Politics / Women march—into office
Members of WomenElect, clockwise from top left: Megan Farry, Michelle Roman, Katie McDade Burd, Joan Seamans, Lindsay Amico, and Diana Cihak
Photos by kc kratt
Right now, women hold just twenty percent of seats in Congress, and less than a quarter of state legislators are female. Only six United States governors are women. And, internationally, the US barely cracks the top 100 in a ranking of countries based on women’s representation in national legislatures or parliaments, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research center.
Certainly, these numbers are growing. For example, the number of women serving in state legislatures has grown fivefold since the early 1970s. But, it’s still nowhere close to fifty-one percent—the number needed to match women’s share of the population in the most recent US census.
It’s that disparity that led Diana Cihak to found WomenElect, a leadership development program that prepares women to run for office. The first class graduated in 2010 and, since then, more than forty women have completed the program in Buffalo. The program also graduated its second class in Rochester this year.
“[Lack of] confidence is the biggest reason women don’t run for office,” says Cihak, citing concerns she hears often over fundraising, qualifications, and the effect a campaign may have on a candidate’s family, reputation, and personal or professional relationships. “We’re trying to help by getting women who are super qualified, who are already making a difference in their communities and could make a bigger difference in office, to say, ‘Yes, I will run.’”
For Cihak, her goal to achieve more gender parity in government isn’t about progress for progress’s sake. The why, she says, is best embodied in the resolution to the 2013 federal government shutdown, when news media and male senators widely credited a bipartisan group of female senators with leading the compromise that ended the sixteen-day shutdown.
“Women are there to do something, and they operate in a different way than men,” she says. “If we had gender parity in office, government would work differently and work better for everyone—that’s the why.”
During the four-month WomenElect program, participants first undergo a rigorous personal development program to answer questions like, “Why are you running for office?” and “How much grit do you have, and how do you improve that?” From there, the program delves into fundraising, media, and messaging, and the local political scene, including an introduction to the party system and the importance of third parties. (The nonpartisan organization welcomes women from any political party, but Cihak says the requirement that participants be pro-choice means they tend to be socially liberal.)
Amber Small, who serves as executive director of the Parkside Community Association and ran for State Senate in 2016, was one of the program’s first graduates. She says her greatest takeaway was a new understanding of her personal story and how to communicate her passion for public service to others.
“When I ran for elected office, it wasn’t because I wanted to see my name on a lawn sign; it was because I care about my community, and I knew that we needed someone in office who could represent the needs of our district,” Small says. “With so much happening at both the local and national level pertaining to public policy, it’s more important than ever for women to get more involved politically. I am a firm believer that if you don’t like what’s being said, it’s your job to change the conversation.”
Meanwhile, Hope Jay, an attorney, was elected to the Buffalo Public School Board last year after completing WomenElect in 2013. Though she had worked on many campaigns before, Jay says the program helped her understand politics through the eyes of a candidate.
“Many women get into the political arena without a comprehensive and realistic understanding of the challenges,” she says. “WomenElect provides the structure, framework, and emotional support to help women grow and develop confidence in themselves and their ability to step forward and run.”
Throughout the course, guest speakers provide additional insights and opportunities for participants to grow their networks. To graduate, participants must host a fundraiser for the WomenElect political action committee, which Cihak says helps fund the program going forward, proves to participants that they can host a fundraiser, and creates their personal network of potential donors.
This fall, the program will launch in Auburn, Binghamton, Corning, Ithaca, and Syracuse. Cihak, who hopes to expand to other cities and states over the next five years, says she’s optimistic the number of women in office will only continue to grow.
“Ironically, we thought Hillary Clinton winning would be a good catalyst for more women to run for office. But the silver lining of the Trump campaign, for someone like me who’s not in that camp, is that it was the thing that pushed a lot of women to say, ‘I’ve got to do something,’” she says.
“Women run for office not to be something, but to do something. They identify a problem they can make a difference on—it could be an issue at their school, a playground being taken down, a water issue, air quality, parks,” she continues. “There’s a real hunger for [programs like WomenElect] right now. There’s an understanding that we need to get qualified women—women who are engaged in their community, who are intelligent, thoughtful, and strategic about making a difference—to say yes if we’re going to change things.”
Matthew Biddle is a Tonawanda-based writer. and regular Spree contributor.