According to the US Census Bureau, only 63% of eligible female voters turned up to vote in the 2016 presidential election, a contest rife with issues concerning their health, employment, education, economic status, sexual orientation, and families. At 43%, the turnout for the 2014 midterm election is even more troubling.
We’re facing a critical problem: American women are not only greatly under-represented by their government, but detached on a grand scale from political and social issues that directly impact our daily lives.
But we’re seeing signs of hope…
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, women are entering politics at a higher rate than ever before. In the last year alone, the non-profit VoteRunLead has trained more than 10,000 women to run for state and local office. And this past November, 31 of the group’s alumnae were elected to public office.
At the 2017 AppNexus Women’s Leadership Forum, VoteRunLead founder and executive director Erin Vilardi spoke with a group of seasoned political veterans about how women can further increase their engagement in the years to come.
Here are four things every woman leader should know about civic engagement:
1. We really need more women in office.
Across the nation, women are vastly underrepresented in public office, accounting for just 19% of the U.S. House and 21% of the Senate. Needless to say, these demographics do not come close to reflecting the population our leaders are elected to serve. But beyond that, panelists made the case that women leaders provide added value when compared to their male peers.
For instance, New York state senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) believes that women do a better job of working together across party lines, noting that she and her Democratic colleagues frequently have dinner with members of the Republican caucus.
Meanwhile, Vilardi says that women’s life experiences cause them to prioritize key issues that sometimes get overlooked. In addition to bringing a crucial perspective on reproductive rights, women make up a majority of the people who earn the minimum wage, and their historical assignment as caretakers allows them to be more in tune with the needs of working families.
“It’s so critical to have women in leadership roles, particularly in government, because we change the agenda,” Vilardi said. “We put issues that our lives and families are affected by on the agenda, and we prioritize them more greatly.”
2. It’s important to say “Yes!” to your own ambition and affirm the aspirations of your peers.
Women are often more hesitant to pursue leadership opportunities than men. Instead of listening to self-doubts about their qualifications, Vilardi says women should pay attention to the little voice in their head that says, “Maybe I’ll run for office one day.”
When women share their political ambitions with other community members, Vilardi says they’re often surprised to hear that they’d be perfect for a local leadership position. Soon after, they find themselves serving on committees, sitting on community boards, and being asked to run for office. Even if you’re not planning to run yourself, it’s important to encourage other women to run for office and to remind them of their many qualifications.
“The best way to get more women into government is to ask them,” Vilardi said. “We often take ourselves out of the game before we even think about public office.”
3. You don’t have to run for a major position
While a high-profile run for the state senate can be a little intimidating, there are an extraordinary number of options for women who want to get involved in politics.
Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer recommends running for lower-level positions like district leader or school board president. Meanwhile, Krueger suggests that New York City residents should check out their local community board, an advisory body where citizens share their concerns with elected officials.
Even if you don’t want to hold office yourself, Greer says you can support female candidates by hosting fundraisers, connecting aspiring leaders to your network, and donating to causes you care about.
“We can’t wake up every two years or four years and say, ‘Oh, we should probably pay attention to the presidential election or the particular senate race that’s going on,’” Greer said. “All these people are in a pipeline that gets us to the presidency, or the senate or a house race.”
4. A healthy democracy is one that’s inclusive of all women.
In a one-on-one interview [link to video interview] following the Women’s Leadership Forum, Vilardi stressed the importance of increasing civic engagement among women of color.
For her, the key lies in making sure members of underrepresented groups feel as if they are truly part of the political process. To do this, Vilardi recommends working to restore voting rights by extending same-day voter registration and early voting programs to people in all 50 states. In addition, she says it’s important to take a long, hard look at gerrymandered districts that give people the sense that they have no real power over who represents them in office.
“When you have gender equality and racial equality, more people participate in that process, and it makes the whole system better,” Vilardi said.
The ball’s in your court
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you decide to get involved with the political process, so long as you’re investing your time or money in creating positive change. As many of us have learned this year, inaction is itself a political choice. It’s up to you to decide whether you’re going to sit on the sidelines or roll up your sleeves and get to work.
“If you’re pissed about something and you’re not getting involved, you’re part of the problem,” Krueger said. “So I say, ‘What is it that you care about?’ Start looking at how you can get involved with that and how you can make a difference.”