The earliest skirmishes in the War on Woman were on the state level, long before an all-male panel was assembled in the House to discuss whether birth control should be covered by employee insurance plans. In 2011 alone, the Guttmacher Institute chronicled a record number of bills designed to restrict abortion — and 2012 isn’t over yet.
In the meantime, the number of women legislatures has stagnated since the early nineties. In 2009, the number of women state senators was just 22.1 percent and the number of state representatives was 25 percent, according to a report from the Center for American Women and Politics. Women of color make up just 5 percent of all state legislators. And, of course, 2010 was the first year that the number of women in Congress fell, rather than rose.
Siobhan Bennett of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a political action committee that supports women at all levels for public office, said those two events are far from a coincidence: “There is a very strong correlation between the number of women in elected office and the state of reproductive rights in the state.” She believes states introduce “frathouse lunacy legislation” in what is increasingly a “male-dominated political climate.”
But disgust with the debate about whether women are allowed to have birth control may have little effect on the make-up of the statehouses responsible for anti-abortion legislation, those who work to train and elect candidates said. At least, not yet.
“It’s a little late in the cycle to get new women running,” said Debbie Walsh, whose group, Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), launched its training and support 2012 Project for women candidates shortly after the 2008 election.
“The problem hasn’t been getting women elected, frankly, the problem is getting women to run,” Walsh said. In a survey of female state legislators, her group found women are nearly twice as likely as their male counterparts to say they hadn’t considered a run for office until someone else suggested it.
CAWP specializes in recruiting women who fit the “Nancy Pelosi model” — women who are taking on public office as a second career and whose children are largely already out of the house. (Women are still asked far more often about how they will balance political office and raising a family than men are, those who help train women for office said.) CAWP has been focusing on this model because this is the one that has been successful so far, as documented in the group’s report.
That may be a great model for getting women elected to office at the local or state level, but if pro-choicers ever expect to build a pipeline of women to Congress or the White House, women will need to get acclimated to politics much earlier in life. Experts said for that to happen, women need to be running for office by the time they’re in their early 30s. Luckily, the Pelosi model isn’t the only one.
Running Start, headed by Jessica Grounds, begins to address some of these problems. Her nonprofit offers recruitment and training to young women around the country.
Ground notes that after the first serious female presidential contender and first female Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, Running Start received 30,000 applications for its annual high school training program. Normally, it gets around 300. Grounds is encouraged that young women are motivated to run for office based on issues they’re passionate about. And, though her group is nonpartisan, she’s seeing lots of women who are fired up by the debate over birth control.
She does note, however, that she sees young women losing in the primary because party politics often punishes outsiders and upstarts. She’s had a number of women tell her they couldn’t gain enough party support because they weren’t “next in line.”
Still, she’s said, “We encourage them to run for the highest level of office possible.”
Ground respects CAWP’s work, but noted that we can’t simply rely on the same kinds of women to run for office when there are so few running to begin with. She especially sees a dearth of women running in the South, where much anti-choice legislation has thrived.
“We’ve got to change the pipeline,” Grounds said. “We have to shake things up a lot.”
[Photo of woman politician via R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock]