Groups say more women interested in running for office
February 4, 2017
DENVER — Lucy Sedgwick was already thinking about running for office. The 28-year-old has been working in political advocacy and organizing since she finished college. She's passionate about the environment, public education and reducing student debt. In September, she started an application for a program that trains women who want to run for office.
She didn't think she'd finish the application. Until Nov. 9.
"I wish I could say it was Hillary that inspired me to apply," said Sedgwick, a Denver Democrat. "The day after the election, I thought to myself, well, there need to be more people, more elected officials out there, who work for all of their constituents — not just the ones who voted for them."
For some women — particularly those who are upset about the election results — there's a clear answer to the question of what to do next, and what to do following the Women's March: Run for office.
It's hard to say now whether that will come to fruition. But two organizations that help women with the ins and outs of running for office for the first time say they're seeing increased interest — from more people watching how-to-run courses online to more women applying to an intensive program for campaign prep, and even to simple requests for a meeting for a cup of coffee and conversation about the idea of maybe running for office.
It appears to be a Democratic movement, though one observer said political engagement in general also has increased on the far right.
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Colorado has had neither a female governor nor a U.S. senator. But the state has more women in legislation than most. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 percent of Colorado's legislators are women. Only Vermont, at 40 percent, has a higher percentage of women in the legislature.
Women outnumber men among Democrats at the Colorado statehouse, at 51 percent, while women account for 23 percent of Republicans.
After the election, Sedgwick finished the application and was accepted to a six-month program with Emerge Colorado. Emerge is a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for local and state races — and then run again for a higher office.
Emerge Colorado expanded its program this year due to greater demand, said executive director Jenny Willford. More than 60 women applied. "I think we had probably 40 full applications last year."
The application process ended in November, but interest is growing now, she said. "It's been incredible since the Women's March," Willford said. "We have had so many women emailing, saying, 'What do I do next?' So many women are saying they want to run for office.
"I've never seen anything like this," she said. "It feels like there's a movement, something building."
Vote Run Lead, a nonpartisan organization that helps women run for office, saw a sharp uptick in traffic after the election, said Faith Winter, mentoring director for the organization and a Democrat serving as representative for House District 35.
Vote Run Lead runs webinars on various topics, including how to run for office. "Before the election, we'd have 30 to 40 women online for clinics," Winter said. "And after the election, we've had 450."
"That's just our web clinics," she added. They run training sessions in multiple cities including Denver.
"I have a lot of women who want to sit down and have coffee and ask questions," Winter said. "So keeping up with it has been hard, but also exciting. Seeing this amount of energy and passion and dedication to democracy — I've been waiting for this."
But for all the interest Winter and Willford are seeing, political consultant Debbie Brown said she's not seeing much buzz among Republican women. "There's more engagement on the far right and the far left, where people will be digging in their heels and wanting to run for office.
"At Colorado Women's Alliance, we're putting on a How to Run for Office 101," Brown said. "And I'll be curious to see how many women come to the training."
Will more women run for office in the next few years? Brown is waiting to see. "I'm not sure how it will land. (But) I've always been of the belief that women have a wonderful role to play in public policy and the public square, and we need more of them."
Historically, there has been an increase in the number of women running for office in the US. "When institutions are seen as non-representative and hostile toward women," said Celeste Montoya, an associate professor in women and gender studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
One of the classic examples of this is Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, she said. "The visual of having this panel of all older white men questioning Anita Hill and asking her some troubling and hostile questions about sexual harassment — that alone was enough to motivate women to run for office in record numbers," Montoya said.
The big turnout for the Women's Marches was interesting to watch in part because simply saying that "women's issues" are under attack doesn't get at the diversity of women in the U.S. — and therefore doesn't necessarily mobilize large groups of women, she said.
Women who are more privileged might not be as affected by certain issues. For example, she said, "The debate on the Affordable Care Act doesn't touch them. Birth control, if you're in a more privileged socioeconomic position, it doesn't affect you. But when you reach across those lines, then you see bigger mobilization."
Sedgwick, who started Emerge Colorado's training program in January, always thought she would be on the other side of politics. She has trained other people to run for office but hadn't considered it herself until recently.
There's an idea in politics that when it comes to running for office, "most women need to be asked seven times before they'll finally do it," she said.
"Frankly, a lot of people were asking me if I'd thought about running for office," she said with a laugh. She might run for a school board seat, she said, but she hasn't decided yet.
Studies have shown that men are more likely to be recruited to run, and women are less likely to see themselves as qualified to run, Montoya said — even though "when women run for office, they tend to be just as successful as men."
Then there's the challenge of raising a family, having a career and running for office at the same time. Men and women with children tend to be held to different standards, Willford said. "If a woman brings her kids to the office at the (legislature), people say, 'Why didn't she get a babysitter?' If a man does it, they say, 'Oh, what a good dad!'"
Voters hold men and women to different standards, too, Willford said. "They will forgive a man for being unlikable and unqualified. But they don't forgive a woman for being unlikable and unqualified. She has to have both of those qualities for voters to vote for her."
But if this election was about change, then perhaps changes are coming on this front as well.
Former Boulder County Commissioner Josie Heath said she has seen an increase in women wanting to run for office lately, too. She wonders if the last election will spur a different mindset for women who want to pursue an elected office. "I think the presidential race turned everything on its head — you don't necessarily have to have experience. And I hope that works for women as well, because I think there will be some terrific ones."