Women and political power: It's about time

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  • Women and Political Power: Its About Time

    by Jewel Bellush*

    LONG with equal rights, women must have an equal share in political A power-the only kind that really counts in a democratic society. In recent years, women have begun to get the jobs they want at the salaries they deserve; they have gone into the courts to establish their rights in legal contracts and in social privileges as well; they have exercised new freedoms in life style. But women have not yet made significant gains in the political life of this country.

    Women hold only 5 percent of all elected offices in the United States. Only 13 percent of elected school board members are women; 9 percent of state legislators. In the recent national elections, the House of Representatives gained two new women members-but the total number dropped by one from the last session, because three women incumbents did not seek reelec- tion. The Senate has not had a female senator since Margaret Chase Smith left in 1972.

    In state governments there are two women governors and one lieutenant governor. Even with a broad definition of state cabinet members and statewide elected officials (including elected judicial positions, university trustees and members of state boards of education) women comprise only 10 percent. At county and local levels women also have rather poor representa- tion. On county bodies they hold less than 3 percent of an estimated 17,000 positions. Among mayors and members of municipal or township councils, an estimated 5 percent are women. And if women generally are scarce in government, minority group women are even more scarce (Ruth Mandel, Center for the American Woman and Politics, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901, and Betsy Wright, National Womens Edu- cation Fund, 1532 16th Street N. W., Washington, D. c. 20007.)

    Obviously women are not well represented in political office. But, perhaps more importantly, those who do hold office are more often found in positions with little potential for affecting broad segments of the population.

    Faced with these statistics, it is becoming more apparent to more women that until they do gain significant political power and influence they will continue to suffer some form of economic, legal and social discrimination. Consequently, some members of the faculty a t Hunter College of the City University of New York decided that something should and can be done to politicize women-to give them the basic tools with which to enter the political process. And the mechanism we have created is the Womens

    * Jewel Bellush is professor of political science and director, Womens Political Training Center, Hunter College of the City University of New York.



    Political Training Center (Room 7 1 7 , 7 9 0 Madison Avenue, New York 1002 1). We expected to start slowly-sponsoring a few conferences through- out the year-to show the community that Hunter has an intense interest in getting women involved in various levels of political activity. Within one week of the first conference last November, however, we decided to go for broke. The response was extraordinary. Despite reports in the press that the November 1976 elections reflected a new low of voter interest, the demand for training shows an untapped resource for political involvement. Partici- pants showed that they were no longer satisfied with back-office organiza- tion and envelope stuffing, but were ready for training as campaign mana- gers, lobbyists, and candidates for elective office and political appointment.

    In operation only five months, the center has targeted three groups of women to be served. First, there are those who have not yet become politically active at all and who want to very much. It is our task to help them to identify the ways they can get started. For example, how they can get involved in local school boards or in forming community centers for women or older citizens. The second and rather large group is those who have had long experience in various political jobs-canvassing, petitioning, licking and sticking, and chairing PTAs. Now they are thinking of more influential roles, either running for office or getting a decent assignment in some administrative agency, and we can help them. And the third group is those already prepared for higher office. They are the executives in private and governmental organizations who want a forum in which they can meet to discuss common issues and problems.

    To accommodate these various cohorts and their political needs, the Womens Political Training Center has begun to organize a number of projects. It will be spring training-but not baseball, all politics. More specifically, training includes the following projects:

    S c h o o l Board Elections. Offered for credit and non-credit, there are five group meetings of some three hours each on the basics of campaign strategies and techniques, literature design, the petition process, fund raising and election day operations. The rest of the time participants work in the field either as candidates or as leaders in a campaign, keeping in touch with the instructor who serves as consultant. When the elections are over in May the class will reconvene for review and analysis. -Women-Candidates-Zn-Training. Weekend institutes for about 50-75

    women on the organization and how-to of campaigns for public and party office are designed to give an overview of how a person gets elected from the first decision of when and where to run, to constructing an effective cam- paign organization, to fund raising plans, to targeting and convincing the voter, and using media and public relations.

    -Lobbying. A series of workshops focuses on the strategies for more effective influence in state and local legislative and administrative decision making. More specifically, the project on the state legislative sys- tem includes: the nature of decision making at the state house, its power structure, the positive and negative aspects of lobbying, and skills required


    for effective grass roots influence. Among the workshops will be one for senior citizens who have discrete needs and one for organization leaders who want more advanced, in-depth training. Self-advocacy for the senior citizen runs through all the programs at the center.

    -Zdentvying Political Power Centers. A series of conferences throughout the year will bring together key figures from important state and local decision-making centers to analyze their roles in the political system. This would include not only those who traditionally influence government but also those agencies and groups which appear to be assuming increasingly important new roles in determining public policy outcomes: Municipal Assis- tance Corporation, the Emergency Financial Control Board, as well as key leaders in the banking community and union executives.

    -Tenant Organizing. Tenants in the New York metropolitan region continue to face serious difficulties, from those living in brownstones to those in Zm-unit complexes, from young singles to senior citizens. With organiza- tion, tenants can help to make their living situations more comfortable; thus the project agenda will include how to organize and keep an on-going tenant group in your building, the pitfalls and potential in rent strikes; evaluating rent control and protecting the rights of senior citizens.

    The programs include courses for credit, conferences, workshops and oneday institutes. With the enthusiastic response we would like to do more, but this must await outside funding.

    The program thus far has been funded primarily by enthusiasm and dedicated hard work by a group of women and student interns. The entire processf rom creating the center to developing each project-involves students in a kind of learn-by-doing. The students are developing political skills and learning how to:

    Plan and run conferences and workshops; Prepare course outlines and background materials on lobbying, campaign

    Select material for political manuals and kits to accompany various center

    Develop bibilographies on women in politics; Write a monthly Newsbrief (two issues published); Develop media connections (one TV show and four radio talks); Prepare press releases for newspapers and magazines; and Be a group discussion leader and improve public speaking. We believe that Hunters Womens Political Training Center can serve as

    a model project for colleges in communities around the country. By creating a center inside an institution such as a college (or university or junior college) the politicization of women can be assured of support. This is no gimmicky, fly-by-night experiment. It is the beginning of a solidly-based program which needs steady, constant and careful development. Only through deliberative, dedicated and serious efforts can the numbers of women-citizens-politicians be enlarged. What better way to enhance the health of the democratic process? The number of women active in the polity is simply too small.

    organization and other political activities;