The Pipeline Imperative

Susannah Wellford | Jul 10, 2023

When the Dobbs decision came down a year ago, threatening abortion care in America, many political analysts assumed that there would be a corresponding rise in Democratic women running for office.  There is a lot of precedent for this—outrage is a great motivator for political action. After Anita Hill’s testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings in the 90s, we had our first year of the woman, when the number of women in the Senate jumped from 2 to 6 and a record 47 women won House seats. In 2018, in response to Donald Trump, there was a similar upswing in Democratic women running and winning a record number of seats.

But early reports show that fewer women are running this cycle, despite a strong uptick in the number of Democratic women attending training programs on how to run. One analyst, Jennifer Piscopo, quoted in a recent Roll Call article, mused that the pipeline may be “tapped out.” She said: “The Democratic women that are likely to be mobilized by this sense of threat—this sense of feeling like you need to get in there and make the difference—they might already be there [in office],”…“There might not have been too many more women for Dobbs to really move or push over the edge.”

This is deeply troubling to me. The idea that we’ve run out of women who are able/qualified/interested in running for office should be an urgent call to action. Although, the last few decades have seen women’s political power grow, women still run at around a third the rate that men do, and correspondingly only hold slightly more than a quarter of the seats in Congress (28%). The US continues to be outpaced by the rest of the world in terms of women’s political representation.

The answer is building a more robust pipeline of women ready to run, and starting this work early in women’s lives so that they grow up knowing that when the call to action comes, they are ready to step up and lead. Groups like Running Start (where I am CEO) and Ignite, are steadily increasing the pipeline of women prepared to serve by training young women to run. Our groups are especially impactful because we bring in women who are often outside the political class of women who are most expected to run.  We challenge politics as usual by inviting in people who don’t fit the stereotypes of power, but whose leadership we need to have a representative democracy.

Groups like ours desperately need more resources, more media attention, and more funding because we are key to filling the sluggish pipeline of women in politics at all levels. Galvanizing young women’s political ambition is too often seen as an afterthought in the quest for women’s equality in politics, but young women hold the key to more women in power in the future. A 15-year-old whose dreams of changing the world are supported and nurtured will grow up to be a 40-year-old who knows she has the power to run and win.

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