Getting Beyond Gender, to Agenda

May 20, 2009

I’ve been politically active for decades.   Have worked hard for candidates I believed in.  Gave as much money as my budget could bear.  Dialed at least a thousand phone calls.   Knocked on doors.  Served as precinct captain.  Even turned my house into a bustling,  “get-out-the-vote headquarters” on election day.  And I’ve been on the “we need more women in political office” bandwagon for at least a decade. 

The one thing I haven’t done is stick my neck out and run for office myself.  Until now.   I’ve just pulled my petitions and started to gather signatures to get my name on the ballot this November for City Council in Auburn Hills, a rapidly changing, once rural, community 30 minutes north of Detroit, Michigan.  

Our former Mayor, one of several people who have repeatedly asked me to run, finally got to me when she said, “Anne you ought to practice what you preach.”  What’s my answer to that? Another friend pushed me closer to the political tipping point a few weeks earlier.   Dr. Glenda Price, president emeritus of Marygrove College, speaking to an audience of professional women advised, “When someone that you respect says, ‘You know, you really ought to consider . . . ,' then you really should give it serious consideration.”  I thought she was talking directly to me.

So why has it taken me so long to do what I’ve been urging other women to do for years?

Marie Wilson, founding president of The White House Project, says I’m pretty typical.  Regardless of their credentials, women rarely wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I think I’ll run for office.”   Men have been doing that for centuries.  “Women,” Wilson says, “need to be invited, urged, recruited.”  That’s why every single speech she gives, Wilson urges,  “Don’t let a day go by without saying to at least one woman, “You should really run for that open seat in the Legislature.”  Or, “I hope you’re throwing your name in the hat for . . . (fill in the blank)."  Etc. Etc. Etc.

The White House Project, in case you haven’t heard, is a national, non--partisan organization founded in 2004 to train and mobilize a richly diverse, critical mass of women into public leadership – from local offices to the Oval Office.  So far, their leadership trainings have opened doors to political leadership for over 6,000 American women.  And they’re just getting warmed up.

 Last Saturday, I participated in an intense, day-long “Debate Boot Camp” training for candidates, sponsored by the Michigan office of The White House Project.  From the moment I met the 20-something other women in the training, I knew I had walked into something powerful.  First, it was the most diverse group of women I’ve worked with in a long time – perhaps ever.  Generationally, racially and professionally.  Our common denominators were:  1) A strong desire to make a difference on our watch; and 2) The willingness to raise our voices and risk challenge, criticism and even defeat.

That’s relatively new stuff for women.  For all of our professional achievements, we’re still slogging our way through some pretty thick cultural muck when it comes to raising our hands to Lead. How many times have you heard or even thought to yourself, “Women don’t support one another.”  Or, “Women are their own worst enemies.”  Those refrains are so old they’re getting moldy.

There was none of that at the White House Project training, which included plenty of frank, constructive feedback -- wrapped in encouragement – that each participant received from the other women in the training. By the end of the day, not only had we learned how to use our personal stories to build authenticity with voters  and “pivot” when answering off-the-wall questions, we each seemed to stand a little taller when we left.  But the best part was the strong sense of Sisterhood that built throughout the day.  I haven’t felt that elixir in decades. 

Time magazine claims,  in this week’s cover story on The Future of Work, that “women will rule business.”   We’re on the verge of another big surge for women in this country.  This time into leadership.  But it’s going to take more than millions of individual achievers all fighting for her piece of the action.  Major cultural change requires collective momentum headed in the same direction.   Have you asked yourself lately, 'How am I moving out of my comfort zone and encouraging other women to stretch to their heightest levels, too?"  

 A great way to start is to rent the fabulous and fun documentary, "What's Your Point, Honey," which puts a face on young women already eyeing the presidency for 2024.  Invite your favorite 20-somethings, teens and tweens (daughters, nieces, granddaughters, little sisters?) to watch it with you.  Start planting political ambitions early for the next generations.  It's time to get beyond gender and get on with a new agenda.   

And by the way, it's never too late to run for office yourself.  Come on in, the water's fine -- so far.  

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