t know — just get started.”

Decide what matters most to you. “If education is your top issue, then start by running for the school board,” says Faith Winter, national field director for The White House Project, a nonprofit group that promotes women in politics. “If you’re good with budget issues, go for the city council.” Then figure out the political landscape. Next, meet with your city or county clerk to learn the rules. “They are there to help you,” says Winter. She should know: At 27, she was recently elected to the Westminster City Council in Colorado.

Texas lawyer Barbara Ann Radnofsky ran for office for the first time in 2006 and lost to incumbent senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; now Radnofsky plans to run again — for Texas Attorney General in 2010. Since candidates often fail in their first run, that willingness to try a second time is key. Says Christine Jennings, a congressional candidate in southwest Florida, “I learned a long time ago that nothing worth doing is easy.” She lost in ’06 — in a race that’s still under investigation amid reports of malfunctioning voting machines — and is set for an ’08 rematch. “It’s that power of permission that you have to give yourself,” she says. “The permission not to be perfect and not to win the first time.”

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