Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Well-behaved women seldom make history. That's an insight that reminds us that women change-makers are required to be rule breakers. Throughout the month of March, for women's history month, The Takeaway is joining forces with the Center for American Women and Politics in politics at Rutgers University to bring you the stories of women leading locally.
We'll be talking with folks from the Philadelphia city council to the Florida State House, from the Ohio legislature to the Texas bench, New Jersey to California. We're going to be talking with women who are breaking barriers, shattering ceilings, holding office, and holding it down right with their change-making, directly touches the lives of their constituents. To kick off the series, we're starting with a conversation with our partners in this endeavor.
Debbie Walsh: My name is Debbie Walsh. I'm the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I asked Debbie to tell us a little bit about the Center for American Women and Politics, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Debbie Walsh: The center is the first and in many ways, still the only national think tank of university-based that studies women's participation in American politics, that looks at the chin changing relationship that women have had to politics over the years, that also seeks to empower women who are in office and those who aspire to office and to really have as part of its core mission, making sure that there is diversity among the women. It's not just about more women, it's about more women and the diversity of those women.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm so excited about the project that Center for American Women and Politics and The Takeaway are doing together during this month of March, because in certain ways it is hearkening back to that beginning 50 years ago of counting, yes, but also of talking to women serving in state legislatures and in other local and state-based offices, in order to understand this space, which remains the primary place where women hold office.
Debbie Walsh: That's right. I think what we are very excited about in this partnership is the fact that The Takeaway will be telling of those stories and to a much larger audience. I think that's important because I think when you hear these stories of women who make the decision to run, there's a problem in their community. There's some issue they want to tackle and they make the decision to run for office as a way to have an impact and to fix the problems that they see.
It really opens the door to other women and lets them see a path forward and lets them identify with the women whose stories you will be telling over the course of this month. I think that's what's so critically important about these stories being told over and over again and hearing all of the variety of experiences and the roots that women take to office and at different levels of office and frankly, what they can accomplish.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why does it matter to have these data, to understand where women serve?
Debbie Walsh: The data really helps define what the problem is and what the challenge is. If you don't know how many women are serving, if you don't know how many women are running, you can't really figure out what are the solution to the problem. You have to really define the problem in order to develop the solutions. I'll give you a really good example. Through the 90s and even into the 2000s, we were seeing a real stagnation in the number of women serving in state legislatures.
In the 70s and 80s, we would moan that we were only seeing 1% to 2% increase every election cycle. Then after the mid-90s, it just flatlined. We were counting both the numbers of women serving as well as the number of women candidates, we saw a very clear pattern, which was, our number of our candidates weren't going up either. That data let us see that the problem isn't that women more and more women are running and they just don't win, the problem was, we weren't seeing enough candidates.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've talked a little bit about counting those who are running and those who are holding office, we've talked about digging in and getting those stories. I think it's important for people to understand that you all are not only passive observers watching, recording the research, understanding the patterns. You're also actively engaged in this process through the Ready To Run programs. Talk to us about those.
Debbie Walsh: Ready To Run is a nonpartisan campaign training program that we run at the Center for American Women and Politics. It's a program we conduct in New Jersey. In New Jersey, it's our little laboratory for developing the program, but we have partnerships in about 20 states around the country where they are also running their own state-based programs. We believe very strongly that good campaign training needs to be state-based because the politics of each state is so different.
Running for office in New Jersey is very different than running for office in Iowa or Oklahoma or Ohio. Therefore, we want our partners, whether it's at Iowa State University or Ohio State University, or the University of Oklahoma, we want those folks developing programs that really speak to the political ecosystem that they're operating in. There's some obviously fundamental things that you need to cover, fundraising, media training, how to organize a campaign, but those things vary by state and by what office you're running for.
We're very proud of the fact that these programs are incubated in New Jersey, but then are spread around the country and making a difference. We're also really proud of the work that we've been doing in New Jersey, and we encourage our partners to do as well to also have some programs that are specifically tailored to women of color. We have a New Jersey, a program, very civic programs for Black women running for office, for Asian American women running for office, and for Latinas who are thinking about running for office. I'm delighted, and I want to thank you again publicly because when we were very first starting that initiative, you came and spoke to those groups and inspired them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, I feel the gratitude myself, not only do I so remember that, I remember that my daughter who is now 20 was maybe six or seven years old and sitting there in the back of the room. I think we've talked about this before, but I have 40 copies of the children's picture book, Grace for President and Never Go Below 40. I just keep them so that I can always be giving them out. I give them to students, I send them to friends. There's so many different messages in Grace For President, but it was my own official Grace For President moment looking back and seeing my own daughter sitting there and absorbing the Ready To Run program.
Debbie Walsh: Being amidst all of these women who aspired to office, that was such a great moment, I love that. we do a special project with the Grace For President book and it's sequel Grace Goes to Washington where we send that book to every state legislator woman member of Congress and woman who holds statewide elective office. We ask them to go out into classrooms in their state, in their district, and read the book to kids.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This series that we are producing together is called Women Leading Locally. When I say to you, women leading locally, what does that mean to you?
Debbie Walsh: I think in some ways it's the old adage in politics, all politics is local. I think women around this country are having big impacts on their communities and their stories often go untold. To me, this is an opportunity to tell those stories and to hear about women who are accomplishing wonderful things in their communities at the local county and state level. I think Washington and Congress always takes the spotlight, and I think we're very frustrated by the lack of what is getting done in Washington.
I think a lot is getting done in the states and in localities and putting a spotlight on those and the women who are changing have a huge impact on your life on the day-to-day, how your local government functions has a big impact on the lives of citizens. I think it's just terrific to get to tell those stories and to hear directly from those women, why they're doing what they're doing, why they got involved in the first place, and what they're accomplishing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Debbie Walsh is the director of the Center for American Women and Politics. Thanks so much for joining us today and for joining us on this journey throughout Women's History Month.
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