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Women Missing from the Campus Ballot

| March 28, 2011

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The way colleagues and commentators are remembering Geraldine Ferraro this week shows the extraordinary importance of seeing women in leadership roles. Kate Farrar of AAUW and Susannah Shakow of Running Start here point to a critical stepping stone for women aspiring to political office.

Glance at newspaper headlines—Report Finds Women Gain in Education; More U.S. Women Than Men Have College Degrees; Leaving Men Behind: Women Go to College in Ever-Greater Numbers—and it looks like college women have it made. But the headlines can be misleading. They don’t talk about where women are still missing: the student government ballot. So it was a pleasant surprise to see a recent Washington Post article about the shortage of women running for student government on politically motivated campuses in Washington, D.C.

It’s the same story we hear across the country. “We haven’t had a female president in over 10 years. Not enough women run for office on our campus. When a women runs, she faces sexist comments.” The student newspapers at both Yale and Harvard have called out the lack of women candidates.

Why should we want more women in student government? Well, for starters, it’s where many people gain the confidence, skills, and practice to run for political office after college. In a survey of women in Congress, 54 percent of them said they had been in student government in high school or college.

That’s not to say women have great representation in Congress, either. The lack of student government representation mirrors the current makeup of political leadership. Congress remains 17 percent female, with only 4 percent women of color and less than 1 percent women under the age of 40. In state legislatures, women hold just 23 percent of the seats.

Even when women are involved in politics, they’re still unlikely to hold leadership positions. Data from the American Student Government Association shows that while some women are participating in student government, they still are not reaching for the positions of president and vice president. This, too, mirrors Congress, where not only are women members a minority in general but they are also vastly underrepresented as committee chairs and party leaders as well.

The good news is that there is something we can do about it. AAUW and Running Start are helping young women gain confidence through programs such as Elect Her–Campus Women Win. This program, held on college campuses across the country, covers the steps of running for college office, campaigning, and creating communication networks. All these skills convey to successful political careers later in life.

Having women in public office is critical to the health, safety, and prosperity of a nation and can often change perceptions of what is considered a “public” issue. Just consider the experience of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). When she was 23, she was just one of only three women representatives in her state’s legislature. Fellow members laughed at her for proposing legislation to help domestic violence victims; they believed that domestic violence was a private matter and not for public policy. The same was said of other “private” issues like women’s health, education, and child care.

Now Senator Landrieu is a well respected U.S. senator and champion for a number of critical issues that would likely go unaddressed if it were not for her leadership.

Her story underscores the need of having women in office. So ask a college woman to run on campus today. Our country will benefit from her leadership tomorrow. 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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