By Rachel Morrison
Women are running for elected positions in unprecedented numbers, yet structural barriers remain for women candidates. Scripps is in the vanguard of eliminating these barriers and preparing students for lives of public service.
Tiffany Ackley ’01 had no interest in politics.
“But then, in 2016, I found out I had a brain tumor,” she explains. “After taking my baby and three-year-old to my mother-in-law’s house for maybe the last time, I awoke from a 12-hour surgery to the Donald Trump presidency. I thought of my daughter growing up under a man who has said what he says about women and minorities. That’s when I became very interested in politics.”
Once she relearned how to walk, one of Ackley’s first big outings was the 2017 Women’s March in Downtown Los Angeles. “I took my daughter by the hand, strapped my son to my front, and chanted with my little girl, ‘Equal rights for all!’ My daughter asked me, ‘Mommy, what are we going to do?’ I said, ‘I guess I’m going to run for office!’”
Ackley, now mayor pro tem of Aliso Viejo, California, told this story at a spring Elect Her training hosted by Scripps’ Laspa Center for Leadership. Organized by Running Start, a nonpartisan nonprofit that inspires and trains young women to run for office, Elect Her is a one-day training that has held over 300 workshops in four countries.
Elect Her trainings include a focus on creating a path for future women leaders. Students meet with elected women in their communities and complete the training with a plan to run for student government or political office. According to Elect Her, of those who participate in their training, 80 percent seek leadership opportunities, and 90 percent who go on to run for office win.
The Laspa Center learned about the training through alumna Poppy MacDonald ’97, who serves on the Running Start board in addition to her role as president of USAFacts. “Once I learned more about the program, I knew we had to bring this to Scripps,” says the Laspa Center’s executive director, Vicki Klopsch. “It fit so well within the Laspa Center’s civic engagement work and was also a program designed specifically to encourage more women to run for office and even out representation to include more women and non-binary people in elected positions.”
According to Running Start, although women make up half of the population, less than one in four elected leaders are women. In a panel of local elected officials that MacDonald moderated at the training, she noted this same trend within the California congressional delegation, which represents 18 of 53 seats in the House of Representatives. Only three women hold those 18 positions, and women make up only 31.7 percent of the California state legislature.
“When women run, they win at the same rates as men—the problem is that there aren’t enough women running,” states Running Start’s website. A look at the history of women candidates in the US may help explain the dearth of women in elected positions.
When women run, they win at the same rates as men—the problem is that there aren’t enough women running.
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to hold federal office in the US. She was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1916, running on a platform of women’s suffrage (she was elected four years prior to gaining the right to vote herself), child welfare, state and national prohibition, labor reforms, assistance to farmers, and pacifism. “Rankin’s candidacy, election, and her vote against war sparked a public discussion about the nature of women and men and their political capabilities,” writes Mary Murphy, professor of American women’s history at Montana State University, in the article “When Jeannette Said ‘No’: Montana Women’s Response to World War I.” Women in the early 20th century were seen as morally superior, maternal, and gentler than men, ideas rooted in the “politics of difference”—the notion that men and women are inherently different. As Murphy notes, feminists and progressives used this framework to agitate for social reforms, many aimed at improving the lives of women and children. At the time, this “difference” gave women leverage in their political campaigns.
Yet, as the second wave of feminism surged in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the politics of difference started to seem, well, impolitic. Sexual difference was increasingly understood as the result of various cultural and social values, norms, and representations, rather than as inborn and genetically determined—an emerging orientation famously expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in her 1949 book The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
The philosophical successor to de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, further argued in 1963 that women’s talents and potential were wasted at home, challenging the widespread assumption that a woman’s primary or ideal role is that of homemaker, mother, and wife. The sea change brought about by second-wave feminism, coupled with shifting social norms and the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s right to abortion, ushered in a period of increased women’s representation in Congress. Between the 65th Congress that began in 1917, the year Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House, and the mid-20th century, women’s representation remained at about the level of 10 seats per Congress. But by the 84th Congress in 1955, those numbers nearly doubled, ultimately surging to nearly 60 seats in the 103rd Congress of 1994. In 2020, in the current 116th Congress, women hold 127 seats, representing 23.7 percent of a total of 535 members. Yet of that roughly 24 percent, a mere 37 percent are women of color.
Women are presented as a fractious group, but actually, women agree on a lot.
As twentieth-century American history has shown, the overarching trend has been toward greater gender parity. Yet, even as they represent over half of the US population, earn over half of all advanced degrees, and make up 50.4 percent of the workforce as of December 2019, women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of politics. Unsurprisingly, the result of this disparity is that the issues that matter most to this voting cohort seldom make it from committee to bill. There simply aren’t enough women at the table.
“Women are presented as a fractious group, but actually, women agree on a lot,” said Cecile Richards at a 2019 Scripps Presents event. Richards is the former director of Planned Parenthood and co-founder of Supermajority, a political action group that aims to “train and mobilize two million women over the next year to become organizers, activists, and leaders ahead of the 2020 election” and to create a “multiracial, intergenerational movement for women’s equity.” According to Richards, most women agree that women should be paid the same amount for the same job as men; that women should be able to access healthcare and not be penalized because of their sex and their children; and that childcare should be affordable and accessible so women can participate in the workforce. “These issues are supported by men, as well, but they are never at the top of the list,” Richards said. “But I really do believe that if we had a more representative democracy that included representative numbers of women, in particular, we would actually be able to get more done in Washington, D.C. [In Congress] . . . the only conversations that are actually bipartisan [are] among women.”
At the Elect Her training, Ackley reiterated Richards’s point about how representation affects legislation. “It’s not democracy unless you have representation from the different groups. A table full of white men without children aren’t going to think about community events for young kids. Without a minority vote, without women, mothers, everyone, the conversation is really narrowed, so changing the conversation was important to me,” Ackley said. “Why weren’t we flying the LGBT flag in the appropriate month in Aliso Viejo or celebrating Black History Month? It’s clear that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” she said, meaning that without inclusive representation, only the interests of a narrow majority will be heard.
The first step toward increased representation, according to Richards, is recognizing and overcoming the barriers for women who want to run for elected positions. “Just the sheer financial cost of being a candidate . . . women haven’t had the same access to funds and resources and people investing in them,” she noted. “The systems were never made to recruit women.”
The Elect Her training distilled key steps and skills for participants interested in eventually running for office, including fundraising, networking, and speech writing, as well as offering exercises intended to help would-be candidates identify and package their platforms. “I am still in such a learning stage about what issues are most important to me and what I think the right policy choices are . . . [so] it was really exciting to hear from peers and alums who, while I am sure they are still learning as well, have already developed core issues they care about and plans for action,” says Maya Lynch ’22, a politics major who attended the training. If engaging young people at the undergraduate level in the minutiae of yet-hypothetical political campaigning seems a tad premature, think again: according to Running Start, engaging women in politics in high school and college is key to increasing the number of women in public office. More than 56 percent of congresswomen got their start in student government. Also of note: while only two percent of women who graduate from college attended a women’s college, these graduates comprise 33 percent of women on Fortune 1000 boards and 20 percent of women in Congress.
“We see how involved Scripps students are—they seek to serve on student government, they create clubs and organizations that address their specific ideologies and values, and they join together to call attention to changes they want to see. Our students already practice politics every day, in multiple ways,” says Klopsch. “We owe it to them to help them take the next step and give them the tools to bring their visions to fruition in the real world, and the Elect Her training breaks down barriers to make political leadership a viable choice for a diversity of students.”
For alumna Adenike Idowu ’13, now a PhD student in economics and international studies at Claremont Graduate University, the Elect Her training was the first step in a larger plan to eventually seek election to public office. “The training actually clarified how much simpler the process could be than I thought. I learned how to condense my platform into something that is easily digestible—how to distill political philosophy into a few action items,” said Idowu of the experience. “The other takeaway from the training was the other women there—I was very inspired by their speeches and their grassroots efforts to advance their causes.”
As for Lynch, the training was another step in her long journey to find ways to push for progressive causes, including prison abolition and environmental justice. “I have always thought about running for office. Even as an eight-year-old, I was secretly rooting for Obama over Clinton partially because I wanted to be the first woman president,” she said a few months after the training, adding a caveat: “Granted, this feels pretty silly now, since I love seeing other women thrive in office! So, I was really excited to get a better understanding of what running for office really looks like at the Elect Her training—at the time, I was actually considering running for SAS junior class co-president.”
She did run, and was elected, shortly thereafter.