WMC News & Features

New coalition aims to elect more women

Wmc Features Reflect Us 040318
Representatives of the eight groups in the ReflectUS coalition formed to address the "140,000-woman deficit in political office," with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (center) (photo by Jenny Sarabia)

Since the 2016 election, women have been mobilizing at unprecedented levels: running for office, making their voices heard on the issues they care about, and demanding change.

But in the midst of this encouraging rise in women’s activism, we must remember that women’s representation in U.S. politics has been dismally low for decades, and remains so: women make up only 19.6 percent of Congress, 25.4 percent of elected officials in state legislatures, and 20 percent of locally elected positions. In fact, the U.S. lags behind 100 other countries in terms of women's political representation. At the slow rate at which we’re moving, according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, gender parity in Congress won’t be achieved until 2117.

Recognizing that 100 years is far too long to wait for gender parity and that now is the time to harness the energy of this historic moment, eight top women’s political organizations have joined forces to form ReflectUS, a groundbreaking nonpartisan coalition committed to fast-tracking women’s representation across all political offices. The coalition consists of Empowered Women, Higher Heights, IGNITE, LatinasRepresent, RepresentWomen, She Should Run, VoteRunLead, and Women Influencers Network

As Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, put it, “We’re experiencing an incredibly exciting moment as thousands of women are stepping forward to make a difference, but the fact is that among the 520,000 elected offices across our country, there is a 140,000-woman deficit in political office. ReflectUS brings together the resources, experience, and know-how of these eight key organizations so women from all political parties and backgrounds can run, win, and serve.”

ReflectUS will be an important resource that female candidates from any background can consult as they explore and launch runs for office — from commissioners to courtrooms, from municipal offices and state capitals to Washington, D.C. It is uniquely able to draw on the varied expertise of the eight organizations — each of which specializes in a different key aspect of increasing women’s representation — to harness critical networks of support, training and how-to resources, recruitment of diverse women, and civic education and leadership training for women newly entering politics. 

When asked how the idea for the coalition came about and why she felt it was needed, Anne Moses, IGNITE’s founder and president, said, “Each of the founding circle organizations has a different theory of change that drives our individual work trying to move the U.S. to political parity. All of our theories are right, but none of them alone is adequate to solve the problem…. Collaborating to figure out this problem once and for all seems ever more urgent.”

Added Mindy Finn, founder and president of Empowered Women: “Most women's political organizations do not work on a scale that can feasibly yield change. One of the reasons we came together was so we could increase impact by pooling resources and working toward common goals. At the same time, we knew that this would increase efficiency for the thousands of women who want to run and are looking for support. We also wanted to combine a focus on building women’s ambition and skills with changing systems that create access. Furthermore, we wanted to ensure that right-leaning women weren’t left out of the equation.”

To dramatically move the needle toward parity, ReflectUS will be implementing several innovative strategies, including focusing on pilot sites, which Anne Moses described as “a concentrated intervention into key targeted counties to increase women’s representation at every level, with a special focus on the local level. ReflectUS has tentatively selected six demographically, geographically, ideologically, and institutionally diverse counties across the country. We will implement an intervention that collaboratively saturates the county, then evaluate whether and how we are able to move the needle on parity and what factors facilitate and impede progress. As an example, Dallas County (our first pilot site) has 31 cities, 16 of which have zero or one woman on their city councils. Half the cities in Dallas have zero or one woman making city-wide legislation! How can that be in 2018?”

ReflectUS will assess each county pilot site based on data and voting systems and will deploy targeted strategies that have proven to increase representation. These include demanding accountability among gatekeepers like party organizations; pushing to change winner-take-all systems of voting to allow increased access to running; working for increased civility in campaigning; and educating, inspiring, and convening women and girls to run for office.

ReflectUS will also create an interactive map searchable by office using publicly available data to assess available seats (including public boards/commissions), deadlines for filing, and resources to help guide candidates in each community.

Kimberly Peeler-Allen explained that ReflectUS will specifically strengthen representation for underrepresented groups of women, especially women of color: “Women of color make up just seven percent of all elected officials. Latinx and Asian women are especially underrepresented, as are Republican women, who are outnumbered by Democratic women in office three to one. ReflectUS wants to ensure that we don't just elect white Democratic women to office, but that we make sure our government actually reflects the communities it represents.”

Erin Cutraro of She Should Run added, “We're tackling this issue on several fronts. First, we're evaluating strategies around recruitment, training, messaging, and systems reform to see what we can collectively learn to most dramatically increase the number of diverse women [in office]. Second, we're integrating our work with that of the coalition members who focus on reaching specific groups of women to ensure that we are culturally competent in all our efforts and that we reach women who in fact represent the diversity of our country.”

“Right now, women — especially those of color and Republican women — are underrepresented in critical conversations,” said Larissa Martinez of Women Influencers Network. “ReflectUS is working to ensure that women of all backgrounds and ideologies have the support they need to run, win, and lead.”

The organizers of ReflectUS recognize that supporting women in their pursuit of public leadership positions isn’t just good for women — it’s good for the nation as a whole. Not only because it’s important that political leaders reflect the demographics of this country, but also because women are more likely to back legislation that helps families and to collaborate and seek compromise, forging personal and professional relationships that cross party lines. “More women in office will lead to better legislation for everyone,” said Rina Shah, co-founder of the Women Influencers Network.

The coalition of ReflectUS has the potential to set a valuable example for all movements today, proving that we can achieve much more together than we can alone. The hope and expectation is that women will be able to achieve parity in politics in our lifetime, not 100 years down the road. As Kristin Hayden of IGNITE so aptly put it, “We need to achieve representation now, and then we need the next generation to sustain it.” 

For more information, visit the ReflectUS website.

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