Last week, a 25-year-old from New Brighton named Kate Knuth won election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, becoming the youngest woman to do so this year. Claudia Kauffman, a Washington state woman, pursued a spot on the state Senate and won, becoming the first female American-Indian to hold the office. First-timer Donna Maddux, 35, of Oregon, broke through a glass ceiling of her own when she scored a seat on the all-male Tualatin City Council.
Knuth. Kauffman. Maddux. These are the faces of a new women's political movement. Characterized by their authenticity and strong records of civic involvement, these women are filling the pipeline to power at the local levels of American government. Yes, there are visible women at the top: Nancy Pelosi is poised to become the new speaker of the House; Condoleezza Rice will have increased clout with the demise of Donald Rumsfeld; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a top presidential contender; and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is the first woman chair of the National Governors Association. But what we're witnessing now is new energy at the other end of the ladder.
An old joke in the women's political community goes, "When they told us 1992 was the year of the woman, we didn't realize it was going to be just a year." Sure enough, the numbers of women in state legislatures has hovered around 22 percent for a decade, and overall gains in women's representation have been minimal. While the rest of the world has moved forward, the United States has slid back: We're ranked 67th in the world in terms of women's political representation.
The United States is now poised to change these figures. There's energy at all levels. As power players slide into new positions at the top, women are filtering into the pipeline at local levels, in city councils and school boards, and statewide as presidents of state senates and chief justices of state supreme courts. It's a winning combination for permanent change that the U.S. women's political movement hasn't mastered until now.
In the 1970s, the movement centered on the work of a select few organizations. But now, national and local organizations on both ends of the spectrum are hard at work to close the leadership gap.
This year alone, our organization and countless others have trained thousands of women to run for office. A record 2,431 women ran for state legislature this election. These candidates and other trained women, with their newly gained fundraising, campaigning and messaging skills, will fill the ranks in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Future senators, U.S. representatives and governors will emerge from this crop of leaders.
When the final story of this election is told, the revelation will be that after more than a decade of stagnation, women at the grass-roots level are running and winning. Over time, these women have become the government in exile, creating some of the most innovative social policy, from micro-enterprise and living-wage campaigns to inclusive health care policy and accountability measures for keeping kids safe. But instead of continually struggling to keep these policies in place as outsiders, now they will take their place alongside men in the seats of power, and make these changes permanent.
The above editorial originally appeared in the Star Tribune on November 19, 2006.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking/Penguin, 2004).
The White House Project, a national, non-partisan organization,
is dedicated to advancing women's leadership across sectors, enhancing
public perceptions of women's ability to lead and fostering the entry of
women into leadership positions, including the U.S. Presidency. The White
House Project is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization and can be found online
at www.TheWhiteHouseProject.org .
Vote, Run, LeadTM is a White House Project initiative to engage young women
in the political process as voters, as activists and as candidates for
political office and can be found online at www.VoteRunLead.org.