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AAUW Update: Electing 'Her'

Megan sips her morning coffee as she rushes out the door, two little girls in tow. The morning household chaos of getting ready for school is punctuated by radio reporting about a lack of truly affordable housing, rising health care costs, and education in her local area.

Megan is concerned about many of the issues facing her local and state government, and she vows at some point to raise her voice and really do something about it, but family, her job and studying for a graduate degree is the priority now.

Megan’s life is a balancing act that many American women are experiencing, but hopefully she will be able to turn her concern and voice into action and seek political office and service. It will likely begin with running for the school board or a city/county commission position and may lead to state or national involvement. It is a daunting task to consider running for any elected office, and she will need support and guidance to take the leap and run.

Democracies flourish where all diverse voices are heard, are part of the conversation and participate in the legislative process through elected office.

The 2019 116th Congress is the most diverse in color, ethnicity, religion and gender in history. Yet, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Center for American Women and Politics, women comprise 50.8% of the population but hold only 28.9% of state legislative offices and 23.7% of seats in Congress.

State legislatures saw an increase in women’s representation across the country. Nevada is the first state where women hold the legislative majority at 52.4%, with 33 of the 63 available seats.

Mississippi came in last on the list, with women occupying 24 of the 63 seats — 13.8% of their legislative body. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that Oregon women claimed 33 of the 63 legislative seats, coming in at 40%. Women lead both party caucuses in the state Senate, and the Democratic caucus in the House. Oregon women also hold crucial leadership roles of governor, chief justice, attorney general and labor commissioner.

Women want to get involved in politics for a wide variety of reasons. Two women elected in 2018 to the Oregon Legislature assert that they represent the ideas and values of their constituents and did not focus their campaigns on “identity politics.”

Former Medford City Council member, Republican Kim Wallan, replaced retiring state Rep. Sal Esquivel, in the 2019 legislative session. Moving forward, she wants to address issues crucial to her district and states, “Being female had nothing to do with my decision to run, as far as I was concerned.”

In her reporting, Claire Withycombe of the East Oregonian described Anna Williams, social worker and parent, as shunning labels. The House Democrat from Hood River views “policy like paid family leave as a labor issue, but understands firsthand how lack of paid leave can disproportionately affect women.” Williams was quoted as saying, “It will be a part of how I work, but I’m not going down there to be a girl legislator.”

The American Association of University Women has championed removing barriers for women and girls for more than 138 years. As a nonpartisan organization, representing more than 170,000 members, AAUW supports efforts to encourage women to run for office through Running Start, a young women’s political, nonpartisan leadership program. Running Start has provided guidance to more than 15,000 young women through their programs for high school, college and women running for elective office.

“Elect Her” is their daylong training curriculum for college women that teaches the skills necessary to run for student government on campus. Young women leaders are our future and need mentors and support to pursue their ambitions in higher education and beyond.

AAUW Oregon annually offers a legislative workshop and lobbying experience with their local legislators. This year Ashland AAUW will coordinate and facilitate “Women Legislators in Salem: Getting There and Staying There.” Topics will include making the decision, campaigning, winning — what next, and collaborating. Legislators will address the gathering about their personal experiences with pursuing office and navigating bipartisan collaboration at the capital and at home.

There is much diversity among women, and that is extremely valuable, but House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson believes “women bring different life experiences than men to the building, so we talk about things like child care and health care and paid family leave and issues that disproportionately impact women.”

Other resources include partisan organizations and PACs that promote specific political groups and agendas. They are extremely valuable for financing, support and training at the grassroot level. They provide prospective candidates with training in realistic issues facing the decision to run: fundraising and financing, social media, deadlines, volunteers, organization, and balancing campaign and family.

Yes, Megan will need a lot of support if and when she turns her focus and energy to running for elective office and there are resources there for her.

Kathy Brandon is a member of AAUW Ashland.