Women in Politics: In A True Democracy All Can ParticipateEllen Sauerbrey, U.S. Representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women
Remarks at Women In Politics Conference
May 30, 2003
This is a very exciting time to be visiting your beautiful country with its long history and rich traditions. I appreciate the invitation from the IRI and USAID to be a part of this conference as you deal with the transition from socialism to democracy and freedom. For women to have an impact on the economic and social structure of the future Georgia, you must be a part of the political process. That means not only voting, but advocating and governing.
The foreign policy of the United States is very committed to equality for all. The participation of women strengthens democracy. You cannot have a true democracy unless all members can take part in decision-making and government policy.
When women do not participate it hinders the inclusion of womenís viewpoint. We do not all think the same, but we do bring our womenís life experiences to the table. Womenís voices are essential to ensuring that specific concerns of women such as domestic abuse, equal access to credit and scholarships, and workplace harassment are addressed and that government is responsive and accountable.
Women are excellent consensus builders and can be fierce crusaders against corruption. Elected women are important role models and mentors for younger women and provide a bridge to give NGOs and other women in civil society more access to the political process.
Women are great campaigners, organizers and mobilizers but rarely contest for public office, which is part of the reason that we are under-represented at all levels of government. And globally our numbers have not improved over the last decade. Except for the Nordic states, in no region of the world does female representation in Parliaments exceed14%.
Today I want to share with you a little about my own personal journey in politics, some of the obstacles I have faced and lessons I learned along the way.
Most of us get into politics because of some motivating issue or event. My political awakening came when my husband and I visited a country divided by a wall. My husband is a first generation American whose mother came from West Germany and his father from what was to become East Germany. As a young married couple we spent a summer in Germany and saw first hand how differently people behave under different forms of government. It was a textbook case in the importance of human freedom.
I learned how important it is for government to protect private property rights and allow people to keep the fruits of their labor. I learned that economic progress comes when individuals are motivated to take risks, accumulate capital, and invest in business creation. This was a defining time in my life that led to a lifetime of political activism, working for less government and more individual freedom.
I grew up in a blue-collar family. My mother was a secretary and my father a steel worker. I worked my way through college and became a high school science teacher. Until that visit to Germany, I had never been interested in politics. When we returned to the United States I saw things that concerned me about the direction of my country and I began to get involved in grass roots political activity. But I had absolutely no thought or interest in running for office myself.
I was a good partisan campaign organizer and found that I had a talent for galvanizing people to get them involved. For a number of years I ran political campaigns but sometimes found that the people I helped to elect did not perform as I had hoped.
Maryland is a high tax state and was frequently losing the competition for business location to Virginia. Along with three other people I formed a statewide taxpayer organization that asked candidates running for the legislature to sign a pledge to pass a spending limitation bill. I was sorely disappointed to find that many were willing to sign but then failed to live up to the promise.
I had been working as a volunteer for a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, writing press releases and doing bill analysis. When the member decided to run for the Maryland Senate, a candidate was needed for the House seat, and I found myself drafted by other members of the campaign team to run. My initial reaction was, "Who, me??" But my husband was supportive of the idea and I realized that I knew more about the issues than anyone else that was considering running.
When the county party boss announced that he would not support my candidacy because " a woman could not be elected" to represent my conservative rural district, he galvanized me to prove that I could indeed win. And win I did
For sixteen years I represented a district of 120,000 people and was elected by the mostly male Republican Caucus to be the Minority Leader, a position I held for eight of those years. At the end of sixteen years, I was once again encouraged by my colleagues to take another risk - to give up my safe legislative seat and run for Governor of Maryland.
With a two to one Democrat registration, and the last Republican governor having been elected almost thirty years prior, the odds for success were not good. Still I made the decision to run because I recognized that it was my only chance to really change the direction of my state. Outspent six to one, I came within 3/10ths of one percent of winning through a mostly grassroots campaign. Four years later I tried again, but lost by a larger margin to the incumbent governor. However, the grassroots organization and the fund raising base that I built were the foundation on which a Republican governor was finally elected in 2002.
Losing was not as much fun as winning, but I picked myself up and devoted my time to party leadership, serving as the Republican National Committeewoman for my state and then running the presidential campaign for President Bush. The President appointed me first to serve on the UN Commission on Human Rights and then to my current position as Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
During my long years in politics I learned a lot of lessons. Iíd like to share with you some of the things that worked for me along the way.
In summary, a successful politician:
Barriers for success for women include:
We women often believe that we must choose between private and public life. This is not so. It is important to decide what we want to achieve and set our priorities in chronological order. Life is long and a woman can be a wife, mother, professional, and elected official at different times in that journey.
In many countries, tradition and culture dictates womanís role as mothers and housewives and it is expected that working mothers will be low paid and apolitical. However, in the United States, we say that "a womanís place is in the House and the Senate"!
Interestingly, in the U.S. the entry age for the average woman state legislator is 49 years. However, it is important for women to get involved at the grassroots level at an early age. Grassroots politics is a wonderful opportunity for confidence building, learning issues, meeting people and building networks for future success.
Not all of you here will decide to run for office, but hopefully all of you will become political activists. All of you can be a part of civic education, lobbying for issues you care about, organizing campaigns to help other women get elected and getting out the vote.
Women are equal to and have the same potential as men but we must be willing to fight for our rights. You are the future of Georgia. You can make a tremendous difference, but only if you believe that you can and are willing to work to make it happen.