Elect Her is an effort to recruit young women to pursue leadership positions in colleges and universities and to run for political office, and to provide support for them in these efforts. The guests are Kathleen Gore, who is on the board of directors for the Skaneateles branch of the American Association of University Women, and Alexandra Curtis, a senior at Syracuse University and a participant in Elect Her. Curtis was an intern for the Campbell Conversations last year.
Grant Reeher (GR): Where are we as a nation in terms of women holding elected office?
Kathleen Gore (KG): New York ranks 33rd in the nation for the percentage of women in the State Legislature. It has only 21 percent; the national average is 24 percent.
Alexandra Curtis (AC): And looking at the U.S. Senate, where we have 20 percent of women serving in those positions. (In the House of Representatives), I believe we are at about 18 percent. But we have been riding between 18 and 20 percent there for the past decade.
GR: Why do we seem to be stuck at about a fifth of women in these important legislatures?
KG: It’s a very complicated question. Women need to run for office more; they don’t. Women need to be encouraged to run for office more, and they need to be given the support to run for office more. We believe that the will for women to run for office – local, state and national – is there. In fact, in local terms, women hold the highest percentage of offices.
GR: Does part of Elect Her’s mission concern how women are viewed, meaning the assumptions that are made about young women in higher education? And how they are encouraged or not encouraged to think about pursuing positions of political leadership?
KG: I think perception does play a big part in it, and another part is how women view themselves, how they view their career track, how they view their capabilities, getting a degree, studying and running for office and how they look at the long term. They don’t have the mentors that men do; they don’t have the examples. And I think we need to ask more young women why they don’t run for public office and see what they say. We can philosophize and guess, but we ought to ask them.
GR: Allie, what’s been your experience of this?
AC: I got involved in student government as soon as I came to Syracuse, and I realized straight off the bat that there weren’t many women involved at all, and when looking at the executive board that was in place when I came in, there were no women serving. One of the trends that have been cited across college campuses is that you have this sort of good-old-boys club that still exists in student governments across the United States. You see a lot of more women involved in undergraduate education, and there is a higher enrollment of women, but you still see about 60 percent men serving in the executive positions of student body government. And so when I got involved with this, I wanted to find out a lot more, and that is when I found out about Elect Her. There are a lot of women who are involved in leadership positions in college campuses, but they seek positions in Greek organizations, service organizations, dance troupes – things that are more pertinent to women or organizations that are more focused towards women as opposed to student government. Women do understate their qualifications, and a lot of women think that they need an extra degree or more experience under their belt before they actually get out there and run, and the truth is, they don’t. They’re entirely capable, but they are just understating their overall qualifications.
GR: Allie, you were instrumental, I understand, as a student bringing the association’s Elect Her initiative to campus and having the event here. So tell me a little bit more about Elect Her, what it’s trying to do and how it goes about doing that.
AC: Elect Her really does two things: encouraging younger women on campus to get involved and run for student government positions, so we can close that gender gap with women serving in executive roles. And then the other side of that is actually building a pipeline of women who want to get out and run for public office once they have graduated. So we had a lot of seniors who are ready to get out there and run, but the other side of that was encouraging our freshman and sophomore classes to start thinking about running for student government and realizing their own political leadership isn’t something that they need to do by getting another degree. We really want to do show them they can jump in and take ownership of the student government to the next level.
GR: Was the actual event more about inspirational kinds of conversations or was it nuts and bolts?
AC: We had both, which was great. We had (Syracuse) Mayor Stephanie Miner, and she was definitely more of the inspiration, and we had Tasha Cole, who was a trainer from Running Start, the organization that works with AAUW to bring Elect Her to college campuses. We had several women speak about their own experiences on student government. I was able to speak about campaigning and my time in office as president.
GR: Did you have one particular “a-ha” moment that you took out of it that day?
AC: I think the big a-ha moment came with Mayor Stephanie Miner and being able to hear her stories and what it’s like from her perspective as the first female mayor of Syracuse, and some of the things that she has had to deal with and how she has been a trailblazer. It was great to see her and take a little bit of inspiration from that.
GR: Kathleen, do you have a sense of the program’s overall effectiveness?
KG: Yes, we have some statistics. Eighty-eight percent of the 2013 participants who ran for student government president won. Twenty percent more students plan to run for student government and political office. And 100 percent of participants reported that they would recommend the program Elect Her to a friend.
GR: Are there individual success stories from this program that stand out?
AC: There were several women who were interested in running for vice president. One, in particular, had plans to run with a male running mate, who is running for president, and after the training she said forget about that, I’m running for president myself. She wants to run with a female running mate, as well.
GR: Do you have a particular political role model that you want to pattern yourself after?
AC: Yes, I am a huge fan of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). I actually registered to vote in the state of New York just so I could vote for her. I think she has really been a champion of women’s issues and has made that a forefront of her agenda, and that is something that a lot of women can aspire to be and support.
GR: The Syracuse area seems very well represented by women in leadership roles: the mayor, the county executive, the presidents of the State University College at Oswego and Onondaga Community College, the superintendent of the Syracuse City School District and, up until recently, the chancellor of Syracuse University and the county health commissioner, among other positions. To what would you attribute that? Chance? What is going on here?
KG: I would say the opportunities. We have other institutions that I think are friendly to women executives. I think there is a real opportunity here for women, and I also think that there is a great need. There is a great need in Central New York; Syracuse (provides) just the kind of challenge that I think a woman would not be afraid of taking on.
GR: Allie, I want to push you a little bit on why you want to hold elective office. I know that a lot of people in your generation see the personal nastiness, the general dysfunction of our political system, and they conclude – you can’t really blame them, perhaps – they want little part in it. What are you seeing that makes you want to join in?
AC: Well, I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and then San Francisco, so I have lived in two very civically engaged areas in our country. I think I really picked up on something from both of those places about getting involved and being a leader with integrity. Somebody who could really make a stance and hopefully inspire people to do something good, and that is something that I have seen with my time at student government here at Syracuse University. So despite the negative stereotypes that come along with being in office and the general dysfunction that people tend to associate with political leadership, I’ve certainly hoped that the way that I operate as a leader can actually help with that. I think actually getting out there and putting the theories that I have learned in class into action – taking that to the next level – would be thrilling and very rewarding. … Having female role models who believe in you and say it’s OK, because politics is something that you can get knocked down and you can get bruised a lot in, and you just need someone there who’s cheering you on in your corner. I think that’s what really gets people to stay in the game.
GR: Kathleen, do you have one particular piece of advice that you want to give to Allie as she’s stepping out into this nasty terrain of running for political office?
KG: I would say to her, first of all, you will get tougher. Men get tougher, and women get tougher. And you will get tougher. And it’s a good thing to have a sense of humor, but you don’t have to use that all the time. Sometimes you can just say, cut it out.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.