As co-founder of Higher Heights for America, Kimberly Peeler-Allen has spent the better part of a decade trying to boost black women in politics. Despite her efforts, Peeler-Allen found herself feeling frustrated by the sluggish pace of change. When she turned to fellow advocates working to elect women to office, she heard a similar concerns.
“Even with all the resources that have been put into electing women, we haven’t seen the gains that we have all hoped to have seen,” Peeler-Allen recalled. “So we said it’s time to try to do something different.”
That “something different” became ReflectUS, a groundbreaking new effort to increase the number of women running and winning up and down the ballot — and across party lines . The coalition, which launched at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, is bringing together eight organizations with a goal of closing the gender gap in American politics. By combining resources and know-how, the coalition hopes to craft and promote evidence-based best practices for electing more women, keeping momentum going beyond the critical 2018 midterms.
“The palpable energy and excitement among women candidates is infectious, but the massive hurdles women face to achieve parity cannot be surmounted in just one year,” Anne Moses, founder and president of Ignite, a ReflectUS partner that trains young women for leadership, said in a statement. “[We] recognize that the only way to achieve gender parity in our country is to foster meaningful, structural changes.”
The gender gap problem in American politics is well documented. Despite being half the population, women make up 20 percent of Congress. Six of the country’s 50 governors are female. And of course, we’ve never elected a woman to the White House. The gap persists at the local level, too. Just a quarter of the more than 7,300 state legislative seats nationwide are filled by women, and one in five mayors of large cities are female. The numbers are even worse for Republicans and women of color.
There are signs that things are starting to change. The number of women in the U.S. Senate and state legislatures recently hit new highs, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, and a record number of women are running for Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. Groups that recruit and train candidates report that thousands more have expressed interest in eventually launching a run.
But even with those gains, one oft-cited projection suggests it could take 100 years to achieve equal gender representation. And so a critical question remains: How can advocates for increased representation sustain that enthusiasm beyond this cycle and shift culture and systems to better support women in public office in the long run?
That’s where ReflectUS hopes to come in. The coalition, which includes Empowered Women, Higher Heights, Ignite, LatinasRepresent, RepresentWomen, She Should Run, VoteRunLead and Women Influencers Network, will look for data-driven approaches to “achieve parity in politics for women from across the ideological, racial, ethnic and geographic spectrum.”
Unlike other groups seeking to influence competitive federal races, ReflectUS organizers will focus their pilot program in six counties across the country, using strategies ranging from promoting civility in campaigns to publicly pushing traditional political gatekeepers, like local party leaders, to support female candidates. Election reforms, like ranked-choice voting, and efforts to inspire the next generation of girls to run will also be part of the mix.
“We see this coalition as a great opportunity to try out new tactics, or old tactics in a new way, and see if that can change the trajectory,” Peeler-Allen said. “We will be continuously measuring and evaluating the results.”
The record surge of women running for office in 2018 is largely concentrated on the left. And many of the most powerful organizations promoting women in politics, including Emily’s List, the the pro-choice campaign organization that’s poured millions into races and attracted 10,000-plus potential candidates, are tied to a specific ideology.
But this new coalition is nonpartisan in nature. To Peeler-Allen, a Democrat, that approach is rooted in the fact that “women are not monolithic.” But it also reflects a recognition that efforts to support and promote women based on ideology can only go so far in achieving full gender parity in politics.
“Right now, women — especially those of color and Republican women — are underrepresented in critical conversations,” Larissa Martinez, a former GOP staffer and political strategist who is joining the coalition as co-founder of the Women Influencers Network, added. “ReflectUS is working to ensure that women of all backgrounds and ideologies have the support they need to run, win, and lead.”
ReflectUS hopes to raise $10 million over the next three years to run the pilot program. That figure is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions that will be spent in this year’s competitive races. But organizers combining a data-driven approach and the amplifying power of working together will pay dividends, delivering “proven results that will speak for themselves” when more women are in power.
“Hopefully in ten to 15 years, we’re all out of business,” Peeler-Allen added. “I think that’s ultimately our goal.”