A Conversation With CAWP Director Debbie Walsh

The director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers Debbie Walsh talks about helping more women run for office.

Courtesy of Political Parity

New Jersey Monthly: Like many women, you were disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election. But women seem to have regrouped. Do events like the Women’s March after the inauguration suggest to you that women aren’t shrinking from politics?
Debbie Walsh: Among the many questions we had after the election was: Would women see this very qualified woman who ran and lost and think, Why should I even consider running for office? How could I possibly win? Also the tenor and the tone of the election were so negative. But what we’re seeing is that women were inspired by Hillary’s run for the presidency. They were also inspired by the election of Donald Trump to have a voice.

NJM: Will that translate into more women candidates?
DW: We run a nonpartisan training program for about 150 women at Rutgers every year called Ready to Run that helps them learn to run successful campaigns. At the end of 2015 we had two women registered for the 2016 event. At the end of 2016, we had 100 paid registrants for the 2017 event. We’re now close to 200 registrants.

NJM: Do you expect all these women to run for office?
DW: Not necessarily. We’ve added a focus this year on legislative advocacy, to teach people to advocate for the issues they care about. The Women’s March, including the four marches that took place in New Jersey, are indications that women are looking to find a way to be citizen activists.

NJM: How are women doing, representation-wise, in New Jersey?
DW: When I first came to New Jersey in the early 1980s, we came in at the bottom 10 percent of states with women serving in the state legislature. We were at about the same rate as states like Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. It was pretty shocking. Right now we rank 14th in the nation, but we’ve been as high as ninth. Thirty percent of our state legislature is female, and half the women who serve in our state legislature are women of color. So we’re not just bringing in more women, we’re bringing in real diversity.

NJM: It seems like we have a ways to go.
DW: Right, but we’re doing much better than we used to. As recently as 2005 we had 15.8 percent women at the congressional level. And we’ve only had, I think, six women who’ve represented New Jersey in Washington, D.C., since the first woman was elected back in 1925. We’re also not doing well at the local level. Our mayors are only 14.5 percent women.

NJM: You’ve been quoted as saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” What does that mean?
DW: It’s the idea that women need to be part of the decision-making process. If your perspectives aren’t represented, you’re likely to be in the group whose priorities aren’t funded.

NJM: Tell us about CAWP’s new initiative, Teach a Girl to Lead.
DW: What we’re trying to do is make sure women’s public leadership is visible to girls and boys, primarily in grades K to 12. If you look at history books, you see that women are kind of a footnote. We want to make sure little girls grow up seeing women as public figures. So we’re providing resources for teachers, and we’re working with youth organizations and we even have information on how to do a tour of your State House with a gendered lens. For example, when you go to Trenton you don’t see many portraits of women. So when groups go down there, we’re encouraging them to make sure women who are working in government are there and part of the tour.

NJM: Do you think a woman will be president in your lifetime?
DW: I hope so. There are women out there who are laying the groundwork. I’d love to see it happen.

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