EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Debbie Walsh of the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University spoke to members of the Atlantic County Federation of Republican Women on Thursday, Jan. 26 at the Shore Diner to outline the role of women in politics and to discuss ways they can make more inroads on the political landscape, locally and nationally.
Eagleton runs a non-partisan campaign training program for women called Ready to Run, which does research on and advocates for women’s involvement in politics.
Walsh said that nationally the number of women in office has held flat, despite an increased representation among the 2016 presidential candidates.
“This past election we were optimistic about women running for office because there were women running for president for both parties,” she said. “But looking down ballot, we saw absolutely no change.
"Before the election we have 104 women serving in Congress. After the election, we had 104 serving. There was not a record number of women running for Congress. It was complete status quo.
“Here in New Jersey, we have only one woman now who represents us in Washington, D.C. That is Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from Mercer County. The last woman to represent us from New Jersey was Marge Roukema, from Bergen County. The time frame between Marge Roukema and Bonnie Watson Coleman was 15 years, where we were without a woman representing New Jersey in our congressional delegation. We’ve only had six women ever over time who served in Washington,” she said.
But while there is gender gap overall, there is an even larger partisan gap, she said.
“Democratic woman in Congress make up about one-third of all members. Republican women make up 9 percent of all Republicans who serve, so there is a real disconnect there.”
She said some of the progress has occurred after indictments of male politicians.
“Indictments have been very, very good to women,” she said with a laugh, adding that as some male lawmakers were indicted and left office, they were replaced by the county party chairs who were women. The better channel is to get more women to run and get elected. “It’s not exactly how we want to get there, but hey, I guess we will take it.”
She said all residents should want women representing them.
“It’s a waste of talent when we are facing all sorts of problems to leave half the population out of the equation with all of the creativity and ideas and energy and smarts they bring. Let’s get that in the mix,” she said.
She said women carry different priorities and bring a different set of experiences to the table.
“We know that when women are in office, they don’t just legislate differently and have different priorities, they also see government operating differently,” she said.
Many of the gains women have made are because there were female legislators championing causes in Congress.
“If you have credit cards in your own name, the reason is because women served in Congress and championed the Fair Credit Act,” she said. The same theme is evident in Title IX, which ensured that girls could play as many sports as their male peers, or in the creation of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at National Institutes of Health which conducts health care research specifically for women, and even in the Family Medical Leave Act, she said.
Federation member Cyndi Balles said she feels that once the local party encourages a woman to seek office, they are often left to manage the campaign for themselves.
“I feel there is better support on the Democratic side. They have a more structured organization,” Balles said. “The support is the real issue.”
Political action committees have deeper pockets on the Democratic side, both nationally and in New Jersey, Walsh said, and suggested that a PAC is needed specifically for Republican women.
“It falls to activist Republican women to push for this,” she told room full of women and the three men who attended. “Because it’s your voices they will listen to,” she said. “If they feel push back from women in their parties saying it matters to have us at the table, I think that’s a big part of what’s going to have to happen to make the change.”
Other suggestions included offering local courses for public speaking, conducting outreach to schools and college-age women to model females in politics, seeking out new members and encouraging a variety of female candidates to seek office.
The recent election has spawned a new level of activism in women, a wave that Walsh said should be put to use.
"We are in a moment of activism," she said. "Now is the time to have your voice heard."