The U.S. Needs YOU!

By Sheree Winslow

The crowd broke into thundering applause as she walked into the room and took her place at the podium.  I scrambled to stand on a folding chair so I could see her as tears welled in my eyes knowing I was witnessing a significant political event.

Getting into the crowded banquet hall had not been easy.  I’d had to sneak into the room pulling my younger sister behind me the minute I noticed the Secret Service agents guarding the entrance had turned their attention elsewhere.  I didn’t want to miss this event and I was determined to gain admittance to the luncheon for the National Conference of State Legislators.  So when I saw an opening, I moved quickly through the door.

The year was 1984, I was 14 years old, and I was eager to witness Geraldine Ferraro’s first speech after accepting the vice presidential nomination.  My excitement and emotion when she took the stage were related to the opportunity I saw from her candidacy.  As the first woman to accept a vice presidential nomination from a major party, she represented to me an advancement for women, the promise of future equality.  Now seven presidential elections and 28 years later, I wonder if we could be doing more to honor her legacy.

Two weeks ago the World Economic Forum released “The Global Gender Gap Report 2012.”  Among the disappointing findings for the United States was the fact that the country has dropped from a rank of 39 (bad) to 55 (worse) for Political Empowerment.  The scores are based on the ratio of women to men in Congress or similar legislative bodies, ratio of men to women in top cabinet positions, and years of a female head of state.  Scrolling down the list you find Burundi, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Latvia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and 48 other countries…then you see the United States.

The score is even worse if you look at the specific number for women in Congress where our percentage of women is worse than 77 other countries.

I’m the daughter of two former state representatives.  Both my mother and father served terms as Republican legislators.  They referred to themselves as fiscal conservatives with a social conscience, a definition that fit whether looking at their voting records or the change they advocated.  My mother played feminist music and volunteered in Peace Links, an organization that worked to reduce nuclear arms.  But when it came to taxes, she was not likely to support an increase.  Meanwhile, my father was termed a “bleeding heart” by others in his party because he believed in funding social programs for those in greatest need.  This was in spite of his leadership in reforming the welfare system and reducing benefit for young, able workers.  In light of the extreme partisanship exhibited in this year’s U.S. presidential elections, it’s hard to conceive of a time when moderates were allowed a voice.

But even more difficult to conceive is how we can be moving backwards in numbers of women in top positions at a time when there are so many issues our gender needs addressed.  In an infographic produced by Rad Campaign, a web agency that works on advocacy projects, the war on women’s rights is brought to life.  If you think the term “War on Women” is an exaggeration, consider some of the concerns highlighted.

  • The average woman will lose $413,000 to a man over the course of her career because we still have not closed the pay gap.
  • Arizona has created new rules for science by deciding that a woman can be pregnant before conception.  Yes, before an egg drops and before having sex, I can be considered pregnant if I live in Phoenix and later conceive.
  • Rapists in most states can be granted visitation and custody rights if the mother decides to take her pregnancy to term.

Women of all political persuasions seem to understand lack of equality when a girl in Pakistan is shot for wanting an education.  But in most U.S. states, a woman sexually violated by a man may be required to share custody rights with her attacker.  Let me say that again—in most states a woman who is raped may be required to allow her child to spend time with a sexual offender, the same offender who brought violence against her.

If we want to have more women in leadership in business and on corporate boards, then we better take a closer look at what is happening in public policy.  And if we want to be seen as a leader in democracy and support the empowerment of women around the world, it’s time to take a hard look at gender equality and our own human rights issues at home, in our homes.

Politics is not an easy game.  I have seen this first hand.  And no doubt, it is more challenging for women who will be criticized for their appearance, their clothes, the amount of time they give to their family while campaigning, and a variety of other topics on which men are not challenged.  Is this what is holding us back?  Is it the nurturer’s dilemma—the problems politics inflicts on families is just too great?

Or do we have confidence issues that need attention?  I spoke with a mother and former political worker last week and asked her why she wouldn’t consider a political career.  She told me she didn’t feel qualified even though she knows more about law than most Americans.  And in this country, by the very nature of being a concerned citizen, you are qualified.

Are we struggling with the current parties and their establishments?  How does a woman who is pro-choice but opposes an increase of the debt ceiling find her place?  Considering that most Americans fall neither on the far left nor the far right, is our current system and primary nomination process built to alienate the majority and limit the pool from which candidates can be recruited?

While the answers to these questions may not be easily available, I think we need to start exploring the problems and seeking solutions.  We aren’t doing justice to the women who fought before us.  And we’re not doing justice to the women who will follow us.

I am most certainly looking forward to Tuesday and the end of what has been a nasty election year.  Observing the vitriol could leave us disillusioned but I think this is precisely the right time to start planning for the change we need.  So as one campaign cycle ends, I am issuing a broad invitation and plea to women across the country.

Please run.  Please run for city council and the state legislature.  Please run for school board or chair of your state political party.  Please submit your credentials for cabinet positions in state or federal government.  Please run for Congress.  Please run for Governor or  Treasurer or Secretary of State.  Please run because I need you, your family needs you, future generations of women need you, and your country needs you…to make your voice heard.

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