Convincing talented people to run for political office is challenging enough under any circumstances. But for women, fully 51 percent of the population, there are particular hurdles and barriers.
“Washington state has a track record of electing strong, progressive women candidates, and for more than a decade we led the country in electing women to office,” Vanessa Blackburn said. The former editor of Bellingham Business Journal managed the campaign of one of those success stories, the election of Kelli Linville as Bellingham’s first woman mayor.
The state is richly represented by women, with a governor and two formidable United States senators. Washington’s congressional delegates shakily approach a plurality of representation, as do both state houses in Olympia. And Washington is among the first states to have a majority of women seated as justices on the Supreme Court.
At the most local level, though, Bellingham remains underrepresented by women.
“In the past several years, the state has been losing ground on the number of women in local and state government,” Blackburn commented. “Locally, Bellingham has only one female representative on Bellingham City Council, Cathy Lehman.”
“Women are underrepresented in most positions of power, frankly—in business, in the military, in law,” Lehman admitted. “Government is just another area. Fifty-one percent of our population is female, so it would be great to pursue that as a goal for our representatives.
“It’s worth adding that we don’t have a lot of racial diversity in city government, or diversity in sexual orientation, or age diversity, so we have a way to go to make our government look like the people it represents,” Lehman said. “There are many areas for improvement.”
For women in particular, powerful cultural forces and media messages intone that a woman’s value lies primarily in her youth, beauty and sexuality, not in her capacity to lead. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, and women hold only 3 percent of influential positions in mainstream media.
The corrosive effects of such messages, and efforts to overcome them, are explored in a documentary that premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Miss Representation uncovers a glaring reality we live with every day but fail to see.
Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.
The film challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.
The film, which promises to layer facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective, screens this week at the Pickford Film Center.
“Every woman in that room is going to have her mind blown by the content of that film,” Lehman predicted. “It is amazing how much media affects and reinforces the disempowerment women experience, and how many barriers women in positions of leadership really do face.
Indoctrination starts early, Lehman said.
“Research has shown that until second grade, both girls and boys equally identify with the statement, ‘I can be president.’ But after second grade, girls pretty much just plummet,” she said.
“They just stop saying it entirely.
“We all are responsible for doing something about it if we want the system to change.”
The film will be followed by a panel discussion led by political consultant Cathy Allen. Allen is in no small measure responsible for the state’s early successes in improving the ratio of women in elected positions. Eighteen years ago,
Allen opened one of the first political consulting companies focused on electing women to office. Some 650 winning campaigns later, her Seattle-based company has helped elect record-setting numbers of women in the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and South America, Canada.
Titled, “DeMisstifying: Why I shouldn’t have run for office but did anyway. And I won!”, the panel features a number of notable current and past representatives, including Mayor Linville, Lehman, Seattle City Council member Jean Godden, and Rep. Kris Lytton, who works tirelessly on education and social justice issues in Olympia. Lytton is seeking re-election in November.
Office seekers and hopefuls will also be in attendance, including Christina Maginnis, whose first run for office nearly toppled longtime Whatcom County Council member Sam Crawford last fall.
The events are sponsored by Represent!, activists and organizers who hope to develop support for leaders who seek elected public office.
“The goal of the May 12 event is to engage local women to discuss how to foster and support more women in leadership in our community,” Blackburn said.
“Research has shown that women need to be asked to run for office, asked an average of three times before they will consider running for office,”
Lehman commented. “People consider me a pretty strong, well-rounded woman, but I have to admit, this was true of me. I only ran for office because I was asked. Men don’t seem to have the same requirement. If they want to run for office, they just do it.”
By contrast, “Women seem to believe that they need to know more or achieve more, or accomplish more or be recognized more, before they will consider running for office,” Lehman said. “Men tend to consider gaining positions of power and leadership first, as a means to achieve other goals.”
Event organizers hope the events may serve to encourage more participation at all levels of public life.
“There are many ways women can begin to enter more positions of power and leadership in our community,” Lehman said. “They can manage campaigns, serve on commissions and boards like the PTA. We might inspire women, ask women, to consider stepping into roles they’ve already been considering. We might inspire women to step up and run.”
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