By Katie Ziegler
Los Angeles—The headlines continue to tout a wave of women running for office this year, but time (83 days until the midterms!) will tell whether this election marks an increase in the number of women serving in state legislatures.
Experienced watchers of women in politics know that filling the pipeline of potential female candidates is a year-round task, which demands attention well before those women reach the qualifying age for candidacy.
Research shows that young men and women have equivalent interest in political careers while in high school, but by the end of college, women’s interest has declined.
A session at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Los Angeles highlighted the work of state legislators hoping to spark an interest in political engagement among girls in their states.
NCSL’s Women’s Legislative Network collaborated with the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University to present a panel discussion among three legislators, Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D-Utah), Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Calif.) and Senator Katrina Shealy (R-S.C.). Jean Sinzdak and Debbie Walsh of CAWP discussed the current landscape of women in politics and their program, Teach a Girl to Lead.
Each year, Teach a Girl to Lead sends a children’s book about girls’ leadership (this year it is "Grace for President") to every elected female legislator, governor and member of Congress. The legislators are encouraged to read the book at a school in their district and donate the copy to the school library. The program also compiles state-by-state resources about girls’ leadership initiatives and encourages legislators to join the Leaders Lineup so that teachers can easily connect with elected officials and invite them into classrooms.
The panelists shared their experiences visiting classrooms and speaking to students and young women in their communities.
Shealy emphasized the importance of young girls and boys meeting a female elected leader, so that all children grow up with a comprehensive picture of what leadership looks like. Mitchell agreed, and discussed how valuable it is for students to read stories about girls who look like them. Chavez-Houck talked about her partnership with a Utah Girl Scout troop to present a “future legislators minicamp” at the Capitol, in which girls prepared bills and participated in mock committee hearings and mock floor debates.
Suggestions for the session attendees, in addition to visiting schools, included finding novel ways to teach the history of women in their communities and recognizing the accomplishments of young women leaders by sending letters and merit citations.
The next election will be over before we know it (really!), while the important work of teaching children about our political system and about women’s contributions and capacity for leadership is evergreen.
Katie Ziegler is the program manager of NCSL's Women's Legislative Network.