SURVEYING HER WOMEN in Politics class--a roomful of smart, confident young women plainly interested in politics--Melody Rose, associate professor of political science, came to a startling realization.
Not one of the 70 women in class was thinking of a career in politics. "It was one of those 'aha' moments," says Rose.
Women make up about half of the U.S. population but hold only 23 percent of state legislative seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. In Congress, the proportion drops to 15 percent. Oregon's 2008 Legislature beats the national average with 31 percent women, but the state is losing its only woman in the congressional delegation, Darlene Hooley, which puts Oregon in league with such states as Alabama and Mississippi.
To increase the numbers, Rose believes that more women must look at politics as a viable career option. She decided to see what she could do.
Working with a program at Rutgers University that seeks to educate women about public service careers, Rose established an affiliate chapter at Portland State.
The result is PSU's National Education for Women's (NEW) Leadership™ Oregon program. Each year, NEW Leadership Oregon mixes 30 or so college women with women political and business luminaries for a week of intensive study, network building, and skills development--learning, in other words, what it takes to be a leader.
The faculty and board is a long list of supernovas, including Oregon's first woman governor, Gov. Barbara Roberts; Oregon's first woman elected to statewide office, Secretary of State Norma Paulus; and the first woman to serve on Oregon's Supreme Court, Justice Betty Roberts. Sue Hildick, current advisory board chair, was the youngest legislative director in Congress when she served in Sen. Mark O. Hatfield's office. In October, the NW Women's Journal named six NEW Leadership Oregon board members to its list of 100 Most Powerful Women in the Northwest.
RUBBING SHOULDERS for a week with that kind of firepower can be life changing--at least it was for Sarah deVries '06.
When deVries first heard about the annual conference, she figured she might pick up some basic leadership skills. "I thought it would be a run-of-the-mill leadership camp," she says. "Inspirational speeches, things of that nature."
DeVries had interned in Portland Mayor Vera Katz's office and with the Portland Development Commission, but she says, "I really hadn't thought of running for political office or what a path in public service could do. I was just building up my resumé."
The 2004 conference ended up being so much more for DeVries.
She was part of a small group assigned the task of finding a grassroots approach to address hunger. At the end of the week, each group argued the case for their proposed policy in a mock press conference.
"You build up a policy presentation," says deVries, "hear women talk about their experiences in civic leadership. Then to go to the capitol, where Gov. Barbara Roberts gave us a guided tour--I don't know how you can beat that. It makes you realize that this is where it happens, and it's potentially where I could make a change."
Roberts, who helped establish the program at PSU, has served on the faculty and advisory board since the chapter's inception. She even was a faculty member in residence, living in the dorm with participants during the first conference. For her, the experience has been rewarding.
"These young women--politically and philosophically all over the map from conservative to liberal--were listening to former legislators, governors, supreme court justices, and others talk about developing public policy," says Roberts. "How you take an issue and become an advocate and develop the nuances. They were getting public policy instruction that I don't know that I ever got at that level in quite that way. It really is an incredible experience. In my day it was an impossible experience."
As a result, Roberts says, women who go through the program may enter politics younger and reach higher levels earlier. Ultimately, she says, the community "wins" by dint of the more equal representation in the body politic.
After hours, participants and faculty rubbed shoulders informally. "We played all kinds of silly games--competitive games, funny games--everyone laughed and had fun," Roberts says of the time she stayed in the dormitory with students. "And I slept in maybe the worst bed I've slept in since I was a child."
RESULTS FROM the first four years of conferences indicate the program is working.
Before and after surveys show that more women consider becoming involved in public service or political office after the conference, says Rose. Alumnae are running legislative campaigns, lobbying, running for office themselves, or working in the upper echelons of political campaigns.
"I can't go to the capitol," says Rose," without running into one of our alumnae." She hopes to expand the program to include high school girls and working women.
Among alumnae with capitol connections are Andrea Cooper, constituency director of the Oregon Democratic Party; Amy Goodall, associate director of governmental affairs for the Oregon Medical Association; and Blair Larkins, congressional aide for Oregon U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.
The conference was more than a one-week interlude for deVries, who now serves as an alumnae representative on the advisory board. She and other participants stay in touch through Web sites and listservs, and meet socially every quarter.
"It has definitely shaped the direction of my life," says deVries. "I had never ever considered a career in public service. Now I know that my community volunteer activities are the way I want my career to go--serving the community in some political capacity. And my experience is not unique. If you talk to 20 women from each cohort, I think you'll find they had the same exact experience."
Melissa Steineger, a Portland freelance writer, wrote the article "Producing, Using, Saving" for the winter 2008 Portland State Magazine.
Barriers to success
AT THE CURRENT rate that women are being elected to public office, they will achieve parity in the year 2084. With so many role models and examples on the national and local stage, what prevents more women from running for office? Melody Rose, director of NEW Leadership Oregon, and Gov. Barbara Roberts describe their impressions of some of the barriers women face.
- Struggling to balance work and life responsibilities is complicated further when women add politics to their schedule. Rose calls this "The Whopper." Politics require onerous hours and maintaining a wildly unpredictable schedule. Given that women are typically more responsible than men for family and household tasks, they may feel they must forgo politics at least while children are younger.
- Women are less comfortable asking for money. And, Rose notes, even at local levels running for political office requires cash. Faced with the need to ask thousands of strangers for money, women may choose instead to pass.
- Sexism persists in overt and subtle ways. Roberts notes that men are assumed to have the background knowledge to answer policy questions. Women, however, must first demonstrate their credentials, before their answers are given credence. "Women face rougher, harder standards to be able to do the same work," says Roberts. "It's a reality still."
On a more subtle note, "It's the pants suit question and how many different hairstyles she's had," says Roberts. "How do you judge a man's hairstyle? A man can wear blue jeans and big belt buckles or pound his fist on the podium or use colorful language. A woman can't."
- Women wait to be asked. Boys may know as teens that they want to be a high-level politician, says Rose. But most women get involved only because of a compelling policy need they can fix by getting involved in politics. Rose believes that women need to see politics as a viable career option.