Around this time last year, we hosted a Brown Bag Lunch with Rebecca Sive, author of Every Day is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House. Since that event, Rebecca has been touring the country talking about her book and meeting with women at all levels of leadership. We were lucky enough to catch-up with Rebecca by phone recently for an update on what she has learned through these conversations with women across the country.
What are some of the top things that you have learned in the last year traveling around the country talking to people about your book?
I think the thing that stood out to me the most is that — across race, ethnic, age and geographic lines — there are women everywhere who want to be politically active. That was very interesting to me, not to mention heartwarming. Going into the book tour, I thought perhaps women’s sentiments would differ from place to place, but they didn’t. Everywhere across our country, there are women who are very clear that being a public office holder is very important to them. And there are also, for instance, women who have already been the PTA president or a member of the school board, who have now decided that the next step is the state legislature or some other higher office. That was wonderful to see and hear about. They were not a homogeneous group, either, but a heterogeneous group of women who care deeply about their communities and making them better.
Related to this was the eagerness I saw to learn how to run and win: “How do I go about running for office? What are the steps I can take to do that, to seek the leadership position I want?”
Something else that I think is important, and that I saw reaffirmed — throughout my book tour — was how important it is for women to acknowledge that while they are seeking an office or political leadership in order to, in most cases, make advances on a particular issue, it is also necessary for them to understand and acknowledge that they are seeking power; that it is okay to seek power, and that to seek power to do good is the best. I find women are still sometimes hesitant to talk about this aspect of public leadership. So many women start their public careers by saying, “Well I really want to work on this issue.” Regularly, I found myself reminding my audiences that, in order for them to be effective on issues they care about, they would have to seek influence and power, wholeheartedly. Actually, this truth needs to be underscored for all of us!
Another key lesson that came up during my book tour is this: women who seek leadership positions really need sponsors (as well as tools like Every Day Is Election Day). To me, sponsors are people who open doors and bring you into the room. They say, for instance, “I understand you want to be in the state legislature; so, I’m going to invite you to be my guest at this important event — or speech or meeting — so that you can meet some of the people that can help make that happen for you.” Mentors are great, but sponsors are indispensable.
I feel strongly that when women put themselves out there and run for office, they are saying to their community: “This issue matters, and this office matters.” They are saying that it shouldn’t be just anybody who is the PTA president, or the school board president, or in the legislature; that it really matters who sits in those decision making chairs on a daily basis.
Yes, of course, there are also personal qualities that women will gain. For instance, they will learn to speak with confidence; no doubt, their self esteem will grow; but running for office is really about civic engagement. It is part of engaging successfully on behalf other people. That’s the big gain, the most important one gain.
Here is one story to illustrate this truth. Earlier this month, I went to a county fair in a rural, agricultural area of Michigan. At the fair, I talked to a woman who was running for state representative. She had a classic women’s leadership story to tell me: she had been an accountant, and then a teacher, who was very involved in her community, but she just got fed-up with some things. Since she had retired as a teacher, she said to herself: “Okay, I’m going to run for the state legislature and work to make things better.” So, there she was at the fair. It was 90 degrees out; the humidity was 100%, but she was there shaking hands and talking to as many people as she could, telling them that she wanted to go to Lansing and fight for them. She embodied the notion that: “I understand that, if I am in public office, I can make a positive difference for others. It’s not so much about me, it is about the world around me.”
In fact, since I visited with The Women’s Foundation last year, I encountered this same story –over and over: women who were clear that their search for political leadership and power wasn’t about them; it was about the potential to make a difference.
When you look at issues of sex and race discrimination, when you look at the systemic barriers to advancement, breaking those barriers down requires a group effort. That’s why The Women’s Foundation exists; that’s why donors give to you; and I think that’s why women who are effective politically are effective: they understand they are mobilizing a group of people; that they are agents of change.
Why is this work important to you?
I have been organizing women, helping and leading women’s causes my whole adult life. This work of mine has never ceased being really important to me because I just see so much power within women to do good. This isn’t to say that we’re all perfect, or that we don’t all have our faults, because we all do. But, it is to say that there is so much opportunity for women to build institutions, like The Foundation, to run for office, to be activists, to make this world better. So, over the course of time, I have just tried to figure-out ways to mobilize women to do that. And, if, sometimes, they don’t realize they have the power to make change, well, then, that motivates me, too.
Think about Women’s Equality Day; think about how hard and how long the suffragists fought to reach that day. That organizing went on for almost 100 years. So, if we get tired now, well we’ll just take a look at them and keep on going. In this context, I want to say to you that I think we are now at the most important time for women political activists since suffrage. That’s because, for the first time in American history, women are being considered — and running — from the presidency on down. We are in a moment we haven’t experienced before. This is a wonderful (and important) time for all of us to mobilize to advance women’s political leadership. Thanks to the Women’s Foundation for the work you’re doing to make this happen.