November 5, 2010
Posted: 09:06 AM ET
Susannah Wellford Shakow is the President and Founder of the nonprofit organization Running Start. She is also the founder of the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC) which supports young women of both parties running for office. Here, she discusses the importance of young women running for political office. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susannah Wellford Shakow.
It was the year of the woman (Round 2), then it was the year of the Republican woman, and now that the dust has cleared it looks like women will actually lose seats in Congress for the first time since 1979. But there is a glimmer of hope when we look at the youngest winning candidates.
In the under 40 set, only four young women won their Congressional races. But considering that only a handful ran, this is good news. I'm excited for the new young women entering Congress: Martha Roby from Alabama (34), Jaime Herrera from Washington state (32), Kristi Noem from South Dakota (38) and maybe even Ruth McClung (28!) who is still in a race too close to call in Arizona. And I am cheering the historic win of Nikki Haley (38) from South Carolina who is the first woman governor in a state that doesn’t often elect women. I'm disappointed, though, at the loss of one of the youngest women in Congress (Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (39) who ironically lost to Kristi Noem), and of the many inspiring young women candidates who lost their races Tuesday (Krystal Ball from Virginia (28), Heather Beaven from Florida (39), and Julie Lassa from Wisconsin (39) to name a few).
Why am I so interested in the young women candidates? Because I think they are the key to getting more women to run for office.
Young women don’t run. Ok, some clearly do, as you see above, but compared to men the numbers are paltry. It is common place for men to run young, their age hardly worth noting in the media unless they are also cute and single. For women, it is rare to run for Congress under the age of 40, and when women do they still face comments and press coverage related to their appearance and marital status, rather than the substance of their platform. In this election we saw attacks that went way too far. Look at Nikki Haley, with allegations that she slept with her campaign workers, or Krystal Ball who was pilloried over some harmless photos that ended up on Facebook. So maybe it is no wonder that young women so infrequently throw their hats into the political ring. But the result is that women run later in life than men, and this hurts women’s ability to rise to the highest levels of political power, since seniority still means political capitol in Congress.
These new young women entering Congress are our best hope to engage more women to run because they inspire the untapped women- the under 40 crowd.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said that when she was elected to Congress at age 33 she had middle school groupies who followed her from rally to rally, excited to see a young woman in a position of power. We need to showcase more political heroes like Herseth Sandlin so that young women grow up wanting to serve.
And that’s what we are doing at Running Start. The nonpartisan nonprofit that I lead encourages young women from both sides of the aisle to become political leaders. Each year Running Start challenges 1,000 high school and college young women to run for office. We train them in political skills like public speaking and advocacy, and we introduce them to political role models who tell them it is never too early to start and that their voices are needed in politics. Our goal is to cultivate the next generation of political leaders. And the great news is that young women are answering our call to leadership in droves, and laying the groundwork to run for office in record numbers.
So regardless of your politics, if you care about electing more women to office you have to applaud the under 40 women who won their Congressional races Tuesday. Their example will inspire more young women to think about running for office, and Running Start will be there to give them the skills and support they need to succeed.
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