I live in Berkeley, and many people here are movers and shakers on a national – or even global – scale. Within a 15-block radius of my house live Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, founders of MoveOn.Org; Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton Administration; Robert Reich, Clinton’s Labor Secretary; Michael Pollan, acclaimed author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (and much more); Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, the Edible Schoolyard and champion of School Lunch reform; Alice Walker – The Color Purple (etc. etc.); Michael Lewis – Moneyball (etc. etc.); and countless other renown and less-well-known – but equally accomplished – writers, thinkers, activists and leaders in every field and endeavor. It’s exciting to live in a community with so many people who aspire to impact the world – and so many who are successful!
Not surprisingly, with eyes focused on the horizon, there is relatively little attention paid to “who gets elected” and “what goes on” at the local level. District, city and county affairs barely register. What matters is what’s happening on a state, national or global scale.
In the aftermath of the recent Senate “hearings” on family planning, a now-notorious photo of all-male clergy invited by Senate Republicans – also all male – to opine about childbearing, has circulated broadly across the internet. The absurdity is overwhelming – and frightening – for women and men who value the right to decide whether, when and how often to bear children. Judging by the number of friends and neighbors who forwarded the photo to me, that predicament – a bunch of male Senators inviting male clergy to speak about how to manage women’s lives and bodies – really captured their outrage and attention.
Where do all those whacky male Senators come from? It has been almost 50 years since Griswold recognized the constitutional right to access contraception, 40 years since Roe v. Wade, and 20 years since “The Year of the Woman” supposedly turned the tide in favor of women in the Senate and House, and throughout the many echelons of federal, state and local government.
The answer is simple. They come from local communities just like yours and mine. Yes. The overwhelming majority of Senators and Representatives got their start in local government, serving on local commissions, on local school boards and city councils, climbing up the ladder to State legislatures and offices, and eventually running for the Senate or House of Representatives. As I often say, state and federal legislators are your local candidates and commissioners – a few years down the road, with better suits!
It’s important to encourage pro-choice, Democratic women to seek, run for and win office, at the most micro, local levels. Today’s pro-choice Democratic woman dog-catcher is tomorrow’s pro-choice, Democratic woman Council Member and next year’s pro-choice Democratic member of the State Assembly. A decade or two down the road, she may just become your pro-choice Democratic member of the United States Senate, chairing a committee that holds hearings on family planning – having invited a panel of diverse women to testify about something they know about professionally, and first hand.
Emerge America, now in its seventh year, is focused with laser-like precision on bringing pro-choice Democratic women into the pipeline by supporting them with skills, networks and encouragement from day one. Emerge America’s state-by-state programs seek, train and support a diverse group of women, from many backgrounds and professions, who share a passion for improving their communities. Many Emerge graduates go on to serve on local boards and commissions. Many run for office; some win and become local representatives; and some of those who serve locally move forward to statewide office. In time, some will move beyond.
If we want more women who represent our interests in the Senate, we can’t just look up and support them when they finally catch our eye at the state or federal level. If we don’t support pro-choice, Democratic women locally, none will ever show up! That’s how we find ourselves, in 2012, subject to an overwhelmingly male Senate and Legislature. Only 17 of our 100 United States Senators are women, and 90 of our 435 members of the House of Representatives.
The source of this predicament is simple: we haven’t made the effort to support a viable pipeline of women from the bottom up. 51% of the US population and 57% of US college graduates are women, yet we rank 78th among other countries in the percentage of women holding elected office – below Mexico, China and Pakistan.
It’s time to look DOWN our tickets carefully, before we look up. Find, promote and support local pro-choice Democratic women with your recommendations, nominations, appointments, endorsements, money and votes. Who we appoint and elect at the local level really does matter. If we can achieve parity with men in our towns and counties, soon enough we will see parity at state and national levels. Never again will we be subjected to the spectacle of all male Senators inviting an all male panel to discuss family planning. That is something to look forward to.
Class of 2006