Women have historically been under-represented in all levels of the U.S. government, and even with decades of advances for women in the workplace, this still holds true. According to a March 8, 2017 Vox article, the U.S. is ranked 104th worldwide in female representation in government. Recent events have spurred a new wave of female candidates for office, but, according to panelists invited by the Education Network for Active Civic Transformation (ENACT), a national expansion of the University’s International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life’s program Advocacy for Policy Change, many women are still hesitant to run. 

The panelists, former New Hampshire Speaker of the House and former President of the National Conference of State Legislators Terie Norelli and first-term Massachusetts state senator Cindy Friedman, discussed the current state of women’s political engagement during a panel on April 9. The panel was moderated by Prof. Melissa Stimell (LGLS), the ENACT academic coordinator, as Norelli and Friedman took questions about women in politics from audience members.

The panelists opened the event by discussing their backgrounds and first forays into politics. Norelli explained that she had been a high school math teacher before she was recruited to run for the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Many women are recruited by political operatives to run for office, and Norelli’s volunteer work for NARAL Pro-Choice America and rape crisis centers interested recruiters, who saw her as a lifelong advocate for women’s rights. 

Norelli used her own story to touch on the frequent reluctance of women to enter politics. She had rebuffed the recruiters’ initial approaches, but after their persistent efforts decided to give politics a try. Norelli stressed that anyone “can become an advocate about any issue at any time, with any kind of background,” countering the fear many women have about being too inexperienced to become politically involved.

For Friedman, a feeling that she needed to “get out and do something” to solve problems in her community pushed her to enter the political realm. Friedman worked on political campaigns and in the technology sector before becoming chief of staff to former Massachusetts State Senator Kenneth Donnelly, according to a July 26, 2017 Boston Globe article. Now a State Senator, Friedman emphasized the importance of smaller, local elections. She explained, “What happens in your communities is more important … than what’s happening at the federal levels,” because local politicians “have so much more influence over your life than the federal government.”

Norelli discussed the challenges women face getting their voices heard and being perceived as capable of solving the issues at hand, as she believes women often have trouble being the center of attention or having their voices heard. “It is a little more challenging,” Norelli expressed, “to be the one that’s out there, with the voice, trying to convince people that what you’re trying to do is the right way to solve a problem.” 

Continuing the discussion of specific challenges female politicians face, Norelli discussed press attacks and criticism from the opposition. She stated that in her experience, women “tend to take that a little more personally than men do, most of the time.” 

Friedman said that she copes with the stress of negative comments by remembering that she does not need to consider every critical remark directed at her. She explained, “If there’s something I can do about it, tell me about it,” but added, “If there’s nothing I can about it, and people are just being nasty … I don’t want to know about it, because there’s nothing I can do.” 

If she is nervous about any aspect of her job, Norelli said, it is important to know that she has a group of colleagues who believe in her, but emphasized the fact that it is ultimately her own work that keeps her going. Friedman echoed Norelli’s sentiment, stating, “I think the work is really important, that you care more about the work than you do about how you’re feeling.” Friedman added that she has also become used to the voice in her head that discourages her, and looks forward to her work to stay focused.

Pivoting to discuss partisanship, Norelli reminded the audience that politics is all about relationships, and that reaching out to those with opposing views, while difficult at times, is extremely important. She explained that when working on a piece of legislation, she would reach across the aisle and often find that a politician from a different side of the political spectrum supported her issue for another reason. But while Democrats and Republicans used to work together toward compromise, today, legislators on both sides of the political spectrum “come in with their attitudes,” and, Norelli stated, foster division instead.

Norelli also offered advice for advocates seeking to approach politicians about important issues, listing certain tactics they should employ to convince legislators to lobby in their favor. She spoke of the importance of identifying the problem, describing the proposal and explaining why it would be the most effective solution. 

One audience member asked the panelists for advice on making the transition from doing advocacy work to becoming a legislator. Friedman said having experience in volunteering or advocacy work is important, and recommended becoming a staffer to learn about legislature. Norelli added that in the beginning stages of political careers, men are more likely to feel qualified for a job, while women feel they need to know “150 percent before [they] think [they] are able to move forward.”

Another audience member asked about gender dynamics in politics. Friedman stated that the political system is male-oriented and centered around power, saying, “It is not by nature a team sport.” She mentioned that when serving on committees, she often felt that the men were talking over her, an experience she said was shared by her fellow female legislators. Friedman added that people expect men to have the power; when she is talking to advocates, for example, they often look at her male chief of staff for answers. 

Answering a question about women in advocacy work, Norelli stated that women are caregivers and fill most advocacy positions. She added said that women are advocates as part of their everyday lives for their children and communities. That advocacy, however, does not translate to legislative positions in government, which are still mostly filled by men.  

To solve this disparity between unrecognized female advocacy and male-dominated politics, she stated that the onus is also on men to encourage women to run for office. Addressing  the men, she said, “Be out there and advocate as well. … Support and encourage the women that you know who would make great leaders to step up and be those leaders.”