With a record number of women stepping forward this year to run for office, the phone calls from reporters are already starting to come in. While both of us have spent decades working to elect women, we want to say unequivocally that it’s time to retire the term “Year of the Woman” once and for all.
Not only does the term reduce half the population to a special interest group — in the words of Senator Barbara Mikulski, “We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year” — it sends the misleading message that we’ve somehow reached the finish line on gender parity, or that we have had our moment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The election of five women to the U.S. Senate and 17 new women to the House of Representatives in 1992 was a watershed moment. But 26 years have passed since then and still 80% of elected officials – at every level of government – are men. At this rate, we won’t see equal representation in government for at least another century.
If we’re serious about increasing the number of women in politics, we have to stop asking ourselves if there will be another “Year of the Woman.” It’s time to turn our attention toward a more urgent question: What will it take to achieve enduring gender representation for women in politics, and how are we going to do it?
We know that women are more likely than men to back legislation that helps American families; they are also more likely to collaborate and seek compromise, forging personal and professional relationships that cross party lines. Electing women to public office isn’t just good for women – it’s good for everyone and it’s good for democracy.
That’s why for the first time, eight preeminent nonpartisan women’s political organizations have joined together to tackle that question and achieve equal gender representation in our lifetimes. Our coalition, ReflectUS, is unlike any other before it. It’s bigger, more comprehensive, and it includes women with a diversity of ideological perspectives working to achieve political representation for all women everywhere.
What we have collectively learned through our work is that if we really want to elect more women, it’s not enough to recruit women to run and throw millions of dollars at campaigns. We must change our tactics. We need and have devised a 360-degree strategy aimed at electing women at every level of government – from school boards, to city councils, to state legislatures, and to Congress.
We can start by going local. There are more than 520,000 elected offices across the country, with a majority of them at the municipal level. That’s why we reject the term “Year of the Woman” – it only focuses on women elected to Washington. Many women aren’t aware of the numerous opportunities for public service and it’s our goal to make that information easily accessible.
The United States is vast and what works to get women elected in the Northwest is dramatically different than what works in the Southeast. That’s why we need data to inform strategies that will elect women faster. We will lead an effort to test strategies to elect women in a number of counties in red and blue states across the country – to identify patterns and utilize that data to get more women to run and win.
Last, we’re going to get more elected officials pulling in the same direction. We’re inviting everyone – from members of Congress down to township supervisors to prioritize electing more women. We’re asking for their commitment to efforts that will increase representation of women in both the short and long term.
In 2013, women pulled America out of a government shutdown. A bipartisan working group of five female senators – Republicans Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Kelly Ayotte, alongside Democrats Mikulski and Patty Murray – devised a framework that ultimately served as the core of the deal to reopen the government. As Senator John McCain said, “Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily from women in the Senate.”
The U.S. ranks behind 98 countries when it comes to women’s representation. With issues like economic security, international relations, gun violence, healthcare, and civil rights at the forefront of our national dialogue, we’re facing an urgent need for more women at the table. But we can only succeed if we work together, putting aside our political beliefs to achieve this shared goal. We can’t call ourselves a representative democracy until our democracy is representative.
Anne Moses is the Founder and President of IGNITE. Cynthia Richie Terrell is the Founder of RepresentWomen and FairVote.