Summer School Teaches ABC's of Running for Office

The number of women running for elected office is declining, adding to the importance of programs that encourage, support and guide women politicians. Also, new research into the retention of women officeholders is producing surprising results.

Nancy Valentine

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WOMENSENEWS)-In the mid-summer quiet of Yale University's law school campus, 50 women seated in a classroom learn the first secret of a successful political campaign: When you stand to state your name and your goals, as any candidate will do hundreds of times in a real-life campaign, speak with authority, brevity and clarity.

And so, one by one, the women stand and do this 60-second exercise in self-confidence. They are black, white and Latina, ranging in age from recent college graduates in their 20s to women nearing retirement.

But they have one common bond: Their interest in gaining or retaining elective office has brought them to the Women's Campaign School at Yale University for the school's annual summer “crash course” on how to be a candidate.

“It is schools like this that will surface the first woman president in the United States,” Carolanne Curry, an instructor and founding board member at the school told the students. “You're all probably more than qualified to hold elective office and uphold the people you represent. But the trick is to get re-elected.”

A fresh awareness of just how hard it is for women to get elected the first time, much less re-elected, has sparked a renewed national interest in educating women about campaign techniques and encouraging women to run for office.

Candidate-training programs for women are not new. The National Women's Political Caucus has been training women to run for office for 30 years, noted Kathleen Casey, director of the program for women public officials at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The now-defunct National Women's Education Fund published a pioneering campaign workbook-a primer for women candidates-in 1974.

But more recent efforts to promote women's candidacies follow the realization that women still have a long way to go to maintain and increase their electoral gains. Casey termed the more recent efforts a reinvigoration.

The campaign school at Yale started nine years ago and has evolved into a year-round effort, running its intensive five-day training school every summer and weekend sessions on special topics throughout the rest of the year. The school is non-partisan and non-issue-based, and draws its faculty from political consultants and strategists representing a range of political views and backgrounds.

A growing number of other organizations and academic institutes are running workshops and training seminars for women candidates as well. A few have even joined forces in this effort. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, for example, has started working with the National Hispanic Bar Association, as well as with NOBEL/Women (National Organization of Black Elected Legislators/Women) to increase recruitment of minority women candidates. The center also operates “Ready to Run,” a training conference to encourage women in New Jersey to run for elective office.

Practical and Moral Support, Plus 12 Hour Days

The Yale summer session teaches students-mostly women, although men are welcome-the essential basics of running for office or managing a campaign. The instruction is crammed into 12-hour days that teach the future candidates how to handle the media, develop a campaign plan, raise money and present a polished image on television, among other topics.

It also offers a place where women in politics can find support.

“I'm spiritually and emotionally exhausted, and I came here to be surrounded by other women who do what I do,” student Mosemarie Boyd of Sacramento, Calif., told the class. Boyd is president and chief executive officer of American Women Presidents, a bipartisan organization that is promoting the election of a woman president and vice president in the United States.

The instruction gained at the Yale campaign school is vital, because it is still difficult for women to break into politics, said Nancy Valentine, the school's executive director. Valentine was elected mayor of Ansonia, Conn., in her own first election.

“I'm one of those rare candidates who ran the first time and made it,” Valentine said. “Usually the rule of thumb for a woman is two times before you make it. You're still breaking the barrier of the good old boys network.”

Declining Number of Women Running for Office

The renewed interest in recruiting and training of women politicians has fostered a realization: Fewer women are reaching and retaining elective office than many political activists expected by now.

“The pool is just not there,” Casey said. “We have not done a systematic study of this, but we collect numbers, and have done so for 30 years, and it looks like the number of women running is declining.”

Term limits have not helped because they accelerate the need to replace women officeholders with other women.

According to research by the Rutgers center, the number of women filing as candidates for U.S. Senate, House or gubernatorial seats peaked in the 1990s: 29 women in 1992 for the Senate; 217 women in 1996 for the House; and 34 women in 1994 for governors' offices.

Researchers studying women politicians offer many reasons why their numbers aren't increasing, and why incumbent women don't always hang onto their seats or their political careers.

Some of those reasons are philosophical. The personal passions that often get women involved in politics in the first place may not be enough to sustain them for an entire career.

“Very often, you see women running for office because they want to make a change,” said Barbara Lee, a Women's Enews advisory board member and founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., which works to advance the leadership of women in society.

“They start at the level of the local school office, and what you find much more often is men have thought of it as a career move, and a way to have power.”

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation recently published “Keys to the Governor's Office,” a guide to help women running for governor. The introduction to the guide notes that as of 2001, when the research was done, only 18 women had served as governor in the United States.

The Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the State University of New York in Albany did a pilot study last year that examined the retention rates of elected women state legislators in five states: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New York and Washington. The study found that approximately 8 percent of women legislators leave office for reasons other than electoral defeat.

That's about the same rate as men, “but since women are underrepresented in state legislatures virtually everywhere in the country, if they're leaving at the same rate as men, they're losing ground,” said Judith Saidel, the center's executive director.

Such findings point out that the “pipeline” of first-time, local elected offices, such as school boards, may not foster lasting political careers for women, Saidel said.

“The pipeline is not an uninterrupted pipeline,” she said. “One can't assume that because there are a lot of women on school boards that there will be a lot of women in statewide office. There is a place at which the pipeline argument doesn't hold up.”

Although the State University of New York study did not examine the reasons women left their legislative posts, Saidel said newly elected women often find that statehouses are brutal political environments, operating on established “old boy” networks and a clubby atmosphere.

“I have heard just hair-raising stories this year about what it was like for newly elected women to find their way in Albany,” Saidel said.

Darryl McGrath is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., who writes often on politics and child-welfare issues.

For more information:

The Women's Campaign School at Yale University:

Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University:

Center for Women in Government and Civil Society
University at Albany, State University of New York: