A Seat at the Table

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SHE Leads and Emerge Maine help more women run for office

“When women hold public office,” says Sarah Skillin Woodard, “they are more actively involved in a variety of gender-salient issue areas, including health care, the economy, education and the environment. Women legislators are more responsive to constituents, value cooperation over hierarchical power and find ways to engineer solutions in situations where men have trouble finding common ground. Everyone wins.”

Illustration by Taylor Roberge

Skillin Woodard is a Democrat who has served in leadership roles on several key campaigns and is currently the executive director of Emerge, Maine—the state affiliate of Emerge America, an organization that works with Democratic women interested in running through an intensive six-month (70 hour) training program.

“I think we force a perspective that sometimes isn’t thought of,” says Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the assistant minority leader of the Maine House of Representatives who is now seeking a state Senate seat.

”In general, women are ​… better listeners. They may just look at things a little differently than men do.”

Espling is co-chair of SHE Leads, a statewide organization that provides Republican women interested in running for office with focused trainings and networking opportunities over weekend conferences and workshops.

While on different sides of the political aisle, Espling and Skillin Woodard both believe that government, like life, benefits when women are equally represented and in positions of leadership.

“I am always looking for women who are in the place where they want to step up,” says Espling. “The soccer mom who is running the PTA or the booster club…or running the free community meals down at the pantry. They may not be ready to [run for office] yet, but someday in the future.”

“We like to see somebody who is engaged in their community, who is volunteering and committed,” notes Skillin Woodard. “We don’t look for any particular ‘type’ of person, we like to see diversity.”

Even with recent political wins for women and active recruiting, it is still challenging to enlist women to run. “Women are more than half the population, but hold less than a third of elected offices,” says Skillin Woodard. “The United States currently ranks 104th in the world in the number of women serving in their national legislatures. We are behind Mexico, China and Pakistan. Only 37 women have ever served as governor across the United States. Only 27 states have ever had a woman governor.”* Maine is not one of them. And on a national level, “women make up just 19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress and 24.8 percent of state legislatures,” Skillin Woodard says.

Generational assumptions still play a role as well. “I still run into the expectation that it is the woman’s job to make sure the kids are OK,” says Espling, who was once asked by a reporter how she managed to juggle raising her children while serving in Augusta. She sent him down the hall to ask that question of a male colleague. “We have to push back as women and not just answer the question.”

These assumptions are not only in the minds of men. Women are often “culturally conditioned” to be uncertain about their right to a seat at the table. It is an oft-cited statistic that a woman must be asked 10 times before they will even consider running, far more than men. Part of the work of both organizations is instilling the awareness within the women themselves that they deserve to be there. Their work may, however, be paying off.

Illustration by Taylor Roberge

According to a recent CNN report, “About 19,000 women contacted Emily’s List about standing for election in the entire 2016 cycle ​… She Should Run has had an average of 15,000 inquiries since the 2016 election,” and applications to Emerge America are up 87 percent from 2016.

*As of Dec. 2017, this number is now 39 women governors in 28 states.

Heather D. Martin lives on the coast of Maine with her honey, two sons and assorted animals. When she’s not working with various museums, art programs and nonprofits on community building, she’s usually off causing mayhem with the above mentioned crew.

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