BOULDER, Colo. — Twenty years ago, women made huge gains in winning electoral offices at the state and federal levels in what was dubbed "The Year of the Woman."
This year, The 2012 Project is one of several organizations trying to take advantage of new congressional and legislative districts, open seats and the voter turnout of a presidential election to get more women elected. The group enlisted a faculty of former elected women politicians to recruit baby boomer professionals to run for office. Mary Hughes is founder and director of the nonpartisan project based at the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.
Hughes talked about the challenge of getting women to run for office while participating in the University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs.
How do you feel right now about the number of women running for office?
"Early indicators are good for a significant numbers of women filing. We think that the emphasis we've placed on open seats has actually had an effect. There's somewhere on the order of 70 women filed in the 39 open seats created by retirements or vacancies in the House of Representatives... In Illinois, where they have both filed and had a primary, it appears there's an all-time high in the number of women nominated for state legislature, for example."
There are several organizations out there like The 2012 Project — there's Smart Girl Politics, the White House Project, Ready to Run, others that are trying to encourage women to run. What do you see the two political parties doing?
"Both parties make efforts to reach out to women, but that's not their job. Their job is to get people who are best suited to win a competitive race. And leaving it to the parties is never going to be good enough. Women are so far behind in the United States. There are 93 countries who have greater representation of women in their federal legislature... so if we have any hope in the United States of catching up, we're going to have to do it ourselves. The women's community has organized itself fairly well. There are networks to raise money. There are campaign bootcamps, leadership training programs, there are think tanks that will fill in knowledge gaps. We did an inventory of the entire United States, created an interactive map, so that any woman in any state can go to the2012project.us and find the resources that will help her get up to speed to launch a candidacy."
The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty recently wrote about efforts to get women to run. This is being countered by a feeling among women that the scrutiny, the criticism, just the roughness of political contests isn't worth it. Do you see that kind of reluctance among the women you've tried to recruit?
"Recent history certainly suggests that there's a disaffection. I'm not sure the disaffection is any greater among women than it is among men. It's a tough time in politics. People who venture out there have to have tough hides. But you have to ask the question, 'Is America worth it?' America is worth it. And I believe the women in this country know that. When they're given the support and direction and opportunity and they look at a year like this, which has the greatest number of open seats, and they understand that they can be competitive, I think women will run."
At the same time, you have people like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, both elected governors in 2010, say they don't want to be Mitt Romney's running mate. Nikki Haley's getting a lot of grief in South Carolina. Are the media and the public and political opposition tougher on women than on men?
"In Gov. Haley's case, South Carolina is either 49th or 50th in the number of women in its state legislature. For South Carolina to have a woman governor is an achievement in itself. Understanding that gulf between men and women and representative offices in South Carolina means that she will be a target, she will be challenged, she will be tested. Both governors, very wisely, and no different than (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie, wisely understand that as first-term governors, you have to keep faith with the people who put you there."
Any predictions for highlights for women in 2012? Any races to watch out there that you think would be interesting?
Democrat Elizabeth Warren versus GOP Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, former GOP Gov. Linda Lingle potentially facing U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono in Hawaii's Senate contest, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin running for an open seat in Wisconsin and former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico's open seat are among the races to watch, Hughes said.
"The Senate is ground zero for the marquee races."
2012 will be over in December. What happens next with The 2012 Project?
"We're looking at ways that what we have built can be carried forward... The faculty, for example, the state coalitions ... these will go forward. Clearly there was a need for this call to service and 2012 can not be the end of it. Even if we match what happened in 1992, we would have a long way to go before women are at equitable levels of representation in the leadership of our country."
Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette