It Matters Which Women We Elect to Office

When the results came in from the recent primary elections, the media went haywire calling it “ladies night” and a “new year of the women,” primarily because several wealthy, high-profile conservative women were nominated, in some cases to run against female incumbents.

Well, in terms of proclaiming a new “year of the woman,” we say, wait just one moment.

Yes, we need more women in office — females make up 51 percent of the population and Congress only has 17 percent women — so there is plenty of room for improvement, at the state and local level as well. And yes, as founders of Emerge America, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office, we are thrilled that there are a significant number of female candidates running for office this year. However, we aren’t prepared to call it the “year of the woman,” unless those women who are elected care about the issues that will actually move a progressive agenda on issues like the environment, health care and the economy.

There is a long history of women taking advantage of the rights won by women who came before them, but who are hostile to progressive goals. Women actually fought against women’s right to vote, women’s sexual freedom, equal educational opportunity, and of course, the Equal Rights Amendment.

If we want to make our world a better place, we want candidates who care about our air and water, have empathy for our immigrant sisters from other countries, believe in equal pay for equal work and want to make government more transparent and responsive.

We must increase the number of women Democrats in elected office. When Democratic women are elected, they play a significant role in shaping progressive policies that will benefit women across the board, including poor women. These women candidates are more likely than men and their conservative counterparts to bring citizens into the political process, to opt for open government, and to be responsive to groups previously denied access to the benefits of society.

Women introduce more legislation and co-sponsor more bills than male members, but what kind of bills is also important. We want female leaders who will lead the charge on “women friendly” issues like child-care, and be at the forefront of policies on the economy, health care, the environment and human rights.

With President Obama’s landmark health care reform, all Democratic female senators and members of the House except for one congresswoman ensured its victory. And the historic American Clean Energy and Security Act passed with a tight vote supported by 66 Democratic congresswomen’s votes, while 40 Democratic congressmen opposed it.

We are not making the case that women are somehow inherently better than men. Research has steadily showed that diverse groups of people make better decisions than like-minded groups due to different perspectives and thought processes. To make the best policy decisions, we need women at every table and we need them in big numbers.

We also aren’t making the case that women are somehow more moral than men in preferring progressive policies. Research at Stanford show that men prefer “hierarchy enhancing” policies and women are more supportive than men of “hierarchy attenuating policies,” such as government-sponsored health care, guaranteed jobs for all or greater aid to poor children. They are more likely to agree with statements such as “if people were treated more equally, we would have fewer problems in this country.” Women’s preferences are aligned with a progressive agenda and relate to why Republican women sometimes cross party lines to support Democratic legislation.

While the United States holds itself out as a model democracy, it ranks 82nd in the world for women in elected office behind Mexico, China and Pakistan. We push other countries such as Iraq to insert a 25 percent quota for female representation into its constitution, but the United States opposes such requirements for its own government.

What’s missing? Women who care need to be recruited and elected to public office. Emerge America is the only organization that gives Democratic women the tools to win: an in-depth training program and a powerful political network. Unlike Republican recruitment, we actively reach out to diverse female leaders and 40 percent of our graduates are women of color. Founded in 2002, Emerge is currently in nine states with plans to expand its program across the country. In such a short time close to 50 percent of our alumnae have already run for office and 60 percent of them have won.

Recently Arianna Huffington celebrated with hundreds of Emerge graduates and their supporters in San Francisco. Her essential message was that it is up to us to seize the moment: “We must all look for the leadership within ourselves and not wait for the knight on a white charger to come and save us.”

That is what we are doing at Emerge: Providing the environment and the tools so that committed women with strong human values will look inside themselves and say, Yes, I want to make change. Getting trained and elected to office is one very important way to make that happen.

Marya Stark is the board chair and a founder of Emerge America. She is a principal at Allegory, Inc., a leadership and communications training company. Dorka Keehn is the board co-Chair and a founder of Emerge America. She is currently writing a book, ‘Eco-Amazons,’ on American women environmental leaders to be published in spring 2011.