“2012: A Once in a Decade Opportunity for Women  Aspiring to Get Elected.” – Mary Hughes – The 2012  Project

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Mary Hughes is founder and director of The 2012 Project, a national, nonpartisan campaign of Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics, dedicated to increasing the number of women in Congress and state legislatures by taking advantage of the once-in-a-decade opportunities of the 2012 election cycle.

Q: The 2012 Project has defined the year 2012 as: “A once in a decade opportunity” for women aspiring to get elected. Why is that?

2012 is an election year in which redistricting and reapportionment have created new, open and competitive seats that are easier for women to win. More states now have term limits in their legislatures multiplying the open seats. Add to that the presidential electorate that is more open to newcomers and change and you have real opportunity.

Q: When did you have that “gestalt” moment in which you formulated the idea of The 2012 Project?

On an airplane, flying home from a conference at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in the summer of 2006. The discussion there focused on why women weren’t running for office and what research was needed to figure that out.

As a strategist, I began to think about what could be done. It was clear that 1992, when we elected four new women Senators and 24 new women members to Congress, was different [because of the window of opportunity created through redistricting and reapportionment at that time].

That’s when it occurred to me that 2012 has potential to be a record-setting year for women running for office and getting elected.

Q: What is your background, and the factors in your life that you feel guided you to this epiphany?

Impatience. I have been working for women candidates, leaders and women’s electoral organizations for more than 25 years and I am dissatisfied with the progress we’ve made. It seemed time to try new approaches.

Q: What were the first series of actions you took to set out on the path of launching The 2012 Project?

I read research papers and interviewed colleagues, wrote a paper laying out my ideas and sent them to people to critique.

Q: There are some daunting statistics regarding the number of women who have been elected to, and are now serving, in public office, especially when we consider that women comprise 51% of the population. What are those statistics?

Women are 17% of Congress, 24% of state legislatures and 6% of Governors. The U.S. ranks 69th for gender parity in Congress compared with other nations.

Q: One would think that the number of women who are serving has grown over the years, rather than be on the decline. What are those statistics, and to what do you attribute them?

The election of 2010 was the first in 30 years in which women actually lost ground in political leadership – our numbers declined in state legislatures and in Congress. This is largely a function of partisanship. Many more women elected officials are Democrats, so when Democrats have a bad year – as they did in 2010, more women will be swept out, as they were. It’s also true that because there are so few women in legislative office, any shift in numbers has a bigger overall effect.

Q: What are some viable solutions that will help to ensure that more women representing the 51% are successful in becoming elected?

Well-prepared candidates who know their districts well and have demonstrated leadership on behalf of a community goal. Access to fundraising networks, campaign skills training programs, leadership institutes and think tanks and mentors can be enormously helpful. The 2012 Project works to provide candidates with introductions and connections to those kinds of programs and resources.

Q: In testimony in Washington D.C., Representative Louis Slaughter D-NY revealed that: “Up until 1991, women were not included in any of the trials at the NIH. All research at the Institutes of Health (NIH) was done on white males.” This is despite the fact that women represent over half of the population of the United States, and face critical health issues exclusive to them because of their gender – such as breast and ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis. She pointed out that: “It wasn’t until we had a critical mass of women here (in Washington D.C.), that said ‘this will not do’ for more than half the population of the United States, who pay taxes.”

What are the critical elected positions for women to achieve so that their actual election has the potential to result in positive change in government and governing?

I believe that Congresswoman Slaughter is talking numbers here. It would be great to elect a woman President, and we will, but in legislating, it’s all about the numbers. Some researchers offer that a sub-group – in this case women legislators – need to reach 30% of the body before their impact can be seen. Our women legislators have made their individual marks with groundbreaking work.

Q: What are some of the significant laws passed, and federal policies implemented, that may not have otherwise, as a result of women members of Congress writing and gathering the Congressional votes to achieve passage?

Legislation dealing with women’s credit worthiness, veterans care and support for military families, funding for research on breast cancer, cervical cancer and other diseases affecting women, prevention, study and education on violence against women and children, AIDS research and prevention. These would not likely have been dealt with or dealt with as directly absent women members of Congress bringing them to the fore.

Women change the agenda, procedures, content and outcome of legislation – seeing issues through the lens of their own life experience.

Q: In the book “Nine and Counting – The Women of the Senate…And Then There Were Thirteen,” the author describes a gathering of all of the women senators that occurred on a weekly basis: “The purpose of these dinners is neither plot hatching nor deal making. It is rather, a familiar ritual among female colleagues everywhere – which is a uniquely female manner of lending support by sharing experiences, describing challenges, and talking about the issues they care about. Each senator has her own agenda for what she wants to accomplish in office. All of them have encountered resistance to their dreams and ideas, not because they lacked brainpower, ambition, ability, or charisma, but because they were women. These common experiences enforce a bond that might not otherwise exist in such a mixed group.”

That book was published in 2000. Do these perspectives and types of bi-partisan relationships still hold true on the local, state, and national levels?

Yes.

Q: Does the governing style of women and men vary significantly – and if so, how?

While this area is not my area of expertise, women legislators tell me that their women colleagues are goal oriented and “solve the problem and move on,” more readily willing to consider the other point of view and find a solution.

Q: What is the purpose of The 2012 Project – and the resources it offers to help women navigate the conditions described above – and other unique conditions that women face when running for, and serving in office?

To take maximum advantage of the unique circumstances of the 2012 election to increase the number of women in state legislatures and Congress. To do this, we connect prospective candidates to existing resources and networks – more than 130 organizations across the country – that share the mission of electing more women. These are fundraising networks, campaign skills training programs, leadership institutes and think tanks.

We have a faculty of over 70 former elected women who speak at conferences and meetings about the need for women in legislative bodies and also mentor prospective candidates, and we make introductions to party leaders where appropriate.

Q: What are some of your most memorable moments so far, of experiences you’ve had while meeting with women around the country who are considering, or have decided to run for public office in 2012?

It is remarkable the numbers of highly accomplished women who care about the country and have a great deal to offer, but who do not believe that government is a source of solutions or a vehicle for progress. In my experience with “2012”, the greatest deterrent to getting more women running are the widely held notions that government doesn’t work and public service is no longer a noble calling.

These exchanges are memorable because they underscore a resistance that is challenging to overcome.

Q: What are some of the most meaningful experiences that have occurred with men who are actively advocating for The 2012 Project?

Our first donor was a couple – dear friends –and the husband wrote the note of support that came with the check. That was touching to me. Dads with daughters are wonderfully supportive. They want those girls to go as far and as fast as they can. My husband’s support of the project means the world to me. His perspective as a legislator has been quite helpful.

Q: How many women have, or are planning to enter races in 2012, in part or entirely as a result of The 2012 Project? What type of offices are they running for?

So far over 300 women have come through The 2012 Project. Right now we are seeing eight new prospective women candidates a week come into the project. We expect that to taper off as filing deadlines come and go.

Of those, about a third have filed or will file for state legislative or Congressional office next year, another third is (are) planning on running in 2014 and the others have explored a candidacy and decided on local office or that electoral politics isn’t for them!

Q: What is your goal and measure of success in 2012?

We’d like to meet the high mark of 1992. Electing a significant number of new women is the goal.

Q: What is next for The 2012 Project – after the year 2012?

That seems to be the question of the week. Clearly we have built something that is making a difference and to that extent, I hope the organization, resources and methods will continue in some form. But right now, we are all focused on making the case that this year’s perfect storm of circumstances to elect more women won’t repeat until 2032!

Q: Is there anything else you have a burning desire to share?

Yes. Both is better. Research reveals that gender balanced decision-making groups get a better result. Women political leaders add talent and perspective that increases our problem-solving abilities. Women expand legislative agendas, open up proceedings, and bring a different perspective to the content of legislation.

Women win elections at the same rate as men, but fewer women run. So, if you haven’t asked a woman you admire to run for office today, you should – today – tomorrow and the next day and the next.

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