Emerge Wisconsin is training runners – female runners who will sprint to a seat on the school board, dash to city hall, finish the marathon to the Capitol.

EW is an affiliate of Emerge America, which is dedicated to encouraging and preparing Democratic women to run for elected office and, in the course of that work, helping to close the gender gap in U.S. politics.

“We need all women’s voices, all women represented,” said Wendy Strout, executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, which is headquartered in Madison but has a presence in Milwaukee and throughout the state. “We need you, and Emerge Wisconsin wants to train you.”

On May 30, the Wisconsin group planned a celebration at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center to honor U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin with its first Woman of the Year award. “She inspired so many of our women to run,” said Strout, who has been involved in Democratic politics since 1992. “They see Sen. Baldwin and say, ‘I’m going to step up.’”

Later this year, EW will hold a graduation for its class of 2013.

Then the cycle begins again: Enrolling women, training women, graduating women.

The cycle likely will be repeated year after year in Wisconsin and beyond, because encouraging women to run is a long-distance effort. Consider: At the current pace of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in government/politics, business, entrepreneurship and nonprofits, according to the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem.

Picking up the pace

“We can’t create change until people make time for and commit to championing women as leaders,” stated Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder of MissRepresentation.org, the nonprofit behind a documentary exposing how media contributes to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. “Our political leadership should reflect the goals and aspirations of 100 percent of the population – not just a select few – and that’s what we’re working to ensure.”

Last year, MissRepresenation.org partnered with the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, a research and education organization that also trains women to run for office, on “Elect Women 2012: Vote. Support. Run.” Organizers saw opportunity in the number of offices up for election in the United States, as well as open seats created by redistricting.

On Election Day in November 2012, a record number of women were elected to Congress.

However, in 2013, women, who are about 51 percent of the population, still hold only 18 percent of the seats in Congress. Women hold 78 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House and 20 of the 100 seats in the Senate.

Some other stats from the CAWP and elsewhere:

• Seventy-five women hold statewide office in the U.S. – that’s about 23 percent of 320 offices. 

• Of the 7,383 state legislators in the U.S., 1,781, or 24 percent, are women.

• The United States is 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures and is behind Mexico, China and Pakistan.

• The percentage of women in Congress has climbed from 3 percent in 1979 to 18 percent in 2013, but the percentage has stayed in the range of 16-18 percent since 2007. The most significant jump was 20 years ago, after the 1992 elections. Female candidates were inspired to run that year after watching the Senate confirmation hearings for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1991, there were two women senators. In 1993, there were five. And the Senate Judiciary Committee has not been all-male since then.

• In Wisconsin in 2010, women held 322 of the 1,455 city council seats, 308 of the 1,680 county board seats, 1,069 of the 2,827 school board seats. Also, 74 percent of town boards and 24 percent of village boards had no women representatives, according to Women’s Council at womenscouncil.wi.gov.

The statistics are significant.

But assuming the numbers prove voters won’t elect women candidates or that women lack access to ballot positions would be a mistake, based on studies from think tanks on the left and right and in the political middle.

Studies show that when women run for office, they perform just as well as men. They can raise the money, get the votes and take the oaths of office.

Not in the race

The “fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office,” wrote the researchers in “Girls Just Wanna Not Run” from the School of Public Affairs at American University.

“For the last few decades, researchers have provided compelling evidence that when women run for office – regardless of the position they seek – they are just as likely as men to win their races,” said study authors Jennifer Lawless, a member of the Emerge America advisory board, and Richard Fox. “The large gender disparities in U.S. political institutions, therefore, do not result from systematic discrimination against female candidates. Rather … there is a substantial and persistent gender gap in political ambition.”

Women, according to the Lawless/Fox study, are more likely to perceive the electoral environment as biased against female candidates. The study shows that women also are twice as likely as men to think they are not qualified to run for office and to react more negatively to many aspects of modern campaigns.

The way that women candidates – Democrats and Republicans – are portrayed and treated by the media also leaves some women reluctant to run and leaves girls confused about politics.

“In mainstream news, you might read in a policy article an aside regarding what Hillary Clinton was wearing or how Sarah Palin is doing up her hair,” said media expert Kathy Frank. “You aren’t going to read in The Washington Post what John McCain is wearing unless it’s a dress. And in the left or right media circles, you will see it get more cruel than ‘Project Runway.’ You will see images and read copy that treats some of the most influential politicians in the country as sexual jokes.”

Organizations such as MissRepresentation.org and the Women’s Media Center are working to address this concern, while groups such as Emerge Wisconsin are working to increase the number of women seeking elected office. “Emerge gives women the confidence to run,” as well as the tools, Strout said.

In training

Emerge Wisconsin conducts an intensive seven-month training for Democratic women. The national Emerge network also includes organizations in Arizona, California, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.

In Wisconsin, the expertise in the program comes in large part from the group’s advisory board, which includes Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, former state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, former gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk, and others.

Support and advice also comes from Emerge Sisters – women who already have graduated from the program.

Emerge is seeing success.

The program launched in the U.S. in 2002 and nationally has trained about 900 Democratic women. Forty-three percent of the graduates have run for office or been appointed to a post – and 60 percent of Emerge candidates have won.

Since 2007, Emerge Wisconsin has trained 126 women from throughout the state. In 2012, nearly 40 Emerge Wisconsin graduates ran for office.

Strout said this year’s class had two more sessions before graduation, when trainees receive a certificate and a pin. They emerge ready to run.

The students attend one training session a month for the seven months. Strout described a typical training – arrival on Friday night, dinner and a workshop, then regrouping on Saturday for a full day of workshops. 

Admission involves filing an application and completing an interview. There’s tuition for the program, but Strout stressed there are scholarships. “Money should not be a factor,” she said. “We make sure this is accessible for everyone.”

Trainees may have an idea what office they’ll seek when they apply and, through the course of the program, they connect with the people who can help the runners take their marks.


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