Where Women Like You Don’t Have Enough Seats At The Table — But Should

Photo courtesy of Erin Maye Quade.
Erin Maye Quade's bid for state Legislature has attracted national attention.
Erin Maye Quade spent much of her 20s working in politics in her home state of Minnesota. But the community organizer never thought she’d run for office herself. "I always figured I would be able to lend a really good voice to some policy," she said. "[But] I figured I would be behind a great legislator, a great leader." After learning about the sky-high poverty levels in her childhood school district, the 30-year-old Democrat decided to launch her own campaign for the Minnesota House of Representatives. Her bid has attracted attention far outside of state lines — she even earned an endorsement from President Obama himself. Maye Quade is seeking a seat in her state's Capitol during what is arguably the biggest year for women in politics. Hillary Clinton's historic bid could give the country our first female president, and several key races that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate will come down to whether female candidates win. And even farther down the ballot, a record number of women are running for state legislatures, the political chambers where essential policies that affect our day-to-day lives are made. If she wins, she'll join fewer than 500 women serving as state legislators nationwide — a figure that represents just 24.4% of all seats. But if she wins, the 30-year-old Democrat will also be a member of an even more underrepresented group: millennial women elected to state-level office. As few as 52 women between the ages of 18 and 35 serve in state legislatures, according to one recent analysis by Karl Kurtz, a consultant for the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s less than 1% of the 7,300-plus state legislative seats nationwide.

If nobody’s inviting them or asking them or encouraging them to participate in the process, they don’t do it.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics
It isn’t just young women missing from state capitol chambers. Millennials account for about a quarter of the population, but hold about 5% of state legislative seats, according to NCSL's 2015 analysis. The average age for all state legislators is 56. To some extent, these numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, roots in a community and experience in politics or another industry — things that can take years to develop — can be crucial to winning these races. In many parts of the country, state legislators work only part of the year in the capital city — when they must be free to travel back and forth from their home district — for fairly low pay. Those conditions can be tough for a young politician who is also trying to build a career, pay off student loans, or start a family. But if you look at Capitols across the country, you’ll see that men ages 18 to 35 far outnumber their female peers. The analysis by NCSL's Kurtz identified about 320 men in that range. That means there are six times as many millennial men than women serving as legislators today.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Those low numbers are problematic for a number of reasons, experts say. They mean millennial women, who represent an estimated 13% of eligible voters in this country, aren’t at the table helping craft state-level policies on everything from reproductive rights to gun control to student loans. It also doesn’t bode well for the future of getting more women elected to higher office. That’s because serving in the state House or Senate can act as a “springboard” for positions like U.S. House of Representatives, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. More than half of the 84 women currently elected to the House had previously held a seat in a state Capitol. “It’s such an important level in terms of policy and also as a feeder for Congress and other higher office in general,” Walsh told Refinery29. Many young female candidates recognize the dearth of women like them in state office. And bringing their fresh perspectives to politics can be part of their pitch to voters.

I don’t have as much experience — I’m aware of that — but I do have different viewpoints and a different understanding of what’s going to happen to the younger population if things don’t change.

Saira Blair, member of the West Virginia House of Delegates
Maye Quade acknowledges she is running to join a legislative body that has historically “not looked anything like me.” She’s a biracial woman, while her state Legislature is 67% male and 95% white. And at 30, she’s more than 30 years younger than the average member of the House. She’s also married to a woman, while just three of the state Legislature’s current members are openly gay. Maye Quade sees her experience and outlook as all the more essential given the changing demographics of the state. “It’s crucial,” she said. “Representation matters. Breadth of experience and diverse ideas and opinions, it’s manifested in [our] policy.” More than 1,200 miles away, Emanuela Palmares is also waging a campaign she says will give her Connecticut district a representative who truly understands their concerns. The 33-year-old Republican is challenging an incumbent who has been in office for decades. “I’m a Latina, I’m a single mom, recently divorced, and I have a child with special needs. And I manage a small business that’s run by my family,” she said. “In my neighborhood, in my district, I’m not that special. Everyone else is basically like me.”
Photo courtesy of Emanuela Palmares.
Emanuela Palmares is running for a state district in Connecticut.
The native Brazilian, who emigrated as a child, also runs a trilingual weekly newspaper that serves the city of Danbury’s substantial population of Spanish and Portuguese speakers. She said it's time someone from her community is represented in the state Capitol. “People have seen their community change, but they have not seen the face of their government change," she said. And in North Pole, AK, Christina Sinclair is hoping her rainbow-dyed hair, inspired by the Aurora lights, will show others that “don’t have to fit a certain mold in order to do something” as she runs on a platform of improving jobs and the environment for young people struggling to get by. “It might be a breath of fresh air to see someone who is real, like, Look, this is who I am, look let’s do this, the 28-year-old Democrat said.
Photo: Associated Press.
Saira Blair, 20, is one of the youngest legislators in the country.
Female candidates and current legislators in this demographic say they are uniquely qualified to make sure the needs and desires of the 34 million millennial women living in this country have a seat at the policy-making table. “I don’t have as much experience — I’m aware of that — but I do have different viewpoints and a different understanding of what’s going to happen to the younger population if things don’t change,” said West Virginia Delegate Saira Blair, who was the youngest legislator in the nation when she was elected at 18.

During one budget debate, Blair was able to make a very personal plea for keeping education funding intact even if it meant raising taxes — a move typically opposed by her fellow Republicans. Her family was among the thousands statewide who would suffer if the program were cut. “I’m on that scholarship,” Blair, now 20, said. “The reason a lot of students like me stay in West Virginia, as opposed to going to college out of state, is because of this scholarship. If we cut if off, we’d be exporting even more students to Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania: the places we usually see them go.”

I’m a Latina, I’m a single mom, recently divorced, and I have a child with special needs…In my neighborhood, in my district, I’m not that special. Everyone else is basically like me.

Emanuela Palmares, Connecticut state legislature candidate
Blair, who serves alongside several other millennials in the Virginia House of Delegates, doesn't think she'll hold her title as the youngest legislator for long. "I’ve had probably 50 people tell me that they’re going to run in their local precincts this year," she said. "It’s phenomenal, but I warn them all: It’s a lot harder than [it sounds]." With thousands of candidates running in hundreds of races, it’s difficult to say exactly how many millennial women are competing for legislative office on November 8. But a CAWP analysis found that a record-setting 2,602 women of all ages are in the running. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee estimates that at least 90 women under the age of 35 are running as challengers or for open seats. A spokeswoman for the equivalent fundraising group for GOP legislators said no figures were currently available.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Some groups are putting a bigger focus on recruiting and supporting female candidates for down-ballot races, including millennials. Earlier this year, Emily’s List launched Focus 2020, a $1 million campaign aimed at flipping control of state Legislatures by electing more pro-choice Democratic women at the state level, including millennials Maye Quade and fellow Minnesotan Lindsey Port. She Should Run has launched a free incubator featuring online courses to help women of all political views gain the skills to launch a career in politics. And the nonpartisan New American Leaders Project (NALP) has been holding workshops to create paths for women who are first- and second-generation immigrants. Sayu Bhojwani, a former New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs who founded NALP, said, "That sense that it’s not your turn is a huge barrier" to getting more young women to run. “Obviously we’re building campaign skills, but there is an important role that we play in affirming that people of color and women of color and immigrant women have a right to these leadership positions,” Bhojwani said. “They have the right, as well as the responsibility, to be in those positions on behalf of their community, and they already have the skills and the tools that they need to be leaders.”

I thought I could make a difference. And I thought to myself, 'If I don't try now it will never happen.' I just had to jump in.

Tennessee State Rep. Raumesh Akbari
That affirmation — and encouragement — can be critical. Research shows that when women run, they win at the same rates as their male counterparts. They just need an extra nudge. “If nobody’s inviting them or asking them or encouraging them to participate in the process, they don’t do it,” Walsh said. Raumesh Akbari, a 32-year-old Democrat serving in the Tennessee General Assembly, knows the power of being asked — even urged — to run. When she was in her 20s, the attorney started volunteering and getting involved in politics in her community. She figured she’d run for office herself much later on in her career.
Photo courtesy of Raumesh Akbari.
Raumesh Akbari decided to run in a 2013 special election at the urging of her mentor, a female lawmaker.
But then, in 2013, another local legislator died suddenly, creating a vacant seat that would be filled with a special election. Her mentor, a female lawmaker, called and urged her to go pick up a petition and start gathering the signatures she’d need to qualify for the ballot. “I was scared to death. But I wanted it,” Akbari said. “I thought I could make a difference. And I thought to myself, If I don't try now it will never happen. I just had to jump in.” Akbari, then 29, won the seven-way primary by about 100 votes, and went on to secure the safe Democratic seat in a landslide. Three short years later, she’s sitting on high-profile committees and serving as the vice chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. Breaking through and gaining respect at such a young age hasn’t been without challenges, she said. When she was first appointed to the Criminal Justice Committee, the chairman routinely referred to her as “sweetie.” "My approach was, 'Look, you can call me whatever you want to, but I’m going to get this legislation passed regardless,'" she recalled. Her bills did pass. In fact, she says that last year, she saw the most bills of any Democrat serving in the Assembly signed into law. And as the 60-something chairman who gave her the not-so-endearing nickname? He was booted from office by a primary challenger the following year.

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