From Pink Wave to Sea Change: Making Women’s Leadership Visible to the Next Generation

Record numbers of women are projected to run for office in this year’s midterm elections. So far, the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) reports 54 likely and filed candidates for Senate up from the high of 40 filed in 2016; 441 likely and filed candidates for the House, up from the high of 298 filed in 2012; and 79 likely and filed candidates for governor up from 34 filed in 1994.

The surge is the resounding response to a question that many women who had never considered entering politics found themselves asking after the 2016 presidential election: “Why not me?” In fact, those were the exact words of Chrissy Houlahan, who’s running to represent Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District.

“I always thought this was for other people, and I was not qualified,” she told Time magazine in its January 2018 article on the so-called Pink Wave. Like many women profiled, Houlahan, an Air Force Veteran and business executive, describes deciding to run as a sort of wake-up call.

When CAWP, the leading source of research and analysis on women’s participation in politics and government, was founded in 1971, women held just 3 percent of seats in Congress. Today that number is up to 19.8 percent.

While the progress is worth touting, these stats underscore just how much work needs to be done to ride this Pink Wave to a true sea change of equal representation.

Closing the Visibility Gap

According to Jean Sinzdak, CAWP’s associate director, two of the biggest barriers to getting more women in public office have been the power of incumbency and the fact that women are “far less likely to get asked to run for office by influencers in the political process (like other elected officials, party leaders, and community leaders).”

That negative reflex, the one that causes women to be far less likely to be asked, is the same one that causes women to self-select out of candidacy, or not ask themselves “Why not me?” At the root, it has to do with modeling and what we all are accustomed to seeing—from our earliest memories. Because the number of women in positions of political leadership has been so low, and because the stories of those who have risen to positions of leadership are not widely known or repeated, we (women and men alike) are less likely to imagine women in those roles. This results in fewer women being recruited into candidacy. And it reinforces the pattern that keeps female leadership hidden or obscure to young people learning American history.

Educating Through a Gender Lens

That visibility gap is exactly what Jean and her colleagues at CAWP aim to close with Teach a Girl to Lead, a program designed to inspire young women to follow in the footsteps of women leaders. The TAG lesson plans focus on bringing the forgotten, omitted, or otherwise absent stories of women leaders into the classroom. It provides tools and resources for educators to help reframe our ideas about who leads, which is a valuable perspective for every student, regardless of gender.

Gender lens” is one such tool, offered in the TAG toolkit. It is a set of questions and sample discussion points to help educators identify gender biases and imbalances in curriculum, and transform them into opportunities to question the status quo. For instance, instead of focusing a discussion of the presidency on the history of officeholders only, open up a discussion of why no women have held that office and whether that might change.

TAG also offers lesson modules on topics including women and the presidency, women and Congress, suffrage, and women of color in American politics. There you can browse fact sheets, book recommendations, videos, newspaper clippings, biographies, discussion questions, and activity ideas segmented by grade level.

Furthermore, to enrich beyond the classroom, TAG’s browsable state-by-state map of resources and programs makes it easy to find a tribe of support and mentorship in your area; it is also a great resource for finding museums and historic sites to visit for field trips or for extracurricular inspiration.

Classroom Activities to Reframe Leadership

Here are a few ideas for projects, inspired by Teach a Girl to Lead you can easily do with Adobe Spark:

Strong leadership skills develop with practice. According to Sinzdak, two of the most valuable skill sets for young people to develop if they are interested in pursuing public office are critical thinking and the ability to articulate and defend their ideas in front of other people. The value of curiosity and a commitment to the common good cannot be overstated, says Sinzdak: “There is a perception that you need to know everything about every issue before you run for office. You don’t—you just need a passion for learning and a commitment to public service. The rest will follow.”

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash; Reporting/research by Renae Hurlbutt