This essay originally appeared in Palo Alto Patch.
Last fall when my friend, the documentary filmmaker and activist Michealene Risley, told me she wanted to run for president, I thought she was joking. We were having breakfast at the Palo alto Creamery talking about the plight of the economy and the deep concern we both have about the ongoing war in Afghanistan among other simmering issues facing this country.
“President?” I asked, nearly choking on my eggs benedict. “Of the United States?” If there is a picture of incredulous, I am sure at that moment I looked it.
She nodded. “Yes.”
Now Michealene rarely does anything half-baked so when she said she was going to run, I believed her. Six months later, not only does she have an office, a staff, and a growing constituency, she also is the third most popular candidate on Americans Elect, the new organization that is trying to circumvent the flawed election process by going around big money and going directly to the people offering them independent candidates.
Her closest competition is Laurence Kotlikoff, a professor from Boston University. At last count, she had 1619 “likes” to his 1614. The next runner up, T.J. O’Hara, has a mere 458 “likes.” In short, Michealene is a contender.
This made me wonder, why then did the Atlantic, which recently wrote a detailed feature article about Americans Elect, skip right on over her and list the three top candidates as men? Didn’t they do the math?
Sadly, I learned this is no surprise. According to the leaders of the 2012 Project, female candidates get ignored by the media all the time. This was one of the many reasons Mary Hughes, a Palo Altoan and the wife of State Senator Joe Simitian, decided to launch the 2012 Project. Her organization is dedicated to getting female candidates in the pipeline for elected office.
“On the state and national level, we are seeing fewer women in office than we have in the past twenty years,” says Mary. “Out of 535 seats in Congress, women occupy only 90 of them. There are only four female governors. And we are a long way off from having a woman in the White House. I started the 2012 Project to help change all that.”
It turns out this election season holds a unique opportunity for women politicians. First, it is a presidential year, which means more people are paying attention to politics and more are voting. Second, redistricting and reapportionment means there will be many more open (non-incumbent filled) seats available. A situation, according to Mary, that bodes well for female candidates. “We haven’t seen this dynamic since 1992, just after the Anita Hill hearings,” says Mary. “That year, twenty-four women were elected to Congress. It was a high water mark, but it’s been down hill ever since.”
Already, four hundred women have reached out to her non-partisan organization, one hundred of whom are already running this year and hundreds more that are preparing to run in 2014. They are being coached by a team of seventy formally elected female politicians and are also working with selected organizations that have partnered with the 2012 Project. Mary says this is “just the beginning.”
All of this inspired me to attend a recent luncheon sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She is on a campaign to get women “off the sidelines” and actively involved in the political process. She wants women to volunteer, to vote, to run, and to get elected.
She spoke eloquently about the issues facing women, and men, across this country. She believes, as do I, that if we had more elected women in office, we might have a less acrimonious and more efficient government.
I am not often star struck, but Kirsten Gillibrand blew my high heels off. As much as I am inspired by the passion and commitment of my friend Michealene, when Senator Gillibrand decides to run for the highest office, she can count on my vote.
In the meantime, here is to praising any woman who has the courage and tenacity to put herself on the line by running for political office. It may be a man’s world, but politics must now be a woman’s job.